University of Southern California

Why Bosses Go Ballistic:
New Study from USC Marshall and UC Berkeley Finds Direct Link Between Self-Perceived Incompetence and Aggression Among Upper Management
October 15, 2009 • by Karen Lowe

Many people who have been in the workplace long enough have witnessed the boss who inexplicably lashes out at and humiliates subordinates for seemingly small infractions.

What workers may not know is that the person whose feelings are most threatened may actually be the boss.

That's what researchers from the USC Marshall School of Business and the University of California at Berkeley found in a new study that appears in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Nathanael J. Fast, an assistant professor of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business and Serena Chen, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, found a direct link between self-perceived incompetence and aggression among supervisors and upper management.

"When people in high-power positions feel incompetent they tend to respond with aggression toward others because it makes them feel superior," said Fast, the paper's lead author.

Nearly 37 percent of America workers - roughly 54 million people - have been bullied at work, primarily cases in which subordinates were sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled, according to a 2007 survey.

The flip side of this number though is that 63 percent of American workers have not been bullied at work, which raises an intriguing question: Why do some bosses become aggressive?

Past studies have shown that bosses will act aggressively when they have an especially high need for power. The Fast-Chen study moves beyond these findings, showing it is often a threatened ego – caused by the power holder's own sense of incompetence – that triggers hostility.

The findings come from four studies conducted in the workplace and laboratory using field data, role-playing, and role recall.

In one study participants were asked to recall an experience in which they felt incompetent. The more incompetent a power holder felt during that experience, the more aggression the individual displayed. In another study, incompetent bosses were more likely to sabotage a subordinate's chances of winning money - even if they had no stake in the outcome.

The most common real life analogy, according to Fast, is the manager who lashes out at those around him because he feels inadequate. In turn, this makes it hard for the manager to gain respect and influence decision-making which only serves to exacerbate the feelings of incompetence.

The authors found one simple solution that helps, though it doesn't address the root of the problem.

When bosses are encouraged to focus on other parts of their lives where they feel competent, good about themselves and in control, they are less likely to become aggressive. Self-affirmations about a good family life or friends diminish the impulse to become hostile.

Unfortunately, the very power holders who feel inadequate may be the least likely to engage in this type of self-reflection, the study finds.

Moreover, the problem with a belligerent boss is that not only is the behavior counterproductive for a workplace, it will eventually erode away the very power the boss is trying to justify, Fast said.

The more intimidated workers feel, the more risk averse they become. Innovation, creativity and productivity suffer, "and in the end power holders could ultimately lose the power their jobs they are trying to validate," he said.

According to Fast, the study holds serious implications for future CEOs.

Companies should not just look at what a future leader looks like on paper when picking candidates to head up a company. They need to also look for leaders who feel competent and are secure in themselves.

In addition, it may be wise to avoid heaping unrealistic expectations onto leaders.

"Expectations, especially for CEOs and high-profile politicians, are so inflated that they are virtually being set up for feelings of inadequacy which, in turn, lead to hubristic and aggressive behaviors," he said.

Read the full article: When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence and Aggression (pdf)

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.