Why being an abusive boss doesn’t make you feel better

Abusive bosses are a sufficiently common aspect of working life as to have earned the moniker ‘bosshole’ from Stanford’s Bob Sutton.  It’s sadly all too common that such abusive bosses emerge in times of high stress.  For instance, a study published a few years ago found that during a crisis, just such an abusive relationship can often emerge, with bosses taking out their fears and frustrations on those with least power, rather than perhaps those responsible for events.  It’s what’s known as displaced aggression theory.

Whilst this may give them temporary relief from their stresses, a recent study suggests it does little to improve their wellbeing.

“We always think those who have power are better off, but having power is not universally or exclusively good for the power holder,” the authors say.

The downside to abusing our power

The study found that when leaders act abusively towards colleagues, they often struggle to relax after work, and indeed felt less competent, respected and autonomous in the workplace.

The authors were looking especially at psychological power rather than the more traditional structural sort.  This looks at how leaders feel rather than their position in the hierarchy, and can change throughout the day.  It emerged that when leaders felt especially powerful, it tended to result in more abusive behavior towards their team, which had a knock-on effect of making them feel worse about themselves.

“This flips the script on abusive leadership,” the researchers say. “We tend to assume that powerful people just go around and abuse and they’re totally fine with it, but the effect of power on the power holder is more complex than that.”

Rethinking leadership

If we’re to overcome this, the authors suggest we might need to rethink what it is we want from a leader.  More agreeable sorts that favor social closeness, positive relationships, and workplace harmony may be less susceptible to aggressive characteristics, and therefore also the doldrums that follow it.

This is especially important as a study from a few years ago highlighted the viral way in which abusive leadership spreads through the organization. The research highlighted how abusive behavior towards an employee not only affects that specific employee, but it also encourages other members of the team to begin acting abusively towards one another.

“That’s the most disturbing finding,” the researchers said, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.”

Culture is spoken about a lot in leadership circles at the moment, but in terms of treating people with respect, it really is the best thing to do, both for the leader themselves and their team.