There’s a reason bullying bosses are such a potent cultural trope: Bosses who are domineering jerks are real, they’re everywhere, and they make a lot of people’s lives miserable.
Bully-bosses, writes Wake Forest University School of Business professor Sherry Moss in Harvard Business Review, have been linked not only to individual “psychological distress, job dissatisfaction, and emotional exhaustion,” but also to drags on the larger organization as a whole. Bully-bosses, Moss writes, may lead to “counter-productive behaviors, from the organizational to the interpersonal. For instance, in organizations where bullying occurs, employees may arrive late, intentionally slow down the work itself, or not follow the boss’s instructions. Bullying can also encourage employees to become bullies themselves, by humiliating their colleagues, being rude to each other, or being aggressive towards others. Not surprisingly, bullying also increases turnover.”
So naturally, this is a phenomenon that attracts a lot of attention from researchers like Moss. Moss is interested in whether there are important distinctions in different sorts of bully-bosses. In her article, she argues that not all boss-bullying is the same: Based on the research she and her colleagues have conducted, bosses who attack weak, lower-status employees and strong, higher-status ones may have different motivations.
“Poor performers are challenging to deal with and often cause frustration and angst for their supervisors,” she explains. This is fairly straightforward — it’s not nice behavior, but it’s understandable. In a way, bosses who target high-performing underlings are a more interesting case, because, setting aside the morality of bullying, it makes less “sense” to inflict this behavior on an employee who is performing ably. Moss argues that her recent research (conducted with Abdul Karim Kahn, Samina Qurtatulain, and Imran Hameed) offers a potential explanation: These bosses may be high in what is known as “social dominance orientation,” or SDO, a description of the chunk of humanity whose members “are more likely to have ‘a view of the world as a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of winners and losers’” than the rest of us. “They’re attracted to institutions and professions that enhance and reinforce social hierarchies and will tend to discriminate against individuals from lower-status groups. As such, individuals high in SDO seek to reinforce inequality between groups in order to sustain their access to resources such as power, status, and wealth. Conversely, individuals with low SDO attach more importance to cooperation, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism.”
High-SDO bosses bully successful employees, Moss argues, because the bosses view them as a threat to their own place in the hierarchy. Since they have trouble stepping back from viewing the world as a brutally contested ladder everyone is trying to climb, they’re often more likely to lash out at a rising employee than to laud them for their success and help them seek more of it.
So what to do about these horrible bosses? Moss’s main suggestion is a bit painful: Go out of your way to show you respect their position on the hierarchy. “This might be done by ‘sharing the spotlight’ with the boss, acknowledging both publicly and privately the instrumental role their boss played in their accomplishments,” she writes. “They might also share with their supervisor any additional resources they enjoy as a result of their performance.”
Moss also offers some ideas about how organizations, as a whole, can combat this sort of behavior and build work cultures that are more bully-resistant. So the whole article is worth a read — just don’t let your boss catch you slacking off.