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Lead Your Team Leadership

Power-Hungry Boss? Why Everyone Suffers When Leaders Misbehave

Power-Hungry Boss? Why Everyone Suffers When Leaders Misbehave
Credit: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

Leaders who abuse their power in the workplace don't just cause pain to their victims; new research finds they also suffer themselves.

A study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal 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 a leader feels, which changes as they move throughout the day.

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

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 they too are suffering.

"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 abusive to their workers and then goes home and feels bad about it at night. Foulk wants to know if they 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 Ph.D. 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.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.