New research shows that personal power, coupled with a feeling of inadequacy, is a potent force that can make a boss pick on those with less power. The problem, according to research based on interviews with more than 400 persons, is that deep down inside, the lout knows he or she is a loser.
"It's the combination of having a high-power role and fearing that one is not up to the task that causes power holders to lash out," Serena Chen, associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the study, said in releasing the report. "Our data suggests it's ultimately about self worth."
The study, published in the November issue of Psychological Science, is the latest in a series of studies showing that all is not well in the workplace. Many workers feel they have been abused by a boss who either yelled at them, gave them the silent treatment, or berated them in front of others, according to research at Florida State University in Tallahassee. It's enough to make a worker want to walk, but that is not often possible, especially when jobs are scarce.
The latest study, conducted by Chen and Nathanael Fast, contends that it is a feeling of inadequacy that turns a boss into a bully, although other research suggests just the opposite. Some bosses are bullies because they have an inflated image of themselves, according to some studies, including one from Ohio State University in Columbus that indicates that power really does corrupt, giving the boss so much confidence that he or she is inclined to ignore the advice and needs of subordinates.
So when it comes down to psychoanalyzing the person who controls much of your life, one size does not fit all. The boss may be a tyrant just because the boss is always right, or perhaps because the boss isn't so sure.
Whatever the cause, it's a serious problem for millions of workers, according to the Florida State research, which found employees in an abusive relationship suffered from exhaustion, tension, nervousness, and depression.
One study indicated that roughly 54 million American workers -- 37 percent -- have been bullied at work, though that doesn't mean everyone is getting the shaft. The study also points out that most workers -- about 63 percent of the workforce -- have not been bullied at work. But why does it have to happen at all?
Chen and Fast conducted four separate studies that, in their words, "demonstrated that individuals with power become aggressive when they feel incompetent." Two of the studies involved the actual workplace of participants, and two involved college students engaged in role playing, a common research tool used by psychologists. All the findings are based chiefly on how the participants view themselves.
One of the studies involved 90 adults employed in various professions. The researchers found that aggression was highest among participants with "high self-perceived incompetence."
What's really at stake here, the researchers contend, is the boss's ego. If the boss feels inadequate, he or she is more likely to fear the loss of ego. And one quick way to boost an ego is to threaten a subordinate, thus reaffirming the boss's supremacy.