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The worst boss is the one who undermines you one day and is your best friend the next

April 1, 2002

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Nobody wants a boss who is routinely critical or insulting and who rarely if ever offers a pat on the back.

But a study in the April/May 2002 issue of the Academy of Management Journal suggests there is something worse - namely, a critical and insulting boss who does offer that pat on the back, who undermines you one day then is friendly or supportive the next.

In other words, a boss who makes a regular practice of being nice on Tuesday to compensate for being nasty on Monday is not making things better but worse.

"Such supervisors can be extremely anxiety arousing," write the study's authors, Michelle K. Duffy of the University of Kentucky, Daniel C. Ganster of the University of Arkansas, and Milan Pagon of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Friendliness or encouraging words "will actually magnify the detrimental effects of undermining behaviors…It takes more emotional energy and coping resources to deal with individuals who are inconsistent in their provision of support and undermining behaviors."

"If the supervisor is an important source of support," they explain, "then undermining behaviors may be coded as even more threatening to the employee because they signal a potential loss of support from the supervisor when the employee has come to depend on that support. In essence, a strong provider of support can make the employee more vulnerable to undermining from that same provider."

The finding emerges from the first study to examine what the authors call "social undermining" in the workplace. "Although the benefits associated with positive work and social relationships are well documented," they write, "little is currently understood about the effects of negative work interactions on worker well-being and attitudes."

What they find is that those negative work interactions are a lot more powerful than positive or supportive ones. "Negative interactions occur less frequently than supportive interactions," they write. "Their infrequency results in more intense salience and [more] emotional reactions."

To gauge the relative impact of social undermining and social support, as expressed by co-workers and supervisors alike, the researchers gathered data from police officers. "Police work," they observe, "entails high levels of social interaction in a setting that creates a great potential for forming both strong social bonds as well as negative relationships and hence makes a very suitable context for examining the dynamics of social undermining and support."

Members of the research team visited randomly-selected police stations for each of the three shifts. Police officers were asked to fill out, on a confidential basis, a questionnaire dealing with their work lives, social interactions, and work attitudes. The study's findings are based on answers from 343 officers.

Social undermining was defined as "behavior intended to hinder, over time, the ability to establish and maintain positive interpersonal relationships, work-related success, and favorable reputation." Support meant "assist[ing] others in mastering emotional distress, sharing tasks, giving advice, teaching skills, and providing material aid." Opposite though the two concepts are, the absence of one doesn't necessarily imply the presence of the other; thus, an absence of support doesn't necessarily indicate undermining, and an absence of undermining doesn't mean a relationship has to be supportive.

Respondents indicated how often in the previous month they experienced a list of supportive and undermining behaviors from their supervisor and their closest co-worker - 1) never, 2) once or twice, 3) about once a week, 4) several times a week, 5) almost every day, or 6) every day. Examples of undermining included insulting the respondent, talking behind the respondent's back, delaying work to make the respondent look bad, making the respondent feel incompetent, and giving the respondent the silent treatment. Examples of support included listening to the respondent's concerns about work, pitching in to do something that needed to be done, acknowledging the respondent's work skills, helping get something the respondent needed, and helping the respondent handle a stressful day.

Point totals for undermining and support were obtained for each officer and the totals analyzed with respect to measures of five behaviors or feelings - self-efficacy, organizational commitment, active counterproductive work behaviors (such as stealing), passive counterproductive work behaviors (such as taking long breaks), and psychosomatic symptoms (headache, dry mouth, clammy hands, etc.).

Findings in addition to those mentioned earlier include the following:

  • Undermining by supervisors had a significant effect on all five behaviors or feelings, while support from supervisors had a significant effect on just two - organizational commitment and active counterproductive behaviors.
  • Undermining by supervisors had the most adverse effect when combined with high support from supervisors. For example, employees who got little support from a boss were moderately prone to be actively counterproductive, whether or not the boss undermined them a lot or not. Far more likely to be so were workers whose supervisors undermined and boosted them a lot.
  • Undermining by a co-worker had an adverse effect on self-efficacy and spurred active counterproductive behaviors and somatic complaints. But high support did not magnify the negative effect of undermining nearly as much when both came from a co-worker as when both came from a supervisor.
  • Contrary to expectations, support from co-workers did little to mitigate undermining by supervisors and vice versa.

The Academy of Management Journal, a peer-reviewed publication now in its 45th year, is published every other month by the Academy, an organization with about 12,000 members in 60 countries that seeks to foster the advancement of research, education, and practice in the management field.

Media Coverage:
Lexington Herald-Leader. Is your boss the worst? If so, time to move on. (Monday, April 22, 2002).
National Public Radio. Morning Edition. (Tuesday, June 18, 2002).
The New York Times. Fickle Bosses Deemed Worst. (Sunday, April 21, 2002).

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