Bosses who bully feel inadequate

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Workplace stress is enhanced when you have a boss who is a bully. A new study shows that bosses who bully and act with aggression do so because they probably feel inadequate.

Researcher from University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California is taken from four separate studies. The authors say "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." Bosses who feel low self-worth are more likely to be aggressive.

Thirty seven percent of Americans have been bullied at work, feeling that their boss sabotage, yell, or belittle. The study challenges the notion that bosses who bully do so out of ambition and drive.


According to Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at USC and lead author of the study, "By showing when and why power leads to aggression, these findings are highly relevant as abusive supervision is such a pervasive problem in society." Approximately fifty-four million Americans have reported workplace bullying from their bosses.

The study authors conducted studies based on the premise that “people who hold positions of power at their places of work but feel chronically incompetent should display higher levels of generalized aggression than other workers.” In each of four studies, they found sabotage, loudness, and other signs of aggressiveness among bosses, or those in power, whose egos were threatened.

The authors summarize the findings: “When paired with self-perceived incompetence, power led to generalized aggression (Studies 1 and 4), willingness to expose a stranger to loud and aversive blasts of sound (Study 2), and intentional harming of a subordinate (Study 3). Furthermore, this tendency to aggress among power holders who perceived themselves as incompetent was eliminated among those whose leadership aptitude was affirmed (Study 3) and among those who had the chance to affirm an important self-relevant value (Study 4).”

The authors say excessive flattery, used often toward one’s boss in the workplace, might not be a good way to cure bullying. "It is both interesting and ironic to note that such flattery, although perhaps affirming to the ego, may contribute to the incompetent power holder's ultimate demise — by causing the power holder to lose touch with reality," conclude the authors.

UC Berkeley News