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The Lowdown on Abusive Bosses and Unhealthy Management

A senior executive of a large corporation once told me, "This is a paranoid culture. We want people to feel that someone's always looking over their shoulder, ready to catch them on something. That's what keeps them sharp." But does it?
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"I'll tell you what the real problem is," Ralph told me with a confident smile. "I'm a high-level performer. But most everyone around me -- my peers, direct reports, upper management -- they're incompetents, jerks or total idiots. Take your pick."

"This company values incompetence," he continued. "That's the real problem. That shows you how screwed up it is. But they're telling me that I'm the problem! That I need help? It's the people upstairs that need it!" He shook his head in dismay.

Sound familiar? People like Ralph are all too common in companies today. He illustrates just one type of abusive boss, often part of an overall unhealthy management culture that takes an enormous toll on both workers and business success, despite it's increasing dysfunctionality in companies today.

In this post I describe some examples of that toll and point towards some ways to deal with them -- ways that require something different from the usual coping and stress management strategies.

You might guess, correctly, that Ralph was oblivious to the fact that his description of others was how his co-workers and subordinates described him. One of his colleagues had emailed him after their last encounter, saying "If you ever set foot in my office again, I'll throw your ass right out the window." Ralph dismissed that with a wave of his hand, saying, "That's typical -- he's threatened by me because he knows I'm leagues beyond him. Always have been."

Ralph is a senior executive and, in fact, a high-level performer in his company. But his abusive management and poor relationships were generating a growing chorus of complaints. To its credit, his company wanted to salvage rather than fire him, and offered him an executive coaching program. But Ralph saw this as punishment.

Of course, there are psychological roots to behavior like Ralph's. But that doesn't matter much to the people who have to deal with the consequences on a daily basis. It doesn't matter what drives your boss' or co-workers' behavior if you're having to pop Xanax to cope with it.

Ralph's an example of just one kind of psychologically unhealthy management you might encounter at work: the narcissistic and arrogant boss. Others are more abusive, bullying people who create a great deal of suffering for those reporting to them. I find that some with those tendencies often gravitate towards companies that either implicitly sanction or actively encourage such behavior; organizations whose culture is marked by a hostile, abusive work environment.

An unhealthy management culture has a negative impact on both the employees and the business success of the company. Research shows that unhealthy management culture and the stress it generates diminish the mental efficiency of workers subjected to it. For example, a Gallup survey found that such work groups are on average 50 percent less productive and 44 percent less profitable than more positively managed groups.

There's even some evidence that psychologically unhealthy management can create a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, like that seen among soldiers returning from combat.

Abusive bosses often run into problems themselves, eventually, especially in organizations that require a high degree of teamwork and collaboration for both individual and business success -- increasingly the norm, today. Nevertheless, many companies continue to harbor or foster unhealthy, toxic management. In fact, some research suggests that it's on the rise, both in the U.S. and abroad.

It can be devastating. For example, Margaret landed a job with a small but growing event-planning company when she was just a few years out of college. Initially, she was pretty excited by "wide-open opportunity" for career possibilities that her boss described to her. Unfortunately, the reality proved otherwise. She soon discovered that she was working for the classic Boss From Hell, like portrayed in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Margaret was subject to daily tirades, name-calling and constant threats of being fired. She heard through the grapevine that her boss always managed people this way, especially those in entry-level positions. Constant turnover was the norm. That seemed to be fine with her boss, probably because it made pay raises unnecessary.

Margaret sought advice from an older employee, but that didn't help much. She was told that she was simply spoiled, like most 20-somethings; that she should feel lucky to have an entry-level job with benefits, in this economy. Margaret didn't know which way to go, but she knew she had trouble sleeping and felt like she was developing an ulcer.

"When I finally leave after a 12-hour day, I'm usually in tears all the way home," Margaret told me. "Some of my friends say I should just 'suck it up.' Others say I should quit right now, and some tell me I should just tell the bitch off. I don't know what I want to do. I need the job, but I'm a wreck at the end of every day and I can't take it much more."

When you're on the receiving end of bosses like that, you're likely to feel highly anxious and on guard, at best. A senior executive of a large corporation once told me, with apparent glee, "This is a paranoid culture. We want people to feel that someone's always looking over their shoulder, ready to catch them on something. That's what keeps them sharp."

But does it? Surveys find that large numbers of American workers are dealing with abusive and/or incompetent managers, and it hurts the companies they work for. A Gallup Poll of 1 million workers found that bad bosses are the No.1 reason for quitting a job. And a 2011 poll conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association found that 36 percent of workers report ongoing work stress, most of which is related to negative or outright unhealthy management practices. Between 40 and 50 percent report heavy workload, long hours and unrealistic expectations as among the sources of emotional distress. Nearly 50 percent say they don't feel valued on the job, and about one-third report that they intend to look for another job within the next year.

Such research and survey data underscore that a psychologically unhealthy management culture extends far beyond the presence of an abusive or bullying boss. It includes environments that denigrate, demoralize and don't support your continued learning and development. There, you may find that your achievements are ignored or unrewarded. The APA survey found that over 50 percent reported not receiving adequate recognition for their achievements. Moreover, you might find yourself dealing with constant political manipulation, secrecy, questionable ethical behavior or other kinds of negative management practices.

In one company, the human resources director was told by a consultant about the effect that abusive supervisors were having on employees. The consultant reported that "She got very cranky and said, 'We don't have time to be nice to people.'" In such companies, people are likely to be subject to a range of abusive behavior. For example, Samantha discovered that among the unwritten items in her job description was walking the boss' dog and taking his clothes to the cleaners. Andrew, who worked in a management consulting firm, reported that his boss might scream at him for whatever he decided Andrew had done wrong, or simply not to his liking, on any given day... and then later might flip around and tell Andrew how great he was; how much his contribution was valued.

Of course, one might ask why anyone would put up with abusive bosses or unhealthy management cultures. There are many reasons -- and holding on to a career position in a shaky economy can certainly play a role. But there are psychological reasons as well. Unconscious fears and conflicts can pull someone to "find a home" with abusive superiors or authority figures. He or she might be recreating the experience with an abusive parent, unconsciously, in an effort to change or repair the parent, symbolically.

Another person might live with a bad situation because he or she was taught to not make waves; or had learned to assume you can't change or control your circumstances. Perhaps self confidence wasn't sufficiently fostered or strengthened while growing up, or self esteem was damaged. Perhaps he or she has a shy temperament and finds it uncomfortable to be assertive in such situations.

One hopeful sign is that younger workers tend to be more attuned to recognizing an unhealthy workplace culture and more likely to be proactive on their own behalf to find a healthier environment. These are the kinds of workers I described in a previous post as part of the newly emerging "4.0″ career orientation.

For those who suffer, just learning better coping with unhealthy management practices with stress management techniques isn't enough. What helps is thinking "outside the box" and creating a mental and emotional perspective that frames your dilemma differently. That can open up new, constructive actions -- though they may appear contradictory at first.

Meanwhile, what are your own experiences with unhealthy work environments, and how have you tried to deal with them? I'd like to hear about them in the comments section below.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at