Insights

Attention all “Tough Bosses”: The Research Shows that Being a Jerk Doesn’t Work

April 1, 2019

“Tough bosses” have been in the news lately. Former staffers for U.S. Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar have spoken out, revealing her as a volatile, borderline-abusive supervisor – and it has some questioning her fitness for office. In response to the moment, the New York Times wrote a great, timely article about especially-demanding bosses. It examined some recent research about “tough bosses’” effects on productivity and worker wellbeing. The results are interesting to say the least.

Everyone who’s ever worked for an unreasonably demanding boss recognizes that it can have a crippling effect on morale and productivity.

Despite this common experience, there’s still a persistent belief that “toughness” is a marker of an ability to get results.

The myth of the tough boss has deep roots, maybe hundreds of years old. The concept has origins in the machismo of “tough” military and political leaders throughout history, and it’s filtered down through the years into valorizing tough business leaders. More recently, Steve Jobs was widely acknowledged as one of the most effective businessmen of all-time from a results standpoint. He was notoriously tough on his employees, resorting to tirades and verbal abuse when they fell short. Other legendary executives like Anna Wintour are notorious for being hard-to-please and resorting to ridicule.

In the popular imagination, the tougher a boss is, the more demanding they are, the better the results. The myth is old, and it’s persistent: you’ll find articles online singing the praises of “the toughest bosses,” saying that working for a fire-breathing boss can be the best thing that’s ever happened in your career.

But here’s the thing:

Research has shown that bosses who are jerks aren’t just hard for employees to work for. They actually hurt productivity.

The NYT article cited a study, “Abusive Supervision,” in the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology, and also interviewed a number of productivity experts to get to the bottom of whether being exceedingly tough has any impact on performance. Here are a few of the key things they found:

  • According to research, an exceedingly tough boss usually increases productivity slightly in the short term, but productivity craters in the medium-long term.
  • It leads to more absenteeism in the workplace.
  • The effectiveness of “tough” leaders like Steve Jobs has a part to play in the persistent myth of the tough boss. But these high flyers are extremely competent in their own right, not successful because they’re abusive to their reports. The problem is that a few extraordinary, one-in-a-million performers have empowered thousands of garden variety jerks to become prima donna bosses even though their own competence is average at best. Research has found no correlation between individual performance and how harshly one treats direct reports.
  • Interestingly, research has shown that women are just as likely to be abusive bosses. However, we tend to celebrate “tough” male bosses but criticize their female counterparts as being out of line.

Many of us intuitively recognize that a boss who yells, belittles, and demands too much from employees isn’t an effective one. But these bosses are still everywhere. The researchers looked at the psychology of what leads someone to become a harsh or abusive boss, and why organizations elevate and tolerate these people. Organizations and reports tend to put a “halo” around leaders’ decision-making process, and the managers take advantage of this benefit of the doubt. There’s less expectation that their decisions will be transparent, which leads them to internalize the belief that their decision making is natural and morally correct. They come to see themselves as a representative for the group. This self-regard leads them to expect reports to see things the exact way they do.

When this psychological progression happens to someone with insecurity and poor self-control, you end up with minor tantrums and putdowns that can slide toward more general abusiveness. But that’s an organizational failure, not a unique brand of leadership.

As the NYT puts it, “a boss who ‘demands’ excellence is no more likely to produce it than the boss who requests or nurtures it, and likely less so, the research suggests.”

So in short, it’s time to put this myth to bed. It’s time to stop pretending that being “exceptionally tough” or demanding is an indicator of leadership in 2019.

So what’s the upshot? People working for harsh bosses have a better argument to make to senior leadership. Executives have more of an incentive to stamp out prima donna behavior among their management staff. And if you’re a “really tough” manager who justifies verbal abuse by saying that it leads to high performance?

Maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.

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