Understand why your boss is a bully or jerk

There have been several studies completed by researchers on the issue of supervisors who do not treat their employees well.

Some interesting perspectives on the subject are provided by Sherry Moss, who is a Professor of Organisation Studies at Wake Forest University. Sherry refers to such supervisors as “bullying bosses.”

According to Professor Moss, several forms of non-physical aggression, such as putting employees down in front of others, blaming them for things that are not their fault, accusing them of incompetence, ridiculing them, and not giving them credit for the work they have completed, are typical behaviors of bullying bosses.

Some of the negative effects created by these behaviors include job dissatisfaction, emotional exhaustion, and psychological distress. Being treated like this by a boss or manager has also been linked to counterproductive behaviors. For example, if bullying occurs within an organization, employees may begin to purposely slow down the flow of the work, not follow the instructions given by the boss, or show up late for work – if they arrive at all.

An employee who has been bullied by his boss also may end up bullying others himself, without even realizing what is taking place. The habit just becomes natural. When bullied by a boss long enough, an employee may start to be rude to others, humiliating their co-workers; he may even sometimes begin to be aggressive towards the other people he works with.  Bullying also leads to a high turnover rate.

There are many factors that can lead to bullying behavior of bosses. They may be under a lot of pressure from their own supervisor, deal with a lot of stress that comes with their position, and often they may be dealing with frustrating co-workers themselves, which affects their other business relationships. Since they are not able to take these frustrations out on someone above them on the corporate ladder, they look for someone weaker.

These attitudes and behaviors may have nothing to do with the work atmosphere whatsoever. Sometimes the way they act is a direct reflection of their inability to properly handle emotions, and can often be associated with family abuse.

According to research that Professor Moss has been involved in, bullying bosses are most likely to target  employees who are vulnerable or weak, such as people with low self-esteem or low-performing employees.

You might think that star performers would be spared from bullying. In order to give these star workers every opportunity to excel at what they do, a supervisor would be more willing to keep their bullying behavior clear from these employees.

This is not an accurate conclusion, according to the previously cited research. Star employees are also victims of bullying.

So what are the motivations/reasons for bosses to display bullying behavior?

In order to understand exactly why this happens, it is beneficial to be familiar with Social Dominance Theory. The concept explains why certain people have a higher tendency towards social dominance orientation, SDO, than other people. People with a higher SDO generally have a more competitive/dog-eat-dog view of the world and a ‘me verses them’ attitude which is used to separate the losers from the winners.

Individuals with this worldview become attracted to professions and institutions which reinforce and enhance social hierarchies and are more likely to demonstrate a discriminating attitude against groups of a lower-status. This causes them to defend inequality in a way which sustains their access to wealth, power, and status.

How can you deal with a boss with a high SDO?

Professor Moss suggests that you show your boss you respect their position in the hierarchy and avoid overshadowing them. Share the spotlight with them, both privately and publicly.

To find out where you stand on the social dominance scale and/or to understand the behavior of your boss better, complete the questionnaire here.

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