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Bad Bosses, Beware

Your subordinates may be planning sneaky ways to retaliate

MONDAY, Dec. 23, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're a boss who ridicules, yells at or treats your underlings unfairly, you'd better watch out.

Your subordinates will exact their revenge -- and you may never even know what they've done to get back at you.

New research shows that workers who felt their supervisors were abusive engaged in sneak attacks against their boss and the organization.

Workers who feel abused are more likely to bad-mouth the supervisor and the company. They'll refuse to answer the phone a few minutes after quitting time. They'll avoid helping newcomers learn the ropes. They'll do the minimum. And they'll complain about the most minor frustrations.

"We found that those individuals who feel their supervisor is abusive are less likely to help out the organization by being courteous, showing initiative, or being a team player," says Kelly L. Zellars, an assistant professor of management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and lead author of the study. "These are all these things that companies depend on their employees doing."

The study appears in the December issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Zellars and her colleagues administered questionnaires to 373 members of the U.S. National Guard and 183 National Guard supervisors. The rank-and-file were asked to rate their supervisor's treatment of them. Questions included: How often does your supervisor tell you your thoughts or feelings are stupid? How often does your supervisor put you down in front of other people? How often does your supervisor single you out for reprimands?

Independently, supervisors were asked to assess their subordinates' work competency and attitude.

Researchers then compared the two sets of answers. They found workers who believed their supervisors were abusive were the least likely to engage in what researchers call "good citizenship," or going the extra mile to get the job done.

"One bad manager can cause the employee to do only the minimum on their jobs," Zellars says. "It's low-intensity revenge. Lots of workers can't quit right away, so they feel some comfort in getting even. They think, 'If you're going to treat me like that, I'm going to treat you like this.'"

It seems like everyone who's ever had a job has experienced the misery of a bad boss.

But if you've been a boss, have you ever considered that you might be the one dishing it out?

Jeffrey Jolton, an industrial/organizational psychologist and senior consultant for Genesee Survey Services in Rochester, N.Y., says bad bosses rarely realize that they're the source of the problems. Instead, they tend to blame the employees for being lazy, unmotivated or incompetent.

Not only that, supervisors also tend to forget how much impact they have on working lives of their workers. A bad boss can cause untold stress and anxiety on an underling. A good boss, one who provides positive feedback, makes an employee more committed to his job.

"The day-to-day life of employees is greatly influenced by their immediate supervisors or managers," Jolton says. "A lot of managers lose sight of this."

Robert Vecchio, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, says bosses rarely treat everyone equally. They have favorites. So the same boss could be perceived very differently by different people.

"People usually have an inner circle and an outer circle. It's often those on the outer circle that are at the brunt of being treated harshly and who are quite resentful," he says.

What To Do

An abusive boss can be a source of extreme stress. For help coping, check out the American Psychological Association or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

If you want to hear from a guy who feels your pain, check out Dilbert.

SOURCES: Kelly L. Zellars, Ph.D., assistant professor, management, University of North Carolina, Charlotte; Robert Vecchio, Ph.D., professor, management, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.; Jeffrey Jolton, Ph.D., senior consultant, Genesee Survey Services, Rochester, N.Y.; December 2002 Journal of Applied Psychology
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