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Your mean boss could be insecure

By Teresa Amabile,

Most people who work inside organizations know the experience of having their ideas shot down as soon as they’re floated. And for some folks, it’s a daily barrage.

In their book, The Knowing-Doing Gap , Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton point to negativity as a primary reason companies fail to implement improvements, even when key people inside those companies know exactly what should be done and how to do it.

And this negativity seems to be taking a growing toll on workers. Recent Gallup research shows that 17 percent of people who quit their jobs leave because they can’t stand management or the work environment. In a 2009 survey, 35 percent of executives said that good employees are most likely to quit because of unhappiness with management — up from 23 percent in 2004. Another recent study found that between 28 and 36 percent of U.S. workers report persistent abuse at work. And Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer has said the effects are so destructive that “anyone with a bullying tendency, we fire.”

Of course, sometimes a manager or colleague’s criticism is legitimate. Yet, according to psychological science, the negativity bias may get stirred up when people are feeling unsure of themselves.

So that mean boss of yours? You might think it’s a personality disorder or blithe insensitivity. But it could be abnormal insecurity.

The current firestorm of negativity occurs against a backdrop of general positivity. It turns out that, in neutral circumstances, people tend to make positive evaluations of others — even strangers. In free-association tests, when people are given a neutral word to respond to, they tend to give positive words more frequently than negative ones. This is known as “the Pollyanna Principle.”

So when people deviate from this generally positive tendency, it’s all the more striking.

Several years ago, my research team and I did some experiments that shed light on when and why people may become particularly negative in evaluating others. In one experiment, we told subjects that we had identified them as experts on a topic, and then asked them to rate and comment on other people’s ideas. We made some of those subjects feel insecure before they made their evaluations — by telling them either that their positions as experts would be reassessed after they made initial judgments, or that the person in charge (the experimenter) had a much higher “expert” status than themselves.

Both insecurity inductions led people to give harsher evaluations. In fact, the only subjects who weren’t negative were the ones who believed their status was relatively equal to the experimenter’s, and who also believed that they would continue as experts without threat of removal.

In other words, when people are intellectually insecure, they come down hard on others — perhaps as a tactic for proving how smart they are. And, sadly, it works. In a different experiment, I found that people perceived someone who was harshly negative to be much smarter than someone who gave positive feedback (even though the negative critique was absolutely identical to the positive critique, except for the substitution of a negative word for every positive word).

Sound like that caustic boss who never has anything but nit-picks to offer?

When your work gets slammed with a harshly negative critique, look at the facts and consider the source. If, according to others you trust, the work deserves better, then it could well be that those scathing comments say more about your boss’s insecurity than the quality of your ideas. And when you are the critic? Just consider that you may come across as savagely brilliant — with the emphasis on savage.

Teresa Amabile is a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School, and coauthor of The Progress Principle .

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