Your Boss Is a Jerk—But There's Still Hope

A new study reveals how abusive bosses hurt themselves—and what makes them stop.

Posted Oct 15, 2019

Almost everyone has had a bad boss at some point in their life. You might even have one now, and be one of the millions of Americans who get the “Sunday night blues,” dreading the thought of facing another work week with a boss who humiliates, belittles, and demeans you and your coworkers.

Most research to date has studied how an abusive boss impacts the victims. What hasn't been explored is how enacting abuse makes bad bosses feel, how it impacts their own work performance and social-worth and most importantly what motivates them to ultimately stop.

In newly published research in the Journal of Applied Psychology, my co-author and I conducted two independent field studies to look at the effect abusive behavior has on a bad boss and their job performance. What we found was that employees aren’t the only ones who suffer from the negative consequences of a bad supervisor—the supervisor does, too.

Abusive bosses experience significant social costs from their behavior in the workplace, most notably by losing social worth, which is a person’s sense of feeling valued and appreciated by others at work. Furthermore, it’s not only a boss’s social worth that takes a hit from inflicting pain on subordinates. We also found that abusive bosses performed more poorly as a result of feeling less valued. Together, these findings indicate that the effect an abusive boss has on the workplace is even more widespread than previously considered. The damaging consequences move beyond just a handful of employees and also hurt the supervisor and his or her own career trajectory, as well as entire departments. 

So which bosses are most likely to stop? Bosses who have psychopathic tendencies (e.g., being callous and insensitive, lacking remorse and consideration for other people) present the biggest challenge to rooting out an abusive workplace culture. These people continue to be dangerous because they are “non-receptive” to any social cues and repercussions of their actions. Therefore, they’re less likely to stop any abuse in the future, leading to further abuse for their staff.

For employees, it’s tough to work for an abusive psychopath, simply because it's hard to reach their boss and make them aware of misconduct. These bosses don’t really care about feedback or social repercussions at work. Sometimes, they don’t even care about having a positive reputation in the firm.

But don’t be so quick to write off all abusive bosses as a lost cause. Our research also showed that the majority of supervisors felt and understood the social repercussions of their actions and were willing to change. That is, supervisors who are not mean-spirited and less socially averse, which presented roughly 85 percent of managers in our samples, were more likely to take steps to change their bad behavior. The problem, however, remains with approximately 15 percent of psychopath bosses in the workplace.

Sometimes employees regrettably feel the only option to halt the abuse is to create distance from the transgressor by leaving the company or transferring to another department. But the onus shouldn’t be on employees alone. Institutional changes such as getting rid of abusive bosses or applying more pressure from the top to curtail bad behavior could have an impact on the problem. Companies could enforce zero-tolerance policies on abusive behaviors and managers with these tendencies could be terminated. Work cultures that emphasize social awareness and social worth could create a positive feedback loop that reinforces the negative consequences of abusive behavior and rewards healthy work behaviors and relationships.

Within my own work, I’ve found that it’s crucial to create and foster work climates that are fair and ethical, and in which employees feel appreciated, valued, and respected. It is in these types of work settings where the most meaningful change happens because employees feel confident and strong enough to approach and discipline the wrongdoer as well as stand up for the victim. 

LinkedIn Image Credit: vectorfusionart/Shutterstock