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Quartz: How to Deal with an Abusive Boss

29 Aug 2019
From the boardroom to the basketball court, some managers rely on berating and bullying employees. Researchers have learned one thing: It doesn’t work.

Originally found at Quartz, by Chris Woolston

More than a decade has passed, but Mary Mawritz can still hear metal-tipped tassels flapping against leather loafers—the signature sound of her boss roaming the halls of his real estate company. “Whenever I heard that jingling, I would get sick to my stomach because I knew he was approaching,” she says. Her boss had another characteristic sound: Yelling, and a lot of it. He would berate her in front of the whole office and threaten to fire her immediately if she didn’t keep up with his never-ending barrage of deadlines and demands.

Mawritz would go home at night with a splitting headache and a lot of questions: Why did he act like that? Why did he think it was OK to treat people that way? Lots of workers have asked themselves similar questions, but Mawritz has made a career of it. Now a business management researcher at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, she’s one of many experts who are using insights from psychology and business management to tackle the phenomenon of bad bosses, a stubbornly persistent problem that continues to drive people out of promising careers, hurt companies’ bottom lines, and ruin a lot of otherwise decent days.

Through interviews, surveys and on-the-job observations, scholars are building their case against toxic bosses and putting the worst offenders on notice. They say that if more companies knew how to prevent breakdowns in leadership, if more bosses realized that yelling and bullying aren’t ways to get ahead, and if more employees knew how to deal with the jerks above them, workplaces everywhere would be saner and more productive places and fewer people would get sick at the sound of shoes....

With bullying, both sides lose

Despite the persistent mythology, there are no winners when bosses turn abusive, Mawritz says. The bosses themselves gain nothing of value, and their behavior leaves a lasting mark on employees. “Everyone remembers that one person in their professional life who engaged in those behaviors,” she says. “Their physical and psychological reactions were incredibly strong.”

The consequences spread far beyond the heat of the moment. Tepper has found from surveys that employees with abusive bosses tend to be less satisfied with their jobs—no surprise. But they were also less satisfied with their lives as a whole, and they had more conflicts at work and home. Writing in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior in 2017, Tepper noted that people with bullying bosses tend to report being more withdrawn and depressed in these surveys. He writes that “targets of abusive supervision report symptomatology that bears striking similarities to those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

As much as some bosses may seem to relish a chance to berate their employees, bullying isn’t rewarding for them either, Sutton says. On a professional level, they end up with a team that’s too demoralized and de-energized to do their best work. Personally, all of that bluster and rage can wear a person down. Sutton points to a new paper in the Academy of Management Journal that used multiple email surveys sent throughout the day to track the moods and attitudes of bosses. The study found that bosses who were abusive at work struggled to relax and generally felt unfulfilled when off the clock. “People who bully other people at work suffer themselves,” he says.

Continue reading this article at Quartz.

This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine on July 17, 2018.


Read the original research, here and here in Academy of Management Journal

Read the research summary on AOM Insights

Learn more about the AOM Scholars and explore their work:

Heavy Is the Head that Wears the Crown: An Actor-centric Approach to Daily Psychological Power, Abusive Leader Behavior, and Perceived Incivility, Academy of Management Journal

I Just Can’t Control Myself: A Self-Regulation Perspective on the Abuse of Deviant Employees, Academy of Management Journal