According to research, as many as 36 percent of American workers have a boss whose leadership style could be described as “dysfunctional.” So, if you’ve long suspected that your boss is nuts, you might be right — and you’ve got a lot of company, to boot.
“The cultures that exist in organizations may, in some ways, enable these individuals to remain in, and even advance within, the workplace,” explains Kevin Rose, an assistant professor of organizational leadership and learning at the University of Louisville, and the lead author of a recent study on bad bosses.
Seth M. Spain, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Binghamton University, State University of New York, studies what social scientists call the “dark triad” of personality traits: psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. He says any combination of these can turn up in bad bosses.
Spain says narcissism is likely the most common bad boss personality trait because studies show that narcissists tend to get ahead. They’re so full of themselves and so sure they’re right that they project the kind of confidence that’s often mistaken for leadership capability. Machiavellian types — the ones who can manipulate other people without batting an eye — also turn up in leadership roles because they’re ruthless at convincing other people to do what they want. If they don’t care whose hands they step on along the way, they can ascend the corporate ladder more easily. And once they claw their way to the top, bad bosses stay there by running roughshod over their underlings and creating a climate where no one wants to risk making them angry by bringing up their flaws.
And these flaws are myriad. Rose and his co-authors developed a detailed taxonomy of bad boss behavior, from crummy to crazy to criminal. In the most egregious cases, you get the ones who yell and scream, throw things or even make physical threats. This one advantage here is that it’s easy to recognize this behavior as inappropriate.
Low-level bad behaviors like disrespect, taking credit for underlings’ work and undermining others are much more common and can slide under the radar in many organizations, says Aoifa O’Donnell, CEO at HR consulting company National EAP and an expert in workplace bad behavior. “These types of dysfunction are more subtle, passive and every day where they can become a cultural norm,” she says.
“It is often the small things that are not only most common, but also most devastating over time,” Rose says. Things that might seem insignificant — like focusing on an employee’s weaknesses rather than strengths, taking credit for their work or setting unrealistic expectations, can have a cumulative negative effect on workers.
If the boss picks on everybody, Spain advises seeking support from your co-workers. Since they know what you're going through, they can empathize with you. And if you bring it up, you and your colleagues might discover that the boss's behavior is more widespread than believed. "Finally, it may help build a political alliance that could help protect you from the bad boss," he says.
Having someone else, whether a colleague or another supervisor, in your corner is one strategy the experts suggest for dealing with a bad boss. It’s also important to try to get enough sleep, eat well, practice relaxation exercises like yoga or meditation and seek support from family and friends. “Although none of these self-care tips will directly change how your boss acts, it will help you to feel better about yourself and enable you to cope better with the stress and negative emotions when you are at work,” O’Donnell says.
The experts are divided on when, or even if, you should confront a bad boss. “If the boss’s dysfunctional actions are a result of lack of managerial skill rather than malevolence, constructive feedback could help fix the problem,” Spain says.
“Take a couple of days to reflect on the points you want to communicate, jot down some notes as reminders, and then approach [them] in an assertive, respectful and professional manner,” O’Donnell recommends. She also suggests going to HR or your company’s employee assistance program. “Remember, It is OK to ask for help,” she says.
But if your boss is boorish or bullying just because they feel like it, confronting them might be counterproductive and might just make you more of a target for their bad behavior. In this case, especially if you’ve exhausted any options available through your HR department, your best option might be to keep your head down and quietly update your resume.