When the Bully is the Boss
Senator Amy Klobuchar’s nascent campaign is fending off a stream of stories from former staffers that she was a volatile, highhanded boss who often demeaned and humiliated people who worked for her. She has one of the highest rates of turnover in the Senate.
“Am I a tough boss sometimes? Yes,” she said in a recent CNN forum. “Have I pushed people too hard? Yes.”
The presumption that tough bosses get results — and fast — compared with gentler leaders is widespread, and rooted partly in the published life stories of successful C.E.O.s. Bobby Knight, the Indiana University basketball coach and author of “The Power of Negative Thinking,” was notoriously harsh, and enormously successful. So was Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple.
But researchers who study organisations, productivity and leadership styles attribute the achievements of such figures to exceptional ability. The research thus far has found no evidence to support the axiom that tougher bosses get better results.
“We’ve been looking for it,” said Rebecca Greenbaum, a professor in Rutgers University’s school of management and labour relations, who formerly worked in the insurance industry. “We’d love to find out if there are good aspects of abusive leadership. There’s been a lot of research. We just can’t find any upside.”
The study of leadership style has blossomed in the last decade. Psychologists, business analysts and organisation experts have conducted all kinds of investigations, from anonymous surveys of employees to studies of worker behaviour over time. Various measures of productivity, performance and well-being have been called upon.
By nature, any study of group dynamics in a real-world setting is plagued by design limitations, including the lack of a control group and the hidden personal grievances of the employees. But the vast majority of findings point to the same conclusion: Bullying bosses tend to undermine their own teams. Morale and company loyalty plunge, tardiness increases and sick days are more frequent.
“Productivity may rise in the short term,” Dr. Greenbaum said. “But over time the performance of the staff or team deteriorates, and people quit.”
In Ms. Klobuchar’s case, any discussion of leadership style invites suspicion of a double standard based on gender. That double standard certainly exists; in many situations, male leaders are given greater leeway to be tough.
“People judge women very harshly, even if they do the same behaviours as a man,” Leigh Thompson, director of team and group research at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said in an email. “As for Amy K., my guess is that if she were Andy K., well, he’d be considered tough but he gets things done.”
Still, women are no less likely than men to be abusive as bosses, across all levels of management, although they are slightly more likely to be targets of workplace abuse, researchers find.
If an abusive management style provides so little benefit, then why do so many abusive managers and bosses rise in organisations? One clue comes from social psychologists who have studied how teams of people behave and solve problems in the absence of a hierarchy.
Leaders tend to emerge organically, and common traits of those who assume the role include boldness, a healthy ego and a sense of entitlement. Confidence, too: People who take charge in these simulations tend to be decisive, making calls from the gut, and quickly.
A series of studies led by Jennifer Overbeck, an associate professor of management at Melbourne Business School, has found that, in simulated work groups, people gave high ratings to leaders who made quick decisions, particularly in moral dilemmas. It’s not that snap decisions were correct more often than deliberate ones. Rather, they were perceived to be more correct, and the decision maker seemed more morally assured than other potential leaders.
People tend to give individual leaders the benefit of the doubt, at least for a time. Dr. Overbeck calls this tendency the “leader’s rosy halo.” The presumption is strong enough that people in power “do not need to be transparent regarding their decision-making processes to be seen as moral and to receive support from their subordinates,” Dr. Overbeck wrote in a journal article.
As these individuals rise through the ranks, they internalise the belief that they are natural, morally instinctual leaders. This belief, in turn, affects how they view the people under them.
In a 2013 study, Dr. Overbeck and Vitaliya Droutman of the University of Southern California randomly assigned 50 students to groups, to be managers or team members. The researchers administered a series of standard tests to gauge how the participants judged their own traits and others’.
The managers were aware of their own personal strengths and weaknesses, but also concluded that their staff members “shared their negative, but not their positive, traits and feelings.” That is, managers often misread team members’ emotions as being in line with their own — “She’s as frustrated with herself as I am” — even though this often is not the case.
“We argue that when someone powerful is in a group, they see themselves as representative of that group, and it can be difficult for them to disentangle what the group wants from what they want,” Dr. Overbeck said in a phone interview. “They use themselves as a reference point.”
Abusive supervisors come in many flavors, including the insecure, the over matched and the garden-variety sadist who picks on underlings solely for the pleasure of exercising power. But even mini-tantrums and put-downs can be counterproductive, undermining the efforts of a normally civil person and an otherwise effective boss.
“What our findings suggest is that this kind of behaviour is typically not premeditated,” Dr. Greenbaum said. “It comes out when people fail to control themselves, and it is worse when supervisors have a bottom-line mentality — that they’ll do anything to achieve their goals.”
A boss who “demands” excellence is no more likely to produce it than the boss who requests or nurtures it, and likely less so, the research suggests. Demanding excellence often is just a handy excuse, said Bennett Tepper, a leading researcher of the effects of abusive leadership at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business:
“That kind of explanation, after the fact — that I hold people accountable — it’s lame. Well, me too. A lot of us do. That doesn’t mean we belittle people and scream at them.”
Author: Benedict Carey