Terrible Bosses Have This One Great Silver Lining, New Study Finds

You don't have to be like them to succeed. 

by James Dennin
Steve Carrell as Michael Scott in "The Office"
Giphy / The Office

Bad bosses come in all shapes in forms, from the Michael Scott variety who cares more about getting attention than getting things done, to the Steve Jobs variety, who thinks that berating employees and being kind-of-an-asshole is the only way to get things done. Fortunately, terrible bosses come with a silver lining, even for the people unfortunate enough to report to one.

Think of it as an opportunity to learn both what to do and what not to do, according to a years-long new study from researchers at the University of Central Florida in tandem with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University. The findings of their new paper were published in the latest issue of Journal of Applied Psychology. Author Shannon Taylor, a management professor focused on the effects of rudeness in the workplace, says that people who endure under one bad boss go on to be better workplace leaders themselves.

“We hear stories about Steve Jobs being a famous asshole, but I think he was successful despite his terrible demeanor, not because,” Taylor says. “We do hold leaders on a pedestal.”

Taylor and his colleagues proved this over the course of several experiments which showed that bad bosses tend to encourage what they call a disidentification effect. Essentially, employees who take the opportunity to think to themselves, “when I’m a boss, I’ll never be like that,” go on to demonstrate more ethical workplace behavior and a more positive leadership style.

The best leaders learn to disidentify with the bad habits of their previous bosses, a new study suggests. 

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How to Be Better Than Your Boss

To some extent, tapping into disidentification boils down to a simple act of introspection, Taylor says.

“Certain people say ‘this isn’t right, I’m not going to let that style define me as a leader,’” he explains. To test this idea out, they contrived a pretty series of experiments.

In one of the experiments, people were put to work in a student cafe, and asked to put together an idea to improve the cafe, sort of like a suggestion box. The researchers then manipulated how the boss reacted to the new idea: Sometimes they liked it, sometimes they reacted by yelling at the up-starter, and sometimes they made fun of them. Finally, the researchers assigned some groups another activation to make them “disidentify,” essentially by encouraging them to think about whether or not their values align with the dick boss’s.

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After this activation, the former employees got to play the boss, and take turns evaluating a pitch of their own, only the pitches themselves were actually bad. They weren’t just bad ideas, but outright unprofessional, littered with typos and misspellings. It was, in short, the perfect workplace opportunity for what some euphemistically refer to as “tough love.”

You would think that the employees who got berated for their bad ideas would go on to do the same thing when presented with even shoddier work. But this actually wasn’t the case. Taylor says: “What we found is that when people were abused and they disidentify, contrary to previous research, it led to more ethical behavior on their part.

The main caveat to Taylor’s research is that he doesn’t think it exonerates terrible bosses (and, contrary to the popular perception, the ‘do anything to get ahead’ type isn’t the best way to ascend the professional ladder). But it does give employees a kind of playbook for how to take a terrible experience and try to turn it around into something positive.

In other words, rather than having terrible bosses look at his study as evidence that there is a potentially redemptive justification for their actions, it’s more an opportunity for bereaved employees to realize that maybe, instead, they should be the ones running things.

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