One head chef had a bad habit of throwing knives around the kitchen, in the direction of people that made him angry. Another woman's boss told her coworker she couldn't take a personal day to bring her dog to the emergency vet "because dogs are replaceable." Yet another boss was caught shaving time off of his employee's time cards and banking it into his own for a bigger bonus.
These are just some of the stories from a reddit thread about horrible bosses in which employees share their stories of angry, disrespectful and generally incompetent bosses.
These poor employees aren't alone. A huge number of people have had a bad boss at one point in their lives. Various polls of workers have shown that between 13 and 36 percent of U.S. workers report having had a dysfunctional manager, and 98 percent have reported experiencing uncivil behavior at work.
Of course, there are as many ways for bosses to be horrible as there are horrible bosses. There are the minor slights – dismissive behavior, passive aggressive emails, or privileging another worker’s accomplishments over your own. Then there are the more serious kinds of abuse.
But even the little slights can add up. And these behaviors are not just unpleasant for employees. Research suggests they are actually bad for worker health.
Experiencing rudeness at work, and even replaying the event in your head later, elevates levels of hormones called glucocorticoids, Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, recently argued in an op-ed for the New York Times. That can lead to disparate health issues, including increased appetite and obesity.
That’s right: In addition to making you unhappy, your rude boss may be making you fat.
Stress contributes to a range of other diseases, including cardiovascular problems, ulcers, even the common cold. A study published in the journal PLoS One in 2012 found that women with high job strain were 38 percent more likely to experience a cardiovascular event over a decade than women with low job strain.
Often, bosses may be adopting these attitudes unintentionally or unconsciously. Power hierarchies affect us in mysterious ways. People are more likely to be curt, dismissive or angry with those who sit below them on the workplace hierarchy than those who rank above them, and they may not even realize they are doing it.
In her op-ed, Porath reminded us that we’re far more sensitive to slights to our own ego: “We ride a wave of pride or get swallowed in a sea of embarrassment based on brief interactions that signal respect or disrespect. Individuals feel valued and powerful when respected. Civility lifts people. Incivility holds people down. It makes people feel small.”
While people are focused on how much others respect them, they don't often pay as much attention to the effect of their attitudes on others. In surveys of hundreds of people in organizations carried out by Porath, more than half said they behaved uncivilly because they were overloaded. More than 40 percent said they didn’t have the time to be nice.
Sometimes rudeness is more calculated, however. Porath's research suggests that many people believe that having a tough or curt attitude helps them to project authority.
A quarter of Porath’s respondents thought that people would regard them as less of a leader if they behaved more civilly. Almost 40 percent said they were afraid they would be taken advantage of if they were too nice, and nearly half said it was better to “flex one’s muscle to garner power,” Porath writes.
Unfortunately for these people and their underlings, flexing one's muscles at work doesn't do that much to demonstrate authority. Instead, it appears to undermine employee performance. It leads to lost work hours and productivity, as workers put less effort into their jobs, feel less committed to the company, and suffer from stress or health problems that prevent them from working effectively.
It also affects employee performance in less obvious ways. Another study by Porath and Amir Erez showed that people who experienced or witnessed rude behavior performed significantly worse on puzzles and were less creative during a brainstorming task.
Researchers at the University of Louisville created a taxonomy that charts boss behavior in terms of how dysfunctional it is for the workplace, and how traumatic it is for the worker. The researchers define dysfunctional managers as those who disrespect employees, set up obstacles for them and violate psychological contracts, as the Post's Jena McGregor has written.
Dysfunctional behaviors range from overworking employees and taking credit for their ideas on the mild end, to explosive outbursts and destructive criticism on the other.
So what can be done about dysfunctional bosses? Whether you are a boss or an employee, start by being nice at work. If you are in a position of authority or want to get there someday, this will help, rather than hurt, your leadership potential.
Despite the common idea that “nice guys finish last,” research has shown that civility is key to getting ahead at work. Porath’s own research showed that employees in a biotechnology firm were more likely to seek a civil colleague out for work advice and see that person as a leader. Real leadership is far more connected with building trust and relationships that with inspiring fear.
If you have a terrible boss, your options may limited. But research from Ohio State University published in Personnel Psychology suggests workers who stand up for themselves when they are treated badly at work ultimately feel better about their jobs. They found that employees who stayed quiet while a boss ridiculed, intimidated or belittled them ended up with lower job satisfaction and commitment and more distress. Those who retaliated in some way, even through a passive aggressive action or ignoring their bosses’ criticism, felt more satisfied.
While acting out can make you feel better, it probably won’t help your difficult situation at work.
Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and consultant, offers more constructive solutions. She proposes using the same kind of techniques that parents use on unruly toddlers to manage dysfunctional bosses.
She suggests a practice she calls "managing up": taking a step back, trying to understand the motivation behind your boss' behavior, and then taking a collaborative approach to fixing it. Even if you aren't being managed down, maybe you can make some progress by managing your boss.
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