Horrible bosses are a concept so ubiquitous that Hollywood decided to make, not one, but two movies chronicling them. Most everyone has a tale about a bad boss, whether it was the manager of your local movie theatre as a teen working the concession stand, or a particularly nasty corporate overlord at a desk job. Luckily, all that torment may not be for naught — a recent study has found that people who’ve had a terrible boss might not be doomed to repeat their cruel supervisors’ mistakes when tasked with managing their own employees.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, investigated how experiencing “abuse and mistreatment” from top organizational leaders influenced the behavior of leaders at the lower level. According to a 2017 study by consultancy firm Life Meets Works, 56 percent of the surveyed college-educated employees based in the U.S. described their bosses as “toxic.” And other than psychopaths, according to another 2017 study, most employees do not exactly thrive in the long-term under abusive bosses.
Through surveying 500 employees and 100 people in positions of power within businesses, the research team looked at the differences in supervisors who were previously abused by their superiors versus supervisors who had not experienced workplace abuse.
After reviewing how both groups behaved towards their employees, the researchers found that supervisors who had experienced abuse from their bosses and identified as “purposely distanc[ing] themselves” from their bosses’ unkind behaviors tended to display more respect and fair treatment to their own subordinates. In a reassuring turn of events, former victims of bad bosses were more likely to manage their employees in a better manner than their previous supervisors, taking notes from their negative workplace experiences.
The process of individuals who experienced terrible bosses leaning towards behaving in the opposite manner with their own employees is known as “disidentification,” as the Orlando Sentinel reported. Individuals who disidentified with their abusive boss tended to display more ethical and effective leadership styles.
Study co-author and University of Central Florida professor Shannon Taylor called the study findings a "silver lining of sorts” for individuals who’ve experienced abuse at the workplace.
"Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams," Taylor said in a statement. For some managers familiar with workplace abuse, Taylor added that they “reframe their experience so it doesn't reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders."
In 2015, Taylor co-authored similar research focusing on workplace civility, finding evidence that while employees with “ethical” leaders were less susceptible to behaving in unethical or problematic ways, factors like self-evaluation and conscientiousness also played a role in an employee’s “workplace incivility” (or lack thereof).
He described the main takeaway from the recent study as being “to encourage people who have been abused, among other things, to say, 'Look, I'm not like my boss.’”
For anyone who's suffered a horrible boss, it's a particularly encouraging notion: the cycle of abuse at the workplace is, thankfully, breakable.