Destructive bosses a reality when overwhelmed at work

UNSW Business School researchers have discovered why some managers excel under pressure while others resort to bullying and harassment.

destructive bosses

"As their work gets harder, a leader's limited attentional resource capacity may become overwhelmed by high levels of negative emotions, resulting in self-regulation impairment and destructive leadership," says Michael Collins, lead author of the study. 

However, similar tests show that when bosses are faced with a simpler task, or when they are better able to cope with negative emotions, they manage any destructive tendencies, which gives a much more constructive leadership style.

“Our study found that managers with what is called a ‘high attentional resource capacity’ can reduce the impact of negative emotions on their behaviour during a demanding performance task. These managers displayed effective self-regulation, which led to proactive behaviour and effective leadership,” he says.

“The problem that many leaders face is that they may be vulnerable to cognitive overload and stress in dynamic and demanding situations, demonstrating few if any constructive leadership behaviours,” explains Chris Jackson, co-author and Professor of Business Psychology at the UNSW Business School.

“Some bosses react with aggressive or hostile behaviour if they feel threatened in such situations - displaying classic ‘abusive supervision’. Indeed, some bosses take it further with destructive leadership and engage in a sustained display of hostile verbal and non-verbal behaviour. We found examples of intimidation, withholding vital information, and blaming or ridiculing a worker in front of others.”

This study involved 161 managers and used an innovative way to manipulate negative emotions and self-regulation by using a time-limited difficult maths test. Michael Collins and Professor Jackson demonstrated how a low error rate from the difficult maths test predicted manager-rated proactive behaviour, transformational leadership and lower negative emotions, while a high error rate predicted follower-rated abusive supervision and higher negative emotions. 

The research was recently published in the Leadership Quarterly.