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Ambitious employees most impacted by toxic bosses, study finds

by Ohio Digital News


A bad boss a day keeps the employee away—or at least highly irritable. Unless you’re a muppet working on Sesame Street, you’ve likely encountered some version of The Simpson’s Mr. Burns when clocking into a miserable job. While they might not always be as sinister as to suggest to “release the hounds,” a bad boss typically has a penchant for ruining your day with an outburst or passive aggressive email. But some workers stand to be more affected by it than others.

So finds a group of researchers from the Stevens Institute of Technology and University of Illinois Chicago. Their newly published peer-reviewed study looked at bosses and workers from more than 40 companies in South Korea as well as hundreds of responses from students in the U.S. to gauge how much an abusive supervisor impacts performance. Ranking interviewees based on whether they prioritize either career advancement or keeping their job, the researchers found that the former group of go-getters is more likely to be deterred by a rampaging boss.

That’s not in line with what the researchers expected. They initially predicted a bad boss would shape behavior for both those seeking to climb the career ladder and those focused on job security. But those who are motivated by advancement are “strongly affected” by toxic management and cut back on “taking-charge behavior,” while the other group was more likely to continue taking charge. “That’s a very surprising finding,” researcher Howie Xu said

The researchers partly attribute these contrasting responses to the way these groups perceive threats. While an advancement-focused employee might feel a bad boss has a say in what they desire, like a promotion, those who care more about holding onto their job might feel the opposite; that HR or their boss’s boss may have more of an impact on who gets fired than their actual manager does. 

Since a worker prioritizing job security is likely not as invested in career growth if they’re just clocking in for a check, they’re probably able to shake off any toxicity as long they still have their job. On the other hand, workers focused on career goals might feel more invested in their interactions as part of their advancement and therefore more deterred by a boss’s toxicity. 

The rise of the ‘accidental manager’ 

Bad bosses come in all shapes and sizes—and they’re not always so obvious. “They’re savvy, so they don’t explode,” Grace Lordan, an economist at the London School of Economics, told Fortune. “They’re much more quiet, and the people who they don’t like, they tend to ignore, isolate, and exclude.” 

She added that these bosses can fall under three prototypes; the egoist, mediocre manager, or overly nice boss. It seems as if universally no one enjoys them; Xu’s study found that employees from different cultures had virtually identical responses to abusive management. The authors attribute that to globalization, or a sign that this is a universal trait that exists across many different cultures.

“Thankfully, abusive supervision isn’t too common, but when it happens it leaves employees far less likely to take the initiative and work to improve business practices,” Xu adds. 

Most of us have seen these bosses before; a poll from the Muse from earlier this year found that 64% of respondents experienced a toxic work environment, with many attributing it to their leaders and direct managers. That could partly be because managers are woefully unprepared and undertrained these days. A separate survey from the U.K. found that 82% of bosses are “accidental managers,” or employees who were promoted without proper training to manage. Those who found their manager ineffective reported less job satisfaction, motivation, and feelings of being valued than their peers who viewed their bosses as effective. 

Caught in between workers and higher-ups during contentious return-to-office mandates, middle managers have often bit off more than they were trained to chew and are experiencing high levels of burnout. Perhaps a new wave of bad bosses has been created with accidental managers being ill-equipped to deal with the new way of working.

Now, some research suggests that teams who feel too comfortable at work won’t work as hard. But Xu’s study suggests that management has more to lose than they think if they act out. In reality, no one is motivated by toxic bosses—and go-getters are especially likely to go quiet when bosses’ bad behavior goes unchecked.


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