BEHAVIOR
December 13, 2018

Leaving a Bad Boss Behind

Workers who have been bullied or abused by a superior often become very different managers.

There's finally some good news on the subject of bad bosses. They're not contagious. That is, they don't necessarily pass on their management style to the people who work under them.

We've all seen it happen or experienced it ourselves: a person abused or dumped on by a higher-up goes on to take it out on someone else. It's a lesser aspect of human nature. Fortunately, not everyone behaves that way.

The experience of working for a bad boss can sometimes end up making better leaders.

In a series of experiments spanning several years and involving over 1,000 working adults, researchers from the University of Central Florida and three other universities examined how supervisors who had once worked for an abusive boss treated their employees, along with their attitudes. Comparing this to the attitudes and style of supervisors who had not worked for an abusive boss, they found that the experience of working for a bad boss could sometimes end up making better leaders.

“Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” said Shannon Taylor, the lead author. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn't reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders.”

Those who became better bosses had a desire not to spread their former boss's abusive approach. Guided by a sense of morals and integrity, they were more likely to break out of the abusive cycle and cast aside that poor management style and treat their own employees with kindness and respect, despite the poor treatment they had received from their former boss.

“You can take a stand — not just by reporting the bad behavior, but by actively rejecting this abusive leadership style,” says Taylor, an associate professor in the management department at the University of Central Florida. When you're exposed to the same thing day after day, you can lose sight of the fact that other possibilities do exist. If you have suffered under a bad boss, there's no need to pass it on when you have a chance to supervise people yourself. Being kinder can even make you happier.

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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