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.
In a role playing experiment, participants who thought their ego was threatened were willing to "needlessly sabotage an underling's chances of winning money."
In another experiment, participants who felt inadequate were eager to blast a subordinate with a loud horn when given a wrong answer to a test, although they could have quietly pointed out the error instead.
All four studies, Chen and Fast conclude, show that the more incompetent a person feels, the more likely he or she will abuse someone in a lesser role.
One way, the researchers said, is to use flattery, but with caution.
"Using flattery and affirming the boss's strengths is certainly a strategy that subordinates can and do use to alleviate bullying," said Fast, who is now at the University of Southern California, in an e-mail. "This is especially true in cases where resigning is not an option. The unfortunate caveat is that, although flattery boosts the boss's ego, it can also cause the boss to further lose touch with reality which may ultimately worsen the situation."
It might also help to "alleviate the ways in which one might be inadvertently threatening the boss," Fast added. "Demonstrating respect, if not admiration, by offering a few affirming comments each week will go a long way to ease existing tensions."
He also warned against being a lone complainer, because the more you complain, the more likely people will perceive you as the problem, not the boss.
"The most important step may be to reach out to others," he added. "Seek emotional support from friends and family as well as co-workers who are in the same situation."
Of course, there's always the chance that the problem will take care of itself. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that while being the boss has its perks, it also has its hazards. In a survey involving 1,800 American workers, the researchers found that bosses had "significantly higher levels of interpersonal conflict with others," and were more likely to take their problems home with them, adding stress to their families.
All that, the Toronto researchers concluded, can lead to depression and poor health, and perhaps early retirement. That's probably especially true if the boss knew all along that he or she was a loser.