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Power-Hungry Boss? Why Everyone Suffers When Leaders Misbehave

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A new study finds that when leaders abuse their power, they have trouble relaxing after work and are less likely to feel competent, respected and autonomous in the workplace. 

Leaders who abuse their power in the workplace cause pain not just to their victims but also themselves, research has found.

A study published in the journal Academy of Management revealed that when powerful people were rude and cruel to their colleagues, they were less likely to feel competent, respected and autonomous in the workplace. Additionally, they had difficulty relaxing after they went home for the night.

Trevor Foulk, who led the research as a doctoral student at the University of Florida, said the research shows that having power is not universally good or bad.

"This flips the script on abusive leadership," Foulk said in a statement. "We tend to assume that powerful people just go around and abuse and they're totally fine with it, but the effect of power on the power holder is more complex than that."

For the study, researchers surveyed 116 leaders in fields including engineering, medicine, education and banking over a three-week span. The surveys examined how powerful leaders felt, which changed as they moved throughout the day.

The study's authors discovered that when leaders felt powerful, they were not only more likely to act abusively but also to perceive incivility from their co-workers. This perception, in turn, negatively affected their own welfare. [What kind of boss worries employees? The]

While it may seem silly to be sympathetic to a boss who yells and belittles those they work with, Foulk said it is worth noting that the bosses are suffering, too.

"Even though your boss may seem like a jerk, they're reacting to a situation in a way many of us would if we were in power," Foulk said. "It's not necessarily that they're monsters."

The study's authors believe the results of the research might make employers want to reconsider the qualities they look for from those they put in charge. Specifically, Foulk said leaders who are agreeable and value social closeness, positive relationships and workplace harmony might not be as vulnerable to the misbehavior that is brought on by psychological power.

In a future study, Foulk plans to explore whether the negative consequences of psychological power are self-correcting. Specifically, he wants to look at what happens the day after a leader acts abusively toward their workers, to find out if these bosses return to work feeling less powerful and, in turn, behave better.

The study was co-authored by Klodiana Lanaj, an assistant professor at the University of Florida; Min-Hsuan Tu, a doctoral student at the University of Florida; Amir Erez, a professor at the University of Florida; and Lindy Archambeau, a lecturer at the University of Florida.

What are your rights as an employee of an abusive boss?

While there are no written laws specific to verbal and emotional abuse in the workplace, regulations from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act require business owners to provide a safe and healthy work environment for employees.

Employees should start with human resources and upper management. Keep records of all of the interactions with that person and file a complaint. This allows HR to investigate your claims and handle them appropriately.

How do you stay positive under a verbally abusive boss?

You cannot control your manager, but you can control your reaction to their behavior. Most abusive bosses feed off of your reaction to them, so the more you react, the more abusive they are. You should stop looking to your boss for approval. Stay away from your boss as much as possible. When you reduce contact with the boss, you will feel better about yourself and your job.

Image Credit: Peter Bernik / Shutterstock
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