Is It Possible To Work Under A Bad Boss Without Becoming Bad Yourself?

When it comes to behavior and emotions, employees consciously and subconsciously take cues from their leaders.
Bosses teach us what is acceptable and valued at work -- and when bosses are unethical, we may learn behaviors and attitudes we cannot easily shake.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Bosses teach us what is acceptable and valued at work -- and when bosses are unethical, we may learn behaviors and attitudes we cannot easily shake.

Is it possible to work for an unscrupulous person without compromising your own scruples? This is a question we found ourselves asking often during the Trump administration.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that he was in fact on a July 25 phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that prompted an impeachment inquiry. On the call, Trump tried to pressure Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden and Biden’s son, but Pompeo initially claimed he knew no specifics about these allegations. It took a whistleblower to raise the alarm about the call, and on Tuesday, the chairs of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committee wrote that “Given the Secretary’s own potential role… the Committees may infer that he is trying to cover up illicit activity and misconduct, including by the President.”

Then there’s Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and longtime fixer, who told a congressional committee in February that his better judgment had been compromised due to his former boss.

It was “painful to admit that many times I ignored my conscience and acted loyal to a man when I should not have,” Cohen testified. “Sitting here today, it seems unbelievable that I was so mesmerized by Donald Trump that I was willing to do things for him that I knew were absolutely wrong.”

Cohen, who once said he would take a “bullet” for Trump, publicly denounced the president’s character after he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges including crimes committed as Trump’s lawyer during the 2016 election.

We can’t know whether Cohen or Pompeo would have made any of the same choices if they had a different boss. But we did wonder if you can separate your personal ethics from those of your boss.

This is a question too many employees may be asking themselves. In a 2013 survey from the nonprofit Ethics Resource Center, 41 percent of employees said they had observed ethical misconduct at their jobs, and 9 percent said they felt organizational pressure to compromise their ethics. Many employees find themselves working under bosses or managers whose standards, outlook and values don’t align with their own.

Experts say employees actually do internalize the behavior of their bosses ― although there are things we can do to protect our values and sense of self.

There are many kinds of ‘bad’ that bosses can pass down

Bosses set the tone at work, modeling what is acceptable and valued in an organization. When bosses are good, they can be role models of how to treat each other with respect. But when bosses behave badly or even become abusive, this process of social learning can backfire, and we can internalize behaviors and emotions we might not otherwise display or feel.

Bad behavior and bad mindsets can be infectious in an organization. A lot of research has been done on emotional and behavioral contagion ― how people can “catch” the moods and judgments of others.

Take rudeness as an example. In a series of experiments, researchers including Trevor Foulk, an organizational management professor at the University of Maryland, showed that rudeness can be contagious, and we can all become potential carriers. The more that people saw and were the victims of rudeness, the more likely they were to become rude and hostile themselves, the researchers found.

Foulk said that on a conscious level, rudeness has a trickle-down effect, because we model our actions on what we see around us, and we see our bosses a lot. “If someone said ‘Why were you rude just now,’ you’d be able to say, ‘Well, I saw [the boss] do it, so it must be OK here,’” Foulk said.

It also happens on a more instinctual level deep in our brains.

“Seeing rudeness at work essentially tells your brain that this is a place where rudeness might occur, so your brain becomes extra vigilant in looking for it,” Foulk said. “When this happens, you become more likely to see rudeness because you’re on the lookout for it, so things that could go either way tend to be interpreted as rude. And when you see rudeness, you tend to respond rudely.”

As a result, an incident like overhearing an insult or getting a slightly sarcastic reply from your boss can stay with you long after the interaction has occurred. Targeted incivility breaks down communication and lowers individual productivity and creativity, causing havoc among teams in the workplace.

On a more destructive level, unethical behavior such as stealing, cheating and lying can also become contagious when the perpetrating colleague is someone you see as a peer, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Psychological Science. This is because their actions reinforce social norms of what is acceptable and expected behavior.

An individual’s unethical behavior “does not depend on the simple calculations of cost-benefit analysis,” the study’s authors wrote, “but rather depends on the social norms implied by the dishonesty of others and also on the saliency of dishonesty... Our findings suggest that relatively minor acts of dishonesty by in-group members can have a large influence on the extent of dishonesty.”

In other words, bosses truly shape our world at work. A 2013 study found that how supervisors perceive mistreatment from their higher-ups has an effect on what their own employees see as fair treatment, too.

In these ways, a bad manager’s major and minor behaviors can model the expectations of how business gets done, and spread that behavior to others.

How bad behavior is rationalized

Our brains do have to work to rationalize bad behavior when it is inconsistent with how we usually act. Employees who may feel initial discomfort about adopting a boss’ unethical behavior can engage in cognitive dissonance to make the mental leap necessary to take actions against their values, said Jared Montoya, an associate professor of leadership studies at Our Lady of the Lake University.

“To deal with that discomfort, they change their value or their belief. That’s when you see a value that would become more in line with this terrible boss’ behavior,” he said. “It’s not an entirely conscious process.”

It is possible to maintain your good values and emotions — but it takes work

The good news is that having a bad boss ― for example, one with a bad attitude and a terrible outlook on life ― does not automatically mean you are going to be tainted by their emotions and worldview. But you are probably going to have to make an effort to preserve your own good mood and positive values.

Using positive, social emotions with your team can help offset stressful, negative environments, as management researchers Olivia O’Neill and Sigal Barsade wrote in 2016. They found that employees in teams with cultures of companionate love ― the kind of “affection, caring, and compassion that employees feel and express toward one another” ― performed better and were able to reduce their burnout.

Such expressions can be small moments where someone pays attention to a colleague and shows genuine caring, Barsade said ― even just asking “Hey, how are you?”

“Because they’ve bonded together with affection, caring and compassion for one another, that almost serves as an antidote for the anxiety they are feeling. That is a mechanism by which people can deal with a terrible boss,” Barsade said. “Unfortunately, it does not solve everything.”

Positive connections with co-workers who are not the bad boss can provide stability when your views are being skewed at work. Montoya said that newer employees at the beginning of their careers can be especially vulnerable to modeling bad behavior, as they may lack the judgment and experience to know when a boss’ behavior is wrong. He recommends finding a mentor to provide critical feedback and be on your side.

“It’s good to have a mentor outside of the organization who can be a sounding board,” he said.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common to encounter unkind, rude, dishonest and bullying people at work. You might find yourself working alongside such people for years, even decades. Preserving your soul in these instances is not only an existential question, but an active undertaking that involves knowing how a boss can corrode your judgment, so you can remember who you are outside of your job ― and away from their bad influence.

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