No, Your Boss Doesn't Actually Enjoy Being Mean

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
We were all once wee 22-year-olds, terrified and cowering in fear of our higher-ups. Maybe you still are. At one point, when you get older, you come to the realization that your bosses are just people: They put on their pants one leg at a time, they have insecurities, and they get irrationally upset at stuff. They're also probably really, really overworked and stressed out.
A new study published by the Academy of Management Journal has found that if your boss tends to go on power trips — making you get their coffee just right (when you have a Master's degree, thankyouverymuch) or dressing you down for not doing something they had never once mentioned to you — they are probably pretty miserable.
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The Washington Post reported on the study, which was conducted by Trevor Foulk, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, and looked at these so-called "power trips" sometimes characteristic to people in management positions. While there have been plenty of stories about the people affected by their bosses' bullying, he said, "Here, we're flipping the script. When people feel powerful and act on it, it doesn't feel good for them either."
Foulk's subjects were executive MBA class members who held manager positions like executive vice president or director of operations. He sent the 108 participants three surveys a day every day for two weeks: Their morning activity often included an exercise that primed them to feel more powerful (the control group didn't get that "power nudge"). The afternoon survey asked them how they behaved toward their coworkers (or how others behaved toward them); for example, whether they had yelled or made fun of someone. In the evening, they got a survey asking them how they felt; competent, respected, in control, relaxed, etc.
The study found that those who were "primed" to feel more powerful in the morning tended to be meaner to their coworkers during the day — and perceive more slights toward themselves. They were also more likely to feel worse about themselves and less relaxed in the evenings.
"It made them feel less fulfilled," said Foulk. "We typically think about victims. But actually, everybody involved suffers."
Bosses who scored high on "agreeableness," however, were less likely to bully their employees or perceive others as being aggressive, the study found. "Even when they feel powerful, they're less likely to abuse and perceive incivility of others," Foulk said. "It highlights the importance of agreeable leaders. It's not only for others, internally, to be better off. The leader himself will be, too. They stop the process." Which means everybody wins in the end.
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