We all suspect that deep down bullies are insecure and when feeling threatened lash out at others in order to protect their self-image and fragile sense of self worth. This intuitive understanding applies to bosses who bully and strong research supports this fact.
Title: When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression (PDF)
Authors: Nathanael J. Fast (University of Southern California) and Serena Chen (University of California, Berkeley)
Publisher: Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 11
Date Published: November 2009
This paper, based on four different studies involving nearly 400 participants, finds that abusive bosses are driven by more than just ambition and the need to feel powerful (as previous theories have supposed).
The studies included an experiment in which participants, through a writing exercise, were made to feel either skilled or inadequate at their jobs. Subsequently, they were told that they could choose either a quiet buzzer or a loud horn to notify a subordinate that his or her answer to a question was incorrect. The “incompetent” cluster largely opted for a loud blast from the horn. In another experiment, participants received either an ego boost or criticism about their leadership abilities. Then, in a role-playing exercise, they portrayed teachers who were given the option of helping or hindering a student’s chance to win US$20 by correctly answering a series of questions. Those with bruised egos were more likely to sabotage the student’s opportunity by selecting more difficult questions.