Feelings of inadequacy fuel bullying

Oct 20 2009 by Brian Amble Print This Article

In a new slant on the perennial problem of bullying bosses, US psychologists have found that managers who feel out of their depth in their roles are more likely to bully their subordinates as their feelings of inadequacy lead them to lash out at those around them.

According to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California, there is a direct link between self-perceived incompetence in managers and aggression directed towards others.

The findings, published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science, help to explain why more than a third of American workers report that their bosses have sabotaged, yelled at or belittled them, and almost half have witnessed verbal and physical abuse at work.

They also challenges the belief that abusive bosses are solely driven by ambition and the need to hold onto their power.

"By showing when and why power leads to aggression, these findings are highly relevant as abusive supervision is such a pervasive problem in society," said Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at USC and lead author of the study. In one of the four role-playing studies that were carried out by the researchers, participants who felt their egos were under threat would go so far as to needlessly sabotage an underling's chances of winning money.

In another test, participants who felt inadequate would request that a subordinate who gave a wrong answer to a test be notified by a loud obnoxious horn, even though they had the option of choosing silence or a quiet sound.

Researchers did not rate participants by an objective measure of competency, but by their self-reported level of competency. This allowed them to investigate how feelings of self-worth are tied to workplace behavior.

"Incompetence alone doesn't lead to aggression," said Serena Chen, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study. "It's the combination of having a high-power role and fearing that one is not up to the task that causes power holders to lash out. And our data suggest it's ultimately about self-worth."

In other words, bosses who bully others do so to hide their own inadequacies and incompetence: so while good managers manage, bad managers bully.

But while low feelings of self-worth may play a major part in triggering bullying behavior, it may not be the sole reason. Indeed there is significant evidence to suggests that the culture of many American workplaces actively encourages and even rewards bullying.

Companies stress market processes, individualism, and the importance of managers over workers, all of which discourages collaborative efforts and enables powerful individuals in organizations to bully others without recrimination.

What's more, as a 2007 University of New Mexico study found, instances of "persistent workplace negativity" are between 20 percent to 50 percent higher for U.S. workers than for their Scandinavian counterparts.

The same study found that 47 percent of U.S. workers reported experiencing one negative act at least weekly compared to 24 percent of workers in Finland and just 16 percent of those in Denmark.

Yet only one in 10 of Americans were aware that the behaviour they experienced constituted bullying, leading the researchers to conclude that bullying is so deeply ingrained in the culture of the U.S. workplace that it is considered almost normal.


Older Comments

Oh Please. Spare me any more drivvle from the academics at Berkeley about what causes bullying in the workplace. Anyone with an ounce of experience of what actually goes on inside organisations, will be able to tell you that it's primarily linked to feelings of inadeqacy resulting from people who are out of their depth. And whilst you're about it, please do explain to me the subtle differences in research analysis of those people who are incompetent in their jobs versus those who are quote...'not up to the task...'.

I don't profess to surf in jet stream of higher IQ professor and associate professor levels in Psychology at Berkeley U. I'm just one of those simple-minded, ordinary blokes who has to deal with the fallout and damage caused by those poor, misunderstood, not-up-to-task executives with low levels of self-esteem, and put the pieces back together on the poor souls they damage.

Charles Helliwell London, UK

I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor but experience tells me that bullying can mean different things to different people. What one person believes is reasonable management another will perceive as unreasonable and some workplace injury claims linked to bullying can be rejected because of this. As a person who has given advice to victims, alleged bullies and managers/supervisors, it appears that bullying seems to breed when there is no clearly defined job description, no structured induction process and poorly implemented or practiced performance management system. Unfortunately, like workplace bullying policies, there are not real linkages between the three systems or processes. Just as workplace bullying policies and procedures can quite often be a stand alone system that areonly dragged out to defend a workplace claim, not real or concerned effort is put into prevention. In this day and age, there has been extensive research conducted the world over into causal factors, and for one reason or another, there does not seem to be a lot of going forward. There are many practitioners out there who work to help victims (and others) pick of up the pieces in the hope that they will once again be functional. Some people forget that it is not only the victim and the alleged bully involved, but the organisation, the medical and legal professionals, the family/friends and associates, the investigators and the media are also involved. The flow on effect and costs to these groups may never be really known, but one thing seems to be guaranteed - someone, somewhere will die today (physically or psychologically) because of bullying. Chances are that you will held personally liable for your actions (or lack thereof) when a workplace bullying incident occurs in your workplace unless you demonstrate that you have taken all reasonable actions to prevent it from happening. The prevention of workplace bullying and violence is something that should be occuring 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. We all need to stand up and speak out. Stay safe and bully free.

Bernie Althofer Brisbane, Australia

While people often criticise research on the grounds that 'surely it's obvious?' the fact is that only properly conducted, peer-reviewed research can rightly lead to action to correct matters. My own research, on ageism in the workplace, found that managers who were inclined to suffer from stress, were more likely to exhibit attitudes which were prejudiced against older workers. This seemed to relate to trying to reduce the perceived risk of failing to meet targets etc. (due to stereotyped views of older workers as less energetic, less committed etc.) This new research on bullying interests me because it does suggest that more confident managers (who don't 'feel out of their depth') are likely to be more willing to take risks, allow their staff to try different ways of doing things, employ people who are perhaps less obviously likely to contribute but who may turn out to be highly productive employees - and so on. I feel it corresponds with my own findings on workplace ageism.

Dr. Dinah Bisdee

Charles, Amen to that brother! If one has not experienced being bullied, then one can't fully appreciate or understand the psychological trauma and devastation bullying causes. It is my personal opinion that there are as many reasons why people bully, as there are people. Bullying is abuse, whether it is workplace or domestic, it is still abuse, and no one deserves to be abused. Bullying is criminal behaviour. Bullies bully because they can, and until we change our perceptions about abuse, bullying will continue. The 'aggresive' workplace culture is based on implicit reward and punishment, those that speak the truth are punished, and those that quote policy and procedure are rewarded. I find it interesting to note that, most workplace bullying is perpetrated by superiors, not superior in ability but in rank. If you think for one minute that anything has changed, think again. The issue at hand is not why people bully, but, that people bully. We are talking about apples and oranges, fixing the symptom is not the cure. The isuue is the 'human condtion', and how humans have evolved emotionally and intellectually, arriving at this point. The fact that some people bully and some don't, expresses a fundamental cognitive difference of perception. Perception is everything, and everything is perception. In order to change reality, we must change our perceptions.