Bad leaders and abusive supervisors: What is de-meaning of this?



“What [is a person] to do when working for [the] world’s worst boss, aside from quit? (Doesn’t give credit when credits due, tells you that you are “lucky to even have a job”, even told me to reschedule my own wedding -true story!, etc.)”
Current occupation: HR Professional

Oh boy. This one is particularly troubling. Bosses are an important part of work. They affect subordinates in many ways: pay, recommending promotional and professional development opportunities, allocating assignments and resources, just to name a few. Also, what is painfully obvious is that all bosses are not created equal. A recent survey from employment research group Glassdoor indicated that one in five employees reported having a bad boss.  When you have a good one, you know. When you have a terrible one, you definitely know.  Besides the offer of my deepest empathies, I hope I can offer some light into research and practice on the worst cases of bad bosses and leaders. Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty. But there is hope. So what is someone working with a bad boss to do? Let’s think together.

Somewhat surprisingly, research into negative boss behaviors is relatively new. Despite many cries in business schools of a ‘crisis of leadership’ (reaction to Enron, Tyco, other corporate malfeasance), research focusing on bad leaders hasn’t been prominent. Scholars in organizational leadership, social psychology, and psychology have recently clamored to study managerial failure.  Much of these lines of thought are associated with “managerial derailment,” a term coined by Jon Bentz in the 1970s, who studied failed managers at Sears & Roebuck for over 30 years (published in 1985- citation below).  In summarizing literature, most management failures have been linked to “poor business performance, poor leadership, poor self-control, and especially, relationship problems.” (Hogan, 2012- see summaries here and here)

Scholars of organizational leadership are developing literature around the concept of destructive leadership. Ståle Einarsen, Merethe Schanke Aasland, and Anders Skogstad of the University of Bergen, Norway, Department of Psychological Science defined destructive leadership:

“The systematic and repeated behavior by a leader, supervisor or manager that violates the legitimate of the organization by undermining and/or sabotaging the organisation’s goals, tasks, resources, and effectiveness and/or the motivation, well-being, or job satisfaction of subordinates.” (2007)

FIgure: A model of destructive leadership from Einarsen et. al (2007)

FIgure: A model of destructive leadership from Einarsen et. al (2007)

It is important to note that destruction of both employees and the organization are present in this definition.  Bad bosses can, and do, carve a wide path of destruction.

Another compelling line of research centers around a separate concept called abusive supervision. Abusive supervision is defined as nonphysical hostile actions that a manager takes at the expense of a subordinate (Tepper, Henle, Lambert, Giacalone & Duffy, 2008). Abusive supervision can include lying, overt rudeness, ridicule or demeaning behaviors, invasion of personal privacy, and inappropriate and/or aggressive expressions of anger. Bennett J Tepper is a Board of Advisors Professor of Managerial Sciences at Georgia State University. He has been a pioneer in researching abusive supervision. His studies have concluded that abusive supervision has real consequences for victims, including lowered organizational commitment, lowered work and general life satisfaction, increased work and family conflict, and general psychological distress (2000).  Again, the organization may be a victim as well, with employees quitting and being generally less committed to their work and the organization as a whole.

Also of interest from the field psychology, which focuses on the role of individual differences on organizational outcomes, recent research efforts have focused on “dark side” traits of leaders. Generally speaking, these studies focus on the personalities and associated behavioral tendencies of bad leaders (e.g. are there predictive personality traits?), and on ways to limit those bad behaviors. It is important to note that dark side tendencies or behaviors are not mental illness.  These tendencies are better described as “flawed interpersonal strategies that prevent managers from building a team, forming alliances, and gaining support for their vision and plans. ” (2006) Robert Hogan, founder of Hogan Assessment Systems and an influential expert Industrial Organizational Psychologist, suggests personality is at play with bad bosses.  In Hogan’s model of leadership behavior, personality factors affect the leadership style a given leader takes. That style then translates to behaviors (good and bad) displayed in the work setting. Those behaviors affect staff morale, and ultimately organizational effectiveness. Bad leaders that are not appropriately constrained can become bullies, narcissistic, and, in the worst case, tyrants. In the case of the dark side, unconstrained bosses directly damage both staff morale and organizational effectiveness.

So destructive leadership, abusive supervision and dark side personality traits are all interesting ways to think about bad bosses. With all this research, what is a poor employee to do?  Advice columns on “How to deal with a bad boss” appear daily in blogs, on biz journal sites, and in newspapers. But such advice, while sometimes helpful, is largely anecdotal (i.e. author tells a good story, but does not have a lot of substance).  However, many researchers believe that general organizational management (often Human Resources) may help save the day via procedural justice by adequate enforcement of rules and norms of behavior (or at least limit damage inflicted upon workers and organizations).  Tepper’s research (2000) found that procedural justice has an effect on abusive supervision.  As said in Zellers, Tepper, & Duffy (2002): “Abused subordinates are likely to think that their employer does not adequately develop or enforce procedures that discipline abusers or protect targets of abuse.”  Robert Hogan believes workplace structures can constrain the dark side personalities of leaders.  Essentially, he believes that managerial literature clearly indicates that personality and authority mix, such that the greater level of authority a person has, the more that person’s personality (quirks and all) will be unleashed on others. Thus, the less an individual leader is constrained, the more their personality comes out.

In the case of the person who prompted this article, she had to go to her workplace Department of Ethics to report her supervisor.  It worked (sort of…. not really….. it’s a long story…. aren’t they all long stories….). And if your HR department or other managers don’t have adequate power and/or a backbone, your best choice may be to leave.  Many don’t see unemployment as an option.  Gulp.

So, here are my questions for you (weigh in and comment!!!!):

  • How do you clearly know when you have a bad boss? When does behavior rise to the level/classification of destructive or abusive?
  • How much trust do you have in your workplace’s organizational rules to protect employees (including yourself)?
  • Given the damage that bad bosses can inflict on the organization, should HR departments be actively seeking supervisor evaluations? (ALERT- can of worms!)
  • When it is time to stand up for yourself?  When do you quit?

Works Cited

Bentz, V. J. (1985a, August). A view from the top: A thirty-year perspective on research devoted to discovery, description, and prediction of executive behavior. Paper presented at the 93rd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Los Angeles.

Einarsen, S., Aasland, M. S., & Skogstad, A. (2007). Destructive leadership behaviour: A definition and conceptual model. The Leadership Quarterly18(3), 207-216.

Fastenberg, D.  Survey: 1 in 5 Workers has a Bad Boss.  Posted May 7, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2013.

Hogan, J., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2006) Management Derailment: Personality Assessment and Mitigation.  Appears in the APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Vol. 3, 555-575) Sheldon Zedeck (Editor). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Online:

Hogan Assessments (2012).  The Origins of Derailment.  In Hogan News. September 26, 2012.  Accessed July 26, 2013.

Kaiser, R.B. and Hogan, R. (2006) The Dark Side of Discretion: Leadership Personality and Organizational Decline.  Appears in R. Hooijberg, J. Hunt, K. Boal, & J. Antonakis (Eds.) Strategic Leadership of Organizations. London: Elsevier Science. Online:

Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of management journal43(2), 178-190.

Tepper, B. J., Henle, C. A., Lambert, L. S., Giacalone, R. A., & Duffy, M. K. (2008). Abusive supervision and subordinates’ organization deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology93(4), 721.

Zellars, K. L., Tepper, B. J., & Duffy, M. K. (2002). Abusive supervision and subordinates’ organizational citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology87(6), 1068.


3 thoughts on “Bad leaders and abusive supervisors: What is de-meaning of this?

  1. Pingback: sine.over.cosine. | Leadership: What does it all mean?

  2. Pingback: sine.over.cosine. | Motivating Work- Dollars and Sensing

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