This article previously appeared on News@Northeastern. It was written by Ian Thomsen.
Sometimes a bullying boss is trying to squeeze a better performance out of you. Other times, you may feel as though the goal is to make you suffer.
In either case, whether the intent is to increase production or inflict personal distress, the consequences tend to be bad for all parties—for the employee, for the company, and, yes, for the intimidating boss as well. So surmises Zhenyu Liao, an assistant professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern.
“For the long term, no matter what kind of motives the employees attribute to the manager's behavior, the relationship between this kind of leadership behavior was always very powerful and very strongly connected with the next-day consequences, such as depleted and decreased job performance, and also reduced work commitments, organizational commitments, and team cohesiveness over time,” says Liao of his research on daily abusive supervisor behavior.
Leaders who are verbally aggressive may generate short-term gains if employees believe the acts of humiliation are focused on creating better work outcomes, Liao and his research team found. In those cases, employees sometimes tried to resolve work problems in fear of further intimidation and punishment.
But such gains are temporary at best. In one study that surveyed 131 U.S. workers over a span of three weeks, Liao found that intimidated employees' performance suffered in comparison to work performed by those who didn't experience mistreatment by managers.
The same trend emerged in another study of 31 managers and 74 employees at a real estate company in China: It revealed that, in response to an intimidating management style, employees showed a low commitment to their managers and company while frequently expressing counterproductive and hostile work behaviors.
Liao notes that managers are often among the last to recognize their own self-defeating behaviors as well as the negative reactions by employees. In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Liao suggests that a toxic management style can be curtailed by a collective “nudge” system in which executives and employees collaborate in encouraging constructive leadership in three ways:
- Process-oriented leadership evaluation programs that focus on the manager's interactions with employees. Abuses are ignored too often because companies focus on bottom-line outcomes as well as subjective perceptions, Liao writes.
- Situation-based leadership training programs that enable off-site training experiences to be channeled into their actual work. Liao has seen positive results from leadership reflection and transcending intervention, in which managers reconsider their own behaviors and consequences.
- Employee self-shielding programs that enable workers to form coalitions to support each other and brainstorm ways to manage up.
“For example, employees could create a regular lunch break series to communicate how their toxic managers have mistreated them and discuss how they could curtail managers' sense of superiority and prevent future abuse,” Liao writes. “Once employees develop stronger collective power, they will be more likely to be successful in pushing managers to take reconciliatory actions to amend their strained relational dynamics.”
Employees must collaborate to nudge the change in management behavior; a single worker can't hope to address the problem constructively. In all cases, Liao notes that it is important to focus on the behavior of the boss without characterizing the person.
“Instead of a tit-for-tat, or using a confrontational approach, why not use a relatively smart way to nudge better behavior in general?” Liao says.
The negative consequences of bullying management are felt by the managers themselves.
“My colleagues and I found that in the aftermath of yelling at or humiliating subordinates, managers tended to feel guilty and morally impure,” writes Liao in reference to research that was published in 2018. “To ease such negative feelings about themselves, managers would seek to make amends by paying more attention to the needs of abused employees and providing extra resources, support, and work guidance.”