University of Southern California

Why the Boss is a Bully
April 9, 2010

Over 30% of Americans report having been bullied by their boss at one point or another. Why would someone in a position of power bully a colleague or subordinate who presents no challenge their authority?

According to USC Marshall's Nathanael Fast and colleague Serena Chen, these aggressive power holders behave like this because they have a low opinion of their own capabilities.

Four studies in their recent Psychological Science article show that when people in power don’t view their capabilities as strong, their egos are threatened which makes them defensive. This defensiveness shows up as aggressive behavior. The authors found these results even when using different types of power and different types of managerial competence.

When placed in a powerful position, study participants who considered themselves incompetent had a tendency to act with outright malice:

  • Willingly exposing strangers to loud and aversive blasts of sound.
  • Intentionally sabotaging subordinates by assigning more difficult tasks than were required.

Conversely, participants with a positive view of their own leadership aptitude tended to exhibit no such aggression.

"Power holders who do not feel personally competent are more likely than those who feel competent to lash out against other people," conclude the Fast and Chen. Interestingly, the boss’s bullying behavior can be assuaged by excessive flattery, which appears to stroke their egos and lessen their sense of defensiveness.

The bottom line for subordinates: A boss’ bullying behavior may say more about him or her than about you; but when the going gets rough, flattery may be the first line of self-defense.

The bottom line for supervisors: Failure to adequately train managers not only affects managers, but also those who work for them. Training programs that enhance managers’ sense of competence can have widespread organizational impact.

Nathanael J. Fast (USC Marshall School of Business) with Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley), "When the Boss Feels Inadequate", Psychological Science, 20 (11), 1406-1413

Read the entire article here.