Thursday, June 24, 2004

When your boss is a bully

This NYT article on bullying by bosses got my attention.
Researchers have long been interested in the bullies of the playground, exploring what drives them and what effects they have on their victims. Only recently have investigators turned their attention to the bullies of the workplace.

Around the country, psychologists who study the dynamics of groups and organizations are discovering why cruel bosses thrive, how employees end up covering for managers they despise and under what conditions workers are most likely to confront and expose a bullying boss.

Next week, researchers and policy makers from many nations will convene in Bergen, Norway, to discuss the issue.

"What we're finding," said Dr. Calvin Morrill of the University of California at Irvine, who studies corporate culture, "is that some of the behaviors that we think most protect us are what in fact allow the behavior to continue. Workers become desensitized, tacitly complicit and don't always act rationally."

Bullying bosses, studies find, differ in significant ways from the Blutos of childhood. In the schoolyard, particularly among elementary school boys, bullies tend to pick on smaller or weaker children, often to assert control in an uncertain social environment in which they feel vulnerable.

But adult bullies in positions of power are already dominant, and they are just as likely to pick on a strong subordinate as a weak one, said Dr. Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, an advocacy group based in Bellingham, Wash. Women, Dr. Namie said, are at least as likely as men to be the aggressors, and they are more likely to be targets.
I think the boss-employee relationship is ripe for abuse. The relationship is not one of equals: you've got that power differential. So it's not surprisingly to read about sadism.
But most often, Dr. Hornstein found, managers bullied subordinates for the sheer pleasure of exercising power.

"It was a kind of low-grade sadism, that was the most common reason," he said. "They'd start on one person and then move on to someone else."

The mystifying thing about this pattern is that it does not appear to undercut productivity. Workers may loathe a bullying boss and hate going to work each morning, but they still perform. Researchers find little relationship between people's attitudes toward their jobs and their productivity, as measured by the output and even the quality of their work. Even in the most hostile work environment, conscientious people keep doing the work they are paid for.

At the same time, some employees withhold the unpaid extras that help an organization, like being courteous to customers, helping co-workers with problems or speaking well of the company. Yet this falloff in helpfulness and, indirectly, in performance is smaller than might be expected, because fear motivates different people differently, said Dr. Bennett Tepper, an organizational psychologist at the business school of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

In April, he reported the results from a study of 173 randomly chosen employees in a wide range of work. He found that in situations where bosses were abusive, some employees did little or nothing extra, while others did a lot, partly covering for less helpful peers.

"This is not what we expected," Dr. Tepper said. "And we speculate that one reason people keep doing extra in these abusive situations is to advance themselves at the expense of others. It makes them look good and the others look that much worse."

So tyrants spread misery, and from the outside it looks as if they are doing a fine job. It does not help matters, psychologists say, that people who enjoy abusing power frequently also revere it and are quick to offer that reverence to the even-more-powerful. Bullying bosses are often experts at "managing up."

Subordinates know viscerally the high cost of going around a boss, even if it is simply to file a complaint with the human resources department. You are trouble. You are a whiner. You have called out the manager behind his back.

One reason management researchers do not know how effective it is to take on a cruel boss directly is because so few employees do it.

For many people, run-ins with a supervisor stirs up old conflicts with parents, siblings or other larger-than-life figures from childhood. Dr. Mark Levey, a psychotherapist in Chicago who consults with corporations, said that nasty bosses often elicited from subordinates defensive habits that they first developed as children, like reflexive submission and explosive rage.

"Once these defensive positions lock in,'' Dr. Levey said, "it's like people are transported to a different reality and can no longer see what's actually happening to them and cannot adapt."

Emelise Aleandri, an actress and a producer in her 50's who lives in New York, said she was forced out of a producing position by a bullying boss, who replaced her with an underling.

"Some people were afraid to do anything,'' Ms. Aleandri said. "But others didn't mind what was happening at all, because they wanted my job."
What I'd like to know is exactly what percent of bosses are bullies.