The All-Powerful Boss

Bosses are under growing pressure. Guess who feels it most?



See the new issue of Briefings magazine, available at newsstands and online.

Bosses are under growing pressure. Guess who feels it most?

From the outside, he was a model boss—deeply knowledgeable, thoroughly networked, well respected in his field. Newcomers to the staff got a friendly but reserved welcome that seemed to say, OK, show me what you’ve got. The office was productive on every measure, from quality and quantity of work produced to the awards and informal praise that flowed in from colleagues and customers. And yet, something was not right.

It took time to sense the trouble. One hint: When you asked the boss for some information, he’d often answer with slow emphatic words that, you suddenly realized, meant he wasn’t just telling you the facts—he was dictating the exact words (and commas and periods) to use. You’d hear his stoic baritone go sour and mean when he zeroed in on one longtime employee, sarcastically questioned that worker’s judgment and mowed down all of his explanations like a machine gun. A few weeks later, the office was abuzz about his cruel joke after he learned that same worker had been injured in a car accident. Attempting to be humorous, he kidded: “I want to find that other driver and say, ‘can’t you do anything right?’” Everyone within earshot had laughed politely. No one thought it was funny.

It was then, earlier in my career, that I learned a leader has more than one face, and that all of those faces—not just the official one, or the one that appears on good days, or the one the customers see—have deep influence. The dark cloud of this difficult boss extended way beyond work. Instead of leaving the demeaning dictation incident at the office, I fretted over it at home, on weekends. I wasn’t just appalled for my scapegoat co-worker, I would get mad on his behalf while walking in the park. The impact of that boss on his employees was severe.

That was decades ago, but in this era of social media, instant communication and the ubiquitous reach of work through time and space, the big, bad boss is more influential than ever. Which is regrettable, because it turns out we are living in an age where bosses and managers also happen to be under more pressure than in recent memory. With some exceptions, the complaint is rampant, whether it’s at the high-profile global public company or rising young startup—or anywhere in between.

In surveys of thousands of people over the past 15 years across various industries in North America, Christine Porath, a professor of management at Georgetown University, has found a noticeable uptick in experience of distressing rudeness in the workplace. In 1998, 25 percent of respondents in one of the surveys said they’d been treated rudely at least once a week at work. By 2011, the figure was 50 percent. More recently, the journal Human Resource Development review published a report on abusive leadership that prompted a flood of similar stories. “We got many, many calls, letters and emails from individuals describing the really deep psychological effects of these bosses, that have lasted for years,” said Kevin Rose, a professor at the University of Louisville’s School of Education and lead author of the study.

It’s not hard to see what’s driving all this boss abuse, and it starts at the top of an organization. In a slow-growth global economy, corporate leaders are under heavier pressure to perform with fewer resources, and they face much higher obstacles to raise funds. The strain on the C-suite trickles down and across most organizations. Meanwhile, other forces make being a boss harder, be it stagnant wages, technology that reduces jobs, or dealing with a workforce that has become more part- and short-time. Bottom line: Bosses must operate in pressure-packed environments, and when they let loose, it’s not very pretty and definitely has impact. Like others who teach us, inspire us and shape our lives—parents, teachers, coaches, entertainers, certain religious and political figures—leaders of organizations affect their people far beyond the confines of a job description. Bosses can be, as the Stanford Business School professor Robert Sutton once put it, “weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egotistical maniacs,” and when that’s the case, the dents and dings extend far beyond the workday and workplace. Indeed, “although the physical presence of a dysfunctional leader may be isolated to the workplace, his or her reach is almost without boundary,” Rose and his co-authors wrote.

Their paper, a review of research on the consequences of dysfunctional leaders, found many “staggering” consequences of bad bosses in the home lives of workers. Employees of dysfunctional bosses consistently report more negative emotions and harsh criticisms back home with their family members (they also spend less time on family events). In other words, as the researchers put it, “employees bring the baggage packed for them at work home for unpacking.”

That would be bad enough, but distressed employees don’t just passively suffer. Georgetown’s Porath, who has spent years researching the costs and consequences of rudeness and stress in organizations, polled 800 managers across 17 industries and found that among workers who felt they’d been treated rudely, eight in 10 lost work time fretting and fussing about the incident, two-thirds avoided their abuser in a way that increased the time required to do their tasks, nearly half deliberately decreased both the time and effort they put in to the job and a quarter admitted they took out their negative feelings on customers.

Often people who feel denigrated by their bosses will try to get their self-respect back by any means necessary. For example, in a study of resistance to new technology among truckers, the sociologist Karen E.C. Levy found that they will cover their GPS antennae with tinfoil (so they can’t be tracked) or roll down a street at 14 miles per hour (to avoid triggering data-gathering devices that come on at 15 mph). Some even hack the computers that are used to track their driving in order to play video games on them—an expense of time and effort that gains them no extra money. It’s all about venting.

“Ninety-four percent of the time, people in our surveys say, they find a way to get even with the particular boss who offended them,” says Porath.

This would be alarming if it affected only a few companies, but according to the Human Resource Development Review paper, as many as one-third of employees in the U.S. work under a leader who disrespects employees, squelches their efforts and violates the unspoken contracts of decent behavior (by demeaning, ignoring or playing favorites with people on his or her team).

Workers elsewhere don’t seem to have it any better. According to a 2015 report by the European Observatory of Working Life, some 14 percent of workers in the European Union and Norway reported that they’d been the victim of at least one instance of “adverse social behaviors,” which includes threats, bullying and harassment. Things appear to be even worse in Asia. A recent survey by Arthur Yeung of the China Europe International Business School and Barbara Griffin of the University of Western Sydney, which asked 116,000 participants across six Asian nations about workplace rudeness, found more than three-quarters reporting they’d recently experienced one of four “uncivil behaviors” (nasty comments, rudeness, undermining actions or comments, or shutting people out).

“Sadly, I do think it is a worldwide phenomenon,” said Porath. This is because the likely causes are global. The 21st century’s new normal is a far more pressured and unpredictable environment for CEOs than that of a generation ago. In 2002, for example, a Booz Allen study of C-suite turnover found that CEO turnover had increased 192 percent in Europe and 140 percent in Asia since 1995. Then too, economic uncertainty and rapid technological change put pressure on companies to do more with fewer people, adding to the pressure.

Surprisingly, increased diversity—despite its benefits—may also be part of the impetus pushing bosses to be too harsh, Porath says. When you have colleagues from different cultures, age groups and life experience, it’s easier to stumble into moments where one person is unsettled by behavior that seems normal to the other. And that unsettled feeling can translate into being offended. Then it’s a small step toward retaliation for the imagined offense—a downward spiral that turns a simple misunderstanding into exchanges of deliberate rudeness.

Sutton, who published a book in 2007 on working with—ahem—difficult people (title: “The No-Asshole Rule”) acknowledges that not all office rudeness comes from the top. You don’t have to be in the C-suite to make people miserable. But in his book he estimates that 50 to 80 percent of workplace nastiness flows down from superiors to subordinates. And even when it’s colleagues who are making each other miserable, they often say the culture of rudeness comes from above, from the boss’ personality or the way top leaders run the organization. As Sutton puts it, “if you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one.”

In response, many companies are now trying to bring the boss under control, mostly with better training but also with much higher scrutiny from human resource departments. To some degree, the growing importance of human resource directors may reflect an acknowledgement of the problem. In the startup land of Silicon Valley, reports of tyrannical managers and founders has promoted a rethinking of just what environment truly works best for spawning innovation.

In the end, more change may come soon because of a growing realization that uncivil bosses can have a heavy toll on the bottom line. From affected employees, damage ripples out to affect other workers and customers, who, it turns out, are driven away by rudeness—even if that harsh treatment is not directed at them. In one experiment, Porath at Georgetown said, each onlooker was asked to imagine that he or she was in a restaurant where a waiter was being abusively reprimanded for parking in the handicapped spot. Though the waiter was wrong in parking in that manner, the results didn’t change: People who witnessed the harsh treatment didn’t like it and overwhelmingly reported that they wouldn’t eat at the restaurant.

“We really tried to push people to see if they would accept incivility,” he said. “But [they] just really don’t like seeing anyone mistreated.”

Download the PDF