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Bad Bosses: Dealing With Abusive Supervisors

Some managers rely on berating and bullying employees. Researchers have learned one thing: It doesn’t work.

Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 12:02

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.

Bossing Bad: Bennett Tepper’s 15-point checklist is the gold standard for identifying abusive managers. Where does your boss stand? Rate him or her from 1 (cannot remember) to 5 (very often) on each item. If you end up with three or more scores of 4 or 5, your boss may have crossed the line. Source: B.J. Tepper. Academy of Management Journal 2000, Knowable Magazine.

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.

The abuse checklist

Bad bosses have likely been around since our hunting and gathering days—back when a “PowerPoint presentation” meant getting jabbed with a spear—but the science of supervisors-gone-bad is surprisingly new. Bennett Tepper, a management and human resources researcher at Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University in Columbus, coined the term abusive supervision in 2000, more than a decade after the debut of Dilbert. Complaints about bosses may be age old, but Tepper helped formalize the field by developing a 15-point checklist of bad-boss behavior, including “tells me my thoughts or feelings are stupid,” “tells me I’m incompetent,” and “lies to me.”

Beleaguered employees who either act out or hide beneath their desks under the lash of an abusive boss risk making a bad situation even worse. Employees can respond to abuse with anger that fuels counterproductive attitudes (rudeness and disrespect, for instance). Abuse can also trigger fear, which can lead to avoidance behaviors such as skipping meetings. These responses can unhinge the boss even more, and the cycle continues. Source: Adapted from L.S. Simon et al / Journal of Applied Psychology, 2015. Credit: Jesadaphorn / Shutterstock

For nearly two decades, Tepper and others have used that checklist to gauge the experiences of employees in a wide variety of jobs, including sales, tech, education, and healthcare. If an employee agrees strongly or very strongly with three or more items on the list, a boss is considered abusive. The good news is that truly toxic bosses are far outnumbered by the common run-of-the-mill bunglers and bumblers that just about everyone has encountered at some point in their work life. Only about 10 percent of bosses cross the line from merely overbearing to abusive, Tepper says, and that number has stayed remarkably steady from workplace to workplace and from year to year. Pick a boss at random from any industry, and there’s a 1-in-10 chance that you’ve found someone with a knack for making employees miserable.

Tepper says there’s one big exception to the 1-in-10 rule, a place where abusive bosses are about three times more common than in the rest of society. It’s not Wall Street or Hollywood, but the college locker rooms, stadiums, and sports fields of America. According to studies by the NCAA, the major governing body of collegiate sports in the United States, more than one-third of all college coaches in football, women’s softball, and other sports have embraced the abusive approach. “There’s a belief that hostility gets results,” Tepper says.

Being good at your job won’t necessarily save you from a boss’s wrath. In a 2017 study, bosses were more likely to lose their cool when high-performing employees (dark line) acted out than when low performers (light line) acted out. Reasons for this discrepancy aren’t clear, but perhaps bosses feel especially betrayed when their best employees misbehave. Source: Adapted from M.B. Mawritz et al / Academy of Management Journal, 2017. Knowable Magazine.

The record books show that Bobby Knight—the frequently angry, foulmouthed, chair-throwing former basketball coach of the Indiana Hoosiers—did win three national championships. But could he have achieved such success (or even more) without the tantrums? Tepper points to mounting research suggesting that abusive bossing brings out the worst in employees. For example, a 2007 study in 265 chain restaurants in the United States found that restaurants with abusive managers lose more food from waste and theft. More alarmingly, a 2013 Journal of Applied Psychology study of more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers who were on active duty in Iraq found that service members with emotionally abusive officers were more likely to admit hitting and kicking innocent civilians and were less likely to report misdeeds by others.

By every account, leaders and managers who bully and berate their employees don’t make any more sales, reap more profits, win more games, or move up the corporate ladder faster than leaders who take a more gentle approach. “Things never get better as abuse increases,” Tepper says. “They always get worse.”

Still, too many bosses—including some who wouldn’t themselves fit the “abusive” definition—deeply believe the myth that bullying works. The vision of a rough, tough, effective boss is deeply entrenched in the U.S. workforce, says Robert Sutton, a business researcher at Stanford University and author of The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). As he delivers his “No Asshole” message around the country, he finds lots of people who seem baffled by the very suggestion that they don’t need to curse and yell to get ahead. “I gave a talk to a bunch of National Football League executives, and they didn’t get it at all,” he says. “It was the least successful ‘asshole’ talk I ever gave.”

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.”

“People often quit their bosses, not their jobs. You can lose your best people that way.”

Frederick Morgeson

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 have 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.

How to handle an abusive manager

Bad bosses can show up in any industry, says Stanford business researcher Robert Sutton. Here’s his advice for employees trying to cope with a toxic leader:
• Consider jumping ship. Sutton says he’s a big proponent of quitting a toxic boss whenever possible. Only about 10 percent of bosses fit the abusive profile, so you’re likely to do better next time. But if your next boss and your boss after that aren’t upgrades, you might need to look inward. “If everywhere you go people are treating you like dirt, you might be triggering them, or you might have thin skin,” Sutton says.
• Team up. Sutton has often seen employees work together to create an “asshole detection system” to gauge a boss’s mood. If the system is red-lining, everyone can lie low and wait for another day to ask for help or deliver bad news. “The sophistication of some of these efforts is amazing,” he says. “It becomes a big part of their job.”
• Keep your distance. Simply reducing contact with a bad boss can do wonders for your workday and your mental health. Sutton recommends being slow to respond to emails, cutting back on face-to-face meetings, and generally keeping a safe distance. “It’s like the boss is kryptonite,” he says.
• Take the long view. Many employees get through the day by reminding themselves that even the worst moments will pass. “You can convince yourself that even if someone is treating you like dirt, it won’t mean anything a year from now,” he says.
• Don’t fan the flames.If your boss is looking for a target, don’t put a bull’s-eye on your back. Sutton urges employees to avoid being boisterous or overly aggressive. (In nature and in offices, staying inconspicuous is a proven survival strategy.) Also, don’t openly disparage management or talk about bosses behind their backs, and don’t do anything to undermine their authority. Bad bosses may be a scourge, but a truly dysfunctional workplace is almost always a group effort.


About The Authors

Chris Woolston’s picture

Chris Woolston

Chris Woolston is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in science, health, and travel. He has been his own boss since the late 1990s. He has no complaints.

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Knowable Magazine

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