Merge's Blog

The truth behind bullying bosses

Bosses who feel incompetent are more likely to bully subordinates, according to a study published in the November issue of Psychological Science.  This research paper challenges previous assumptions that abusive bosses are driven solely by ambition and the need to hold onto their power.  Instead, it demonstrates that it is the combination of power AND a perception of personal incompetence that leads to aggressive behavior such as sabotage, yelling at, or belittling an employee. In other words, bullying bosses are insecure and have low self-worth.  (Duh!)  Authors Serena Chen and Nathanael Fast also established that boosting the self-esteem of an insecure superior should lessen the bullying behavior.  So apparently, flattery may be the best way to soothe a savage boss!  Good information and advice if you are the employee of a bullying boss.  But what if you ARE the boss?

As a leader, there will be times when your competence will be challenged or you’ll find yourself feeling defensive about your words or actions.  When that happens, do you turn into a workplace bully?  I trust not.  But … if you do, there is still hope!  In this same study, Chen and Fast also showed that if people had a chance to affirm their self-worth, or have their leadership aptitude affirmed by others, they no longer felt the need to engage in aggressive behavior.  So the way to reduce or eliminate your bullying tendencies is to simply take a few moments to reflect on your strengths and accomplishments (or to have someone you trust offer you similar insights).  The immediate increase in self-worth that will follow is sufficient to counteract any traces of bullying behavior.

What do you think?

Read the entire research article here: Fast, Nathanael J. and Chen, Serena.  “When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, incompetence and Aggression.”  Psychological Science, Nov 2009, Vol. 20 Issue 11

One Comment

  • This post brings up a great point. Todays demands on bosses are great. Its no surprise that getting caught up in doing so many things creates a stress to be all things to all people. When skill set is challenged in the face of these demands, ineffective behavior can result.


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