Mean Bosses

Illustration by Deanna MartinezThis blog has frequently advocated that it is beneficial for all if we treat others respectfully. At times we focussed on a respectful way to provide negative criticism–no glares, insults, threats, or shouts, and with enough details so that the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance. At other times, we focussed on the best way to respond to negative criticism–listen in a supportive, warm, friendly style, and then make it clear that we fully understand what was said by providing a summary.

mean boss 2Although posts like these were generally well received, some comments argued that they didn’t apply to work settings. “A good boss doesn’t have time to be nice!” claimed one person. Another argued that “A boss has to be tough or he or she will be taken advantage of, and the whole organization will end up suffering.”

Mean boss 6Well, recently an excellent article appeared in the New York Times that delves into this issue. Titled “No Time to Be Nice,” the author, Christine Porath, tells us that how we treat one another at work matters. “Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people’s health, performance and souls.”

Early in the article, Ms. Porath reviews research demonstrating that stressful jobs increase the risk of a cardiovascular event by 38 percent, and a major source of work related stress is how the boss treats employees.

mean boss 3Bosses produce demoralized employees through a string of actions: walking away from a conversation because they lose interest; answering calls in the middle of meetings without leaving the room; openly mocking people by pointing out their flaws or personality quirks in front of others; reminding their subordinates of their “role” in the organization and “title”; taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when problems arise. 

mean boss 4Although in surveys people say they are afraid they will not rise in an organization if they are really friendly and helpful, research evidence indicates the opposite is true–behavior involving politeness and regard for others in the workplace pays off. Those seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders.

Ms. Porath tells us:

Civility elicits perceptions of warmth and competence….these two traits drive our impressions of others, accounting for more than 90 percent of the variation in the positive or negative impressions we form of those around us. These impressions dictate whether people will trust you, build relationships with you, follow you and support you.

Angry boss screaming. Isolated on white

The reason that some people don’t believe the research findings is that they see mean bosses who seem to succeed despite being rude and thoughtless. Whereas it is true that some bosses can be highly successful while being mean, it is not being mean that makes them successful.  They succeed despite their incivility, not because of it. If they happen to have highly talented people working for them, or their company is particularly profitable because their product is much better than the competition, the boss may get the credit.  But studies reviewed by Ms. Porath demonstrate that the No. 1 characteristic associated with an executive’s failure is an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style.

DilbertBossPower can force compliance. But insensitivity or disrespect often sabotages support in crucial situations. Employees may fail to share important information and withhold efforts or resources. Sooner or later, uncivil people sabotage their success — or at least their potential. Payback may come immediately or when they least expect it, and it may be intentional or unconscious.

There is far more in the “No Time to Be Nice” article worth studying, and I highly recommend giving it a thorough read.  Ms. Porath’s article is a breath of fresh air to all of us who advocate that treating people respectfully is in all of our best interests.

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


Comics, Conflicts and the Desire to be Liked
Abusive Criticism In Big Time Sports

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

Write Your Comment

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>