Mind & Body

Having a Bad Boss Can Make You a Great Boss

Bad bosses are everywhere. They're the subjects of movies ("The Devil Wears Prada," "Horrible Bosses," "Office Space"). They're incredible grist for Ask a Manager. Often, they're the people who decide if we're promoted or fired. So ... how do you avoid becoming one of them?

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Like Boss, Like Employee?

Plenty of research suggests that an abusive boss has a "trickle down" effect in a company. If a manager is weird and hostile with their subordinates — putting them down in front of others, ridiculing them, etc. — then their subordinates probably treat their own underlings similarly. The same mechanism often prompts kids with abusive parents to abuse their own kids, too. People mimic what they see.

Not always, though. Abusive behavior isn't always passed from parents to kids, first of all, and managers have even less influence than parents. In fact, a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology makes a case for the idea that while abuse can trickle down through the workplace, an abusive boss can also inspire underlings to reject their approach in favor of "ethical leadership": modeling ethical behavior, encouraging it throughout their team, and openly discussing any ethical issues that arise on projects.

The three-part study began with online surveys that asked participants to imagine themselves in hypothetical workplace situations. In the first study, they found that people usually dislike abusive bosses — so far, so intuitive — and that can prompt them to manage their own underlings differently than their own bosses do. In the second study, researchers also asked participants about their moral identity and found that people who most valued moral traits within themselves — compassion, fairness, honesty, and the like — were most likely to throw their abusive boss's example out the window and chart a new course.

In the third part of the study, the rubber hit the road. Instead of surveying people about hypothetical situations, researchers looked at survey data from real workplaces in Indian cities. They found that if an employee had a strong moral identity, they were unlikely to identify with an abusive boss and more likely to demonstrate ethical leadership.

Making the Best of a Bad Boss

Basically, the takeaway here is that abusive bosses don't always spread their abusive style through an organization. People who report to them can and do actively reject their style and chart a more ethical path with their own employees. Really, abuse can prompt some people with strong moral compasses to behave more ethically — though this happens more neatly in hypothetical situations than in real life.

To clarify: "The lesson here isn't to hire more abusive managers ... but to try to encourage people who have been abused, among other things, to say, 'Look, I'm not like my boss,'" lead author Shannon Taylor said in a statement. "You can take a stand — not just by reporting the bad behavior, but by actively rejecting this abusive leadership style."

Or, as Choire Sicha put it in a recent workplace advice column, hold your grudges by "undermining the values of your enemies" rather than by treating actual people spitefully. So, if your abusive boss values, uh, pressuring employees to donate liver tissue to his brother, be a boss who lets employees hold onto their liver tissue, instead.

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Get answers to all of your office etiquette questions in "Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work" by Alison Green. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice February 1, 2019

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