Health

There Are Basically Only Two Types of Bad Bosses, According to Years of Research

December 18th 2016

By:
Lucy Tiven

If you've ever wondered what's wrong with your boss, a new paper from a Binghamton University research-team may have some answers.

Boss Yelling at Employee

There are two distinct kinds of bad bosses: "dysfunctional bosses," and "dark bosses," the authors claim.

A dysfunctional boss is well-meaning but incompetent.

These bosses are ineffective and may be absent or out of touch, the researchers assert. A dysfunctional boss may reflect a poorly structured company where job roles are unclear. These qualities may also be due to or exacerbated by external pressures, like poorly-planned timelines or inadequate resources that leave employees in a bind.

clock-with-red-background

"They don't want to hurt you," lead author Seth Spain, an assistant professor of organizational behavior, says in a press release. "Through lack of skill, or other personality defects, they're just not very good at their job."

This archetype may be best embodied by the character Michael Scott, who is a regional manager for the Dunder Mifflin on NBC's comedy "The Office."

Despite his best intentions, Scott is deeply insecure and fundamentally struggles to comprehend how other people feel, Spain and his co-authors point out. He is a pathologically ineffective leader as his delusions about his own performance blind him from recognizing failures and improving.

The researchers concede that Scott is also likely mildly narcissistic — one of the traits associated with a dark boss. Much of the humor on the show is due to the absurd disparity between Scott's notion that his employees love him and the degree to which this is often not the case.

In a 2009 Psychology Today article, Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., goes further, arguing that Scott's self-obsession and thirst for admiration make him a caricature of a narcissistic personality. This allows him to enjoy a unique kind of happiness felt by people who do not think about others' experiences or feelings, Clyman claims.

But Scott's brand of poor leadership is distinctly different from the dark bosses described in the paper.

Unlike the bumbling Michael Scotts of the world, dark bosses are malicious.

These people are associated with what psychologists call the "Dark Triad" of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

Graphic of the brain

Machiavellian personalities are willing to manipulate others for their own benefit.

People with narcissistic traits exhibit qualities that characterize Narcissistic personality disorder, albeit to a lesser degrees of intensity.

These include "grandiosity, entitlement, dominance, and superiority," the paper notes. "Narcissists are prone to self-enhancement; they attempt to present a highly idealized version of themselves." These people may initially come off likable, charming, or charismatic and later prove unable to sustain honest or meaningful relationships.

Psychopathic personalities experience difficulties understanding emotions and tend to be impulsive and self-serving. Bundled together, a person who exhibits the Dark Triad may be self-obsessed, lack sympathy, and try to manipulate others with little remorse, Bustle explains.

Leaders who exhibit these qualities can inflict harm on those working under them. A dark boss will belittle or dominate their subordinates to feel better about their own standing at a company and blame employees for their own failures, the paper claims. The paper's authors diagram how the pieces fit together.

diagram of dark boss from Span paper

"[These are] people who enjoy the pain and suffering of others — they're going to be mean, abusive and harassing in daily life," Spain says in the press release.

Both dark and dysfunctional bosses result in unnecessary stress for workers.

"A person's direct supervisor is a lens through which they view their work experience," Spain says. "We think, in particular, that a boss can be an incredibly substantial source of stress for people who work for them."

"We believe that these characteristics are extremely important for understanding employee development and career advancement," he added. "Understanding the role that these characteristics play in stress experiences at work is extremely important, especially since bad leaders can cause so much suffering for their subordinates."

[h/t Science of Us]