February 7, 2010
Do abusive bosses who are high performers get a pass?
A new study says yes.
According to researchers at the University of Iowa, "supervisors who are productive have a long leash when it comes to bad behavior." In other words, they can beat their chests and berate staff all they want, as long as they're perceived as extremely effective at their job and invaluable to the company.
Unlike most studies on bad bosses, this one doesn't focus on what the targets of the abuse think of their socially challenged supervisors. Instead, it's concerned with the perception of bystanders of the abuse.
The study found that as long as an abusive boss is seen as a rainmaker, a mover and shaker, or someone who otherwise gets things done, workplace peers and rank-and-file employees outside the line of fire will still see them as effective. Employees may not want to befriend this abusive colleague or member of management, but they'll accept their tyrannical behavior -- as long as they don't think they're the next target.
It's not all disheartening news though. The study's researchers did find that "people who are more empathetic are less likely to overlook the [abusive] behavior than less empathetic people." In addition, researchers said, these sensitive sorts would even have trouble labeling the cruel boss "effective."
To conduct the study, researchers had participants read a summary of a fictitious CEO depicted as either "a high performer or a low performer" and either "a verbally abusive person or not abusive."
"When asked to rate the CEO, the subjects gave high marks to the productive, high-performing CEO no matter his management style." researchers said. "In contrast, the non-abusive but poorly performing CEO was given low marks as an executive, despite his likeability."
Disturbing, no? Maybe it's time more employers placed a higher premium on whether management plays nice with others instead of just paying attention to how much money they make or save the company.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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