BEST OF 2009: Bad bosses sabotage to boost ego

UC BERKELEY (US)—Bosses who are in over their heads are more likely to bully subordinates. That’s because feelings of inadequacy trigger them to lash out at those around them.

In a new twist on the adage “power corrupts,” researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California have found a direct link among supervisors and upper management between self-perceived incompetence and aggression.

The findings, gleaned from four separate studies, are scheduled for publication in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

With more than one-third of American workers reporting that their bosses have sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled them, the new study challenges previous assumptions that abusive bosses are solely driven by ambition and the need to hold onto their power.

“By showing when and why power leads to aggression, these findings are highly relevant as abusive supervision is such a pervasive problem in society,” says Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at USC and lead author of the study.

During role-playing sessions, study participants who felt their egos were under threat would go so far as to needlessly sabotage an underling’s chances of winning money. In another test, participants who felt inadequate 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.

Researchers did not rate participants by an objective measure of competency, but by their self-reported level of competency. This allowed them to investigate how feelings of self-worth are tied to workplace behavior.

“Incompetence alone doesn’t lead to aggression,” says Serena Chen, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and coauthor 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.”

Alternately, Chen says, participants who got ego boosts by scoring 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.

Flattery may not be the best way to soothe a savage boss, the study points out: “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.

UC Berkeley news:

chat7 Comments


  1. Larry Sheldon

    I hope they didn’t spend a lot of money on that research. Or at least found out that the light goes off whn the refrigerator door closes as one of the products.

  2. NewEnglandBob

    I agree with Larry Sheldon. This is well known by the casual observer.

  3. EMC

    These results could reall catch on, coalescing (sp?) intuition no doubt, but also highlighting cause and effect more accurately than most people do on the job. I’d take the results one step further (farther?) to parenting. Abusive parenting can be traced to feelings of inadequacy, not just an aggressive personality.

  4. Dianne Crampton

    It is interesting how the obvious is ignored in organizations until the obvious is validated by a research study. All too often I have seen training programs developed to help employees respond to and deal with abusive bosses. Why should they have to?

    A program aligned with the core business functions and 360 reviews should get to the heart of the matter quickly so corrective procedures can be put into place — which includes appropriate training for those folks in leadership positions. And, in my view, many of those programs should have been in place first with performance monitoring before a person assumes a leadership role. Tenure does not a leader make.

  5. Larry

    Hear is the thing, plain an simple, if your an employee and you have a high work ethic and get things done quickly as possible and know what your doing!!! That is great it makes you feel good about yourself and makes your boss look good. Well then management changes and the new boss does not like you for some reason, and is bothered because you know what your doing! they then put you on jobs that are less recognized and unimportant!!! Then they give you unwarranted written verbal warnings to discredit you!!! so now the job you loved coming to each day is not worth any amount of pay! You bring your questions to the HR dept but they do not listen because your not “management” so another good employee gets kicked to the curb by work place bullying! i guess to belong these days you have to just let waste and wrong work habits go on if you want to keep your job.

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