Somewhere along the line, everyone's had a bad boss. Someone who's disrespectful or takes credit for their work. Someone who yells or gives them the silent treatment. Someone who focuses on their weaknesses or insults them.
But what's truly abusive, toxic behavior, and what's merely irritating? Researchers at the University of Louisville, in a paper recently published online by the journal Human Resource Development Review, have tried to answer that question. They created a "taxonomy" of bad leadership that plots where your boss's behavior actually lies on a scale from annoying to traumatic, and low to high dysfunction. The research was first reported by Time.
In the grid, the x-axis charts the impact of a boss's behavior on the worker, ranging from annoying to traumatic. The y-axis measures the impact of their bad behavior on the work itself, ranging from marginally harmful to highly destructive.
The authors say they became interested in the topic because, while there has been much attention given to wholly toxic leadership behavior, there's been less paid to the effects that rude and annoying behavior can have on people day after day.
The new paper, citing prior research, reported that anywhere from 13 to 36 percent of U.S. workers have had a dysfunctional manager, which they describe as those who repeatedly set up obstacles, disrespect employees and "violate psychological contracts," whether intentionally or not.
"There is some research out there but not as much as you might imagine," said Matt Bergman, one of the authors of the paper, in an interview with the Post. "We wanted to carve out something specific to define the concept."
To do their study, the researchers did not survey workers or organizations — it's not easy to get H.R. types or employees to open up about their bad bosses, they said. Rather, they conducted what is called an "integrative literature review," which studies all the existing research on a topic. That led them to examine 67 peer-reviewed papers that dealt with dysfunctional relationships between managers and their workers. They then plotted specific behaviors described in the research on a grid.
The result is a four-box chart that depicts whether your boss's behavior is simply aggravating or downright abusive. Destructive criticism, physical mistreatment and pressuring employees to drink or abuse drugs are among the worst behaviors of bad bosses, whereas rudeness and unrealistic expectations are cited as merely annoying. No surprises there.
What might be surprising, however, is that traits like inappropriately assigning blame or handing out insults — behaviors that remain unaddressed in many organizations — can be nearly as damaging.
Kevin Rose, the first author on the study, was careful to note that the research is still conceptual, rather than based on their own surveys. Once they're able to do that kind of research, "we might find we were off on this or that," he said.
The researchers also note that different people respond to bad behavior from a boss in different ways. One person might see a leader with unrealistic expectations as dysfunctional, while another sees the same leader as a great motivator who just pushes people really hard. Bad behavior, said Brad Shuck, another co-author on the paper, "is uniquely interpreted through the employee."
Still, taking stock of the dysfunctional behaviors a manager exhibits, and where those actions fall on the grid, could help employees think through how to respond. Is it something to work around? Or is it time to find another job? "The things that are happening in the top right corner, those are traumatic and severe. Not only are some of those things illegal, but they’re personally damaging," Shuck said. "Sometimes the most healthy thing you can do is walk away."