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March 1, 2019

Mean bosses get results, right? Not according to the research.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on May 29, 2020.

    There's a pervasive assumption that tough bosses get faster, better results than gentler leaders—but the evidence just doesn't back that theory up, Benedict Carey reports for the New York Times. In fact, research shows being tough may be counterproductive in the long run, Carey reports.

    Here are 4 ways to be a less-stressed leader

    Researchers 'can't find any upside' to bullying

    Over the past decade, psychologists and workforce experts have conducted a wide range of studies to better understand the effect of one's leadership style on employees' performance, productivity, and well-being.

    According Carey, the research shows that "abusive superiors" come in all forms: "the insecure, the overmatched, and the garden-variety sadist who picks on underlings solely for the pleasure of exercising power," as well as the "normally civil person" who offers occasional "mini-tantrums and put-downs."

    But while some notoriously tough bosses, such as Steve Jobs and Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, are also inarguably successful, the vast majority of research indicates "[b]ullying bosses tend to undermine their own teams," Carey reports. In fact, Carey writes, when bosses are bullies, morale and loyalty decrease, and sick days and tardiness become more frequent.

    Rebecca Greenbaum, professor for Rutgers University's school of management and labor relations, said, "Productivity may rise in the short term. … But over time the performance of the staff or team deteriorates, and people quit." She added, "There's been a lot of research. We just can't find any upside."

    So why do bullies make it to the top?

    According to Carey, aggressive personalities often rise to the top of the organization more quickly than timid individuals. They're bold, confident, and more likely to make quick decisions and spur-of-the moment decisions—all of which are seen as signs of leadership, Carey writes.

    One series of studies revealed that people in simulated workforces gave higher ratings to decisive leaders because they seemed more "morally assured" than the other leaders, Carey writes. On top of that, participants perceived the decisive leaders' decisions as being correct, even if that wasn't necessarily the case.

    According to Jennifer Overbeck, an associate professor of management at Melbourne Business School, that perception can be so strong that aggressive leaders "do not need to be transparent regarding their decision-making processes to be seen as moral and to receive support from their subordinates."

    Over time, these aggressive individuals come to believe they're "morally instinctual" leaders—and that can affect the way people in power perceive those beneath them, Carey writes.

    For example, a 2013 study led by Overbeck and Vitaliya Droutman of the University of Southern California, found that managers often assumed their team members' negative thoughts and feelings aligned with their own.

    According to Overbeck, leaders of a group have a tendency to "use themselves as a reference point" for that group. "[I]t can be difficult for them to disentangle what the group wants from what they want," she said—and that can make them feel justified in using abusive tactics to advance their goals.

    But whatever the perceived justification, Carey writes, the research suggests any form of bullying is ultimately counterproductive (Carey, New York Times, 2/26).

    Next, here are 4 ways to be a less-stressed leader

    Stress is endemic in today’s health care workforce, but the good news is that leaders have much more control over their stress levels at work than they might think. The most effective leaders take steps to proactively keep their own stress in check—while modeling healthy habits for their teams.

    Use this infographic to review effective stress management strategies that can help you become a less-stressed leader.

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