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.