WORKPLACE / JAN. 31, 2015
version 3, draft 3

When A Bad Boss Can Be A Good Thing

Bad Bosses
Bad Bosses

Over the years, there have been numerous studies highlighting the high number of bad bosses that exist in our workplaces.  Indeed, it’s been suggested that most of the time, whenever we leave a job, we’re not so much leaving the job itself as we are the terrible boss we’re dying to get away from.

I mean it stands to reason, doesn’t it? Your boss is often the person you have most contact with at work, and a bad one can make you dread coming into work. They can cause your stress levels to rocket, prompt you to stay away from work more often and cause you to operate at less than optimal performance.

You would think, therefore, that having a bad boss has few upsides, but a recent study suggests that there may be a silver lining after all.

The study asked participants to experience a rather awkward and unpleasant event. Each was led to believe that they had been recruited with the intention of completing a range of tasks, with the best of them achieving a cash prize for their hard work. The thing is, they were all left waiting for some time before they could get started.

When the supervisor of the task did eventually turn up, he gave half of the participants a sincere apology for his lateness. The other half, however, were fobbed off with a rather lame excuse that broadly translated to his time being much more important than theirs.  After completing their tasks, each participant was asked to complete a short survey, which asked them things such as how they found their boss, but also how they viewed their team-mates.

When a Bad Boss Equals a Strong Team

Interestingly, the results of the survey showed that when participants had the bad boss, they tended to bond much better with their fellow team-mates than when their boss was a decent person. The researchers suggest that this was caused by the cognitive dissonance caused by the boss behaving so badly.

One way, to resolve this dissonance, is to bond with those feeling the same way or in the same position.  It emerged that the greater the sense of unease amongst the participants, the greater the bond between them.

I’m sure this is a scenario that you’ve encountered before. Being treated badly can cause you to bond together to fight the common enemy, with the team eventually working quite well, but often despite the boss rather than because of them.

However, this is only a very thin silver lining. Follow up studies found the participants generally spent more time complaining about the bad behaviour of their boss than doing work, so their productivity wasn’t particularly great, even if their bonding was.

What’s more, the disgruntled team members would often be beset by rumination and doubt the motivations of colleagues. Of course, there is also the risk of malpractice on their own part, with studies revealing that mistreated employees are most likely to do all manner of bad things at work, whether it’s spreading malicious gossip or stealing supplies from the store cupboard.

So I’m not convinced that the benefits of a bad boss outweigh the costs, but I suppose every port in a storm is something to cling too.


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