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Bully Bosses Fueled By Insecurity

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, October 19, 2009

For a time, I believed the boss from hell was best personified by Miranda Priestly, the omnipotent, dictatorial fashion magazine editor played by Meryl Streep in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. A new study out of California, however, suggests that a better role model might be Michael Scott, the insecure and aggressively incompetent bully boss played by Steve Carell in the TV show The Office.

The study, When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence and Aggression, is actually a composite of four separate studies conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. It was published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Based on responses generated from role-playing games, the study found that insecure bosses are more likely to project their self-perceived incompetence onto subordinates through abusive behavior in the form of yelling, belittling or embarrassing remarks, unwarranted disciplinary action, and other undeserved punishment.

In one role-playing test, study participants who felt insecure went so far as to sabotage a subordinate's chances of winning money. In another test, insecure participants would request that a subordinate who gave a wrong answer to a test be notified by a loud obnoxious horn, even though they had the option of choosing silence or a quiet sound.

"Incompetence alone doesn't lead to aggression," says Serena Chen, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study. "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. And our data suggest it's ultimately about self-worth."

Participants who scored high in a leadership aptitude test or who recalled an incident or principle that made them feel good about themselves did not react with aggression, the study found.

I've always found that cheap and completely insincere flattery is a good way to placate an overbearing boss, however temporary the fix. My favorites include: "Looking good chief! Have you been working out?" "You are absolutely right!" and the ever popular "Great idea, boss!"

The study suggests, however, that such shameless toadying might backfire. "It is both interesting and ironic to note that such flattery, although perhaps affirming to the ego, may contribute to the incompetent power holder's ultimate demise — by causing the power holder to lose touch with reality," the study concludes.

So what can you do to screen out would-be bosses from hell in the hiring process, or to mitigate their soul-crushing behavior with underlings? Nathan J. Fast, an assistant professor at the Department of Management and Organization, University of Southern California, and a co-author of the study, has a few suggestions.

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