Defense.gov News Photo 120324-M-AV740-001 by Staff Sgt. Clinton Firstbrook, U.S. Marine Corps (2012)

Incompetence Makes Bosses Bully

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Research published this month “examine[s] the effects of self-perceptions of incompetence on power holders’ tendency to aggress.” Or, why bully bosses are likely to be incompetent at their role.

From the Workplace Bullying Institute’s summary:

In a 4-study research paper to be published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science, by Nathaniel Fast (University of Southern California) and Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley) linked aggression at work to perceived inadequacy of people in power (bosses). [Fast, N.J. & Chen, S. (2009) When the boss feels inadequate: Power, incompetence and aggression. Psychological Science, Nov. 2009]

In this study, incompetence means that the boss feels that he or she has a “low ability to influence other people” within that role. This is more salient for power roles (such as executives) and less so for someone without subordinates.

Nathanael Fast & Serena Chen conducted four experiments, some with adult workers, to determine whether one’s feeling of competence to power affects one’s willingness to do harm to another. They also tested to see if ego-stroking would help mitigate one’s desire to harm.

It turns out that bosses who feel that they are less competent at influencing people are more likely to “bully”. What was interesting was that in study 4, when they allowed participants to write about a value that they hold, a task which has been shown (apparently) to boost self-worth. Whatever that is. The important thing may be affirming one’s values, because it mitigated the tendency to aggress.

Bully boss? Licensed through 123rf.com
Bully boss? Maybe he just feels incompetent at power

A lot of pop-press articles have made the research out to be about “incompetence”, which sounds like they don’t know how to use the fax machine. But Fast & Chen meant something more complex. They wrote that:

it appears that this effect is not merely due to a failure to meet demands in general (i.e., incompetent low-power participants did not show an increase in aggression), but rather is the consequence of feeling incompetent in a high-power role.

Work Levels thinkers will probably have already considered that bosses who are not capable at the level of work of their roles will not get the respect of their subordinates, and likely therefore feel incompetent to power. This will lead to an increase in workplace bullying by the bosses, which erodes trust.

But let’s extrapolate!

InInfluencer: The Power to Change Anything, the authors point out that the best chance to influence people’s behaviors is to give them a choice. Real choice, not fake “do it or you can choose to leave” choice. This is where social constructs like Wilfred Brown’s works council at Glacier Metal Company so important. By increasing the feeling of power in the relationship between workers and management (even managers and the company, since managers at each level elected a representative, too), the works council reduced the likelihood of “bullying” by any party. The decrease in power plays and the felt need for them (by both management and unions) increased trust and the perception of held competence to power, which reduced the likelihood of bullying even farther.

It’s all about power, friends. I’m not sure that Elliott Jaques understood that as well, at least from his later writings.Requisite Organization in particular has always felt like it missed important realities about power, as useful as the book is.

Research Summary at The Workplace Bullying Institute:

Role of Incompetence of Aggressive Bully Bosses Confirmed

Full text of the article is available through request to the WBI (link on page).

Image credit: Drill instructor doing her job with a new recruit. Sometimes what’s “bullying” is getting you ready. Defense.gov News Photo 120324-M-AV740-001 by Staff Sgt. Clinton Firstbrook, U.S. Marine Corps (2012)

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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