Researchers have long been interested in the bullies of the playground, exploring what drives them and what effect they have on their victims. Recently, researchers have turned their focus to the bullies of the workplace. This article gives an overview of what psychologists have discovered about why cruel bosses thrive, how employees cover up for managers they dislike, and under what conditions workers will confront and expose their bullying bosses.

Studies find that bullying bosses differ from their schoolyard counterparts in that they are already in positions of dominance and are as likely to pick on a strong subordinate as a weak one. Women are at least as likely as men to be aggressors and more likely to be targets.

In a corporate setting bullying has to do more with a boss’s desires than with employees’ needs. The bully may want to swat a threatening subordinate, find a scapegoat, or, more often than not, simply enjoy the sheer pleasure of exercising power. The mystifying thing about this pattern, the article notes, is that it doesn’t seem to affect productivity. While workers might be loathe to go to work each day, they still perform. Research has found little relationship between job attitude and productivity.

Workers do, however, withhold the extras not directly tied to compensation, such as customer courtesy and helping coworkers with problems. Yet this falloff is smaller than expected. While some shirk the extras, others do a lot, partly to cover for their slacking peers and partly to advance themselves at the expense of their peers. From the outside, therefore, tyrants appear to be doing a good job.

Employees know the inevitable cost of going around a boss and very few do it. Psychologists speculate that bullying bosses often elicit defensive habits from subordinates, habits developed in childhood, like reflexive submission and explosive rage. The subordinate is transported back to a different reality and no longer sees what is really happening to them.

Experts see ambition among subordinates as the most insidious ally of tyrant bosses. In simulation tests, with groups of three people arbitrarily assigned roles as top manager, #2 manager and subordinate, the top managers quickly dominate and transform the #2 managers. If the top manager is aggressive and mean, that’s the way the #2 manager became irrespective of how low-key and compassionate they looked on personality tests.

Research has found that the first reaction of workers witnessing the humiliation of a colleague is relief that the sword has fallen elsewhere and pleasure in the fact that they look more competent by comparison. Coworkers watching a colleague being bullied resolve their guild by wondering what they did to deserve it. The brutal treatment goes unchallenged, the victim feels isolated and people who abhor the bullying become complicit in the behavior.

The article goes on to examine how resistance to bullying arises and is often diverted. It examines who is likely to speak up and who isn’t. The article ends with a discussion of the best strategies to manage a bully in the workplace.

Source: Benedict Carey, The New York Times; June 22, 2004

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