NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Karen Fox, an administrative assistant in Boston, had no idea her boss was out to get her. Their seemingly cordial relationship belied the truth, as she learned when called into HR one day.
"They basically read all of these emails she'd sent them saying how terrible I was," said the 38-year-old about this experience with her back-stabbing supervisor.
Fox found out that because her boss wanted her own personal secretary -- not one she shared with others -- she self-servingly threw Fox under the bus.
For Fox and others, the concept that many bosses are terrible to deal with is nothing new; just look at the success of the Hollywood blockbuster film “Horrible Boss” or its predecessor “Office Space.”
However, new research conducted by three professors and a former graduate student at the University of Louisville corroborates that having a bad boss--even a mean one--is disturbingly common.
Specifically, the study found that upwards of 36% of American employees, work for who they define as a “horrible” or “dysfunctional” boss.
To come to these findings, assistant professors at UoL Kevin Rose, Brad Shuck, Matt Bergman, along with Ph.D. graduate Devon Twyford, conducted what is known as an "integrative literature review." This is a literature review that examines the body of pre-existing research on a given topic--in this case, an analysis of 67 peer-reviewed papers that focused on dysfunctional relationships between managers and their workers. The researchers then plotted specific behaviors described in these papers on a grid.
Bad behavior in managers was found to range from the simply irritating or inept to outwardly manipulative and bullying. Horrible bosses displayed characteristics such as being overly and destructively critical, taking credit for the work of their underlings, or even being verbally abusive.
The authors became interested in the subject, because they found that while there has been a lot of scholarly focus on toxic leadership, there hasn’t been as much attention paid to how annoying or intrusive managerial behavior can impact staff on a daily basis, especially over the longer term.
"There is some research out there but not as much as you might imagine," study co-author Matt Bergman told the Washington Post. "We wanted to carve out something specific to define the concept."
The new paper, which reports that anywhere from 13 to 36% of U.S. workers have had a dysfunctional manager, described those bosses as people who repeatedly disrespected employees--whether intentionally or not.
And office culture can play a crucial role in allowing or even emboldening such behavior in upper-level workers.
“The cultures that exist in organizations may, in some ways, enable these individuals to remain in, and even advance within, the workplace,” lead author Kevin Rose, an assistant professor of organizational leadership and learning at the University of Louisville, told Time.
Manipulative and narcissistic behavior can serve those who want upper-level positions while they are clawing their way to the top, which might explain why so many with these tendencies are in superior positions. Yet, once these individuals make it into supervisor roles, the same traits that served them in climbing up the career ladder can negatively impact their staff, who are often exposed to it over an extended period of time.
“We certainly think there is a connection between power and the manifestation of these behaviors,” says Rose. “Often, when people get into positions of power, it changes the way they can and do interact with their colleagues and subordinates. In fact, we think that the power differential that exists between boss and employee is a major factor in how dysfunction is manifested and why it impacts employees so much.”
And unfortunately, Rose says that no industry is immune to the blight of having a bad boss.
On the plus side, Rose believes organizations can avoid these unpleasant situations by doing a better job of screening out potential supervisors who exhibit problematic behaviors, or at least in dealing with them constructively if they manifest such behaviors down the line.
“Letting a dysfunctional leader continue to be dysfunctional is, in a sense, a breach of the psychological and social contract that exists between the employee and the organization,” says Rose.
What can be done if an employee is having a hard time dealing with a bad boss?
“[I]t may help [to] build a political alliance that could help protect you from the bad boss,” Seth M. Spain, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Binghamton University, State University of New York, told Time.
Specifically, Spain suggested seeking support from co-workers, especially if they share the similar opinions about the supervisor in question. Additionally, he believes if the manager is simply being inept rather than malicious, offering constructive feedback may remedy the situation.
“If the boss’s dysfunctional actions are a result of lack of managerial skill rather than malevolence, constructive feedback could help fix the problem,” Spain said.
Other experts have suggested speaking with the human resources department might also be helpful. But if a boss is being a bully on purpose, complaining to HR or confronting them could potentially make the situation even worse.
“I've had a few horrible bosses,” says 48 year-old Alan Boulanger, a computer engineer from Amherst, Ma. “The more horrible…the boss, the more likely they will play political games.”
When that is the case, it might be best to look for a new job--which is easier said than done.
“We think there could definitely be a connection between scarcity of jobs and employees needing to endure a dysfunctional leader,” says Rose. “For many, sometimes the best way to cope with a dysfunctional leader is to leave the job. When jobs are scarce, this is not that easy.”
Still, that was the ultimate solution for Fox, the administrative assistant in Boston.
"I decided the solution was to hand in my two week notice rather than continue working at a firm that treated admins like interchangeable cogs and rewarded bad behavior," Fox says.
Written by Laura Kiesel for MainStreet