Bad bosses spawn more bad bosses

People with psychopathic traits have the personal resources to withstand difficult managers and benefit from them. Others are demoralised by the stresses of having an abusive manager.

Some employees thrive under abusive bosses – those with high levels of psychopathy who are themselves ‘bad’. This is the conclusion of a study showing that ‘primary psychopaths’ have the personal resources to withstand the stresses of difficult managers – and even benefit from it.

“There are primary and secondary dimensions of psychopathy,” explains the study, Are 'Bad' Employees Happier Under Bad Bosses? Differing Effects of Abusive Supervision on Low and High Primary Psychopathy Employees. Both dimensions are associated with anti-social behaviour, but people who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless. They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful or angry. Secondary psychopaths, however, are more hot-headed and impulsive. 

In the workplace, employees respond differently to abusive management styles, in part because of their varying levels of psychopathy, according to the study. Compared to their peers, primary psychopaths are unaffected by abusive behaviour. They feel less anger and are more engaged and positive under managers who mistreat them.

“People high in primary psychopathy are motivated by social conditions that are typically detrimental,” says the research paper by Charlice Hurst of the University of Notre Dame, Dante Pirouz from Western University, Lauren Simon of the University of Arkansas and Yongsuhk Jung from the Korea Air Force Academy.

The team conducted two studies involving 419 working adults. In the first, participants were asked to react to profiles of managers depicted as transformational or abusive. There were no differences in anger between high and low primary psychopathy participants, but those high in primary psychopathy reported feeling happier after imagining themselves working for an abusive manager.

In the second study, participants rated how abusive their own supervisors were. They were asked about behaviours such as rudeness, gossiping about employees, not giving proper credit for work, invasion of privacy and breaking promises. Those high in primary psychopathy reported feeling less angry, and more positive and engaged.

The resilience of primary psychopaths may have a 'negative collective impact' on organisations, and contribute to an unethical or abusive environment, the research warns. For example, these individuals’ capacity for success may lead them to rise to positions of power and status. In addition, while other employees can’t cope with a bad boss and eventually leave, 'primary psychopaths hired to work under abusive supervisors may be more likely to remain, eventually leading to an accumulation of similar others also more likely to engage in unethical interpersonal behaviour'.

With this in mind, companies need to be concerned not only about the people who abusive supervisors are demoralising, but also about those they are empowering, the study observes.

This article was originally published in Work. magazine, Summer 2018

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