Why Is Your Boss a Bully?

Maybe he or she is incompetent--and knows it. Psychologists have proof.

Oct. 21, 2009— -- Is your boss acting like a bully these days? Maybe it's because the boss is well aware of his or her own incompetence.

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.

37 Percent of Workers Report Bullying

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?

Do Aggressive Bosses Feel Inadequate?

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.

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.

So how do you deal with that?

One way, the researchers said, is to use flattery, but with caution.

Flattery Will Get You Somewhere

"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 Bullying 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.