Abusive Supervisor

Researchers working to determine whether abusive bosses share certain personality traits have ended up with some unexpected findings.

Going into the study, the team of psychologists from University of Cambridge in the UK and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium guessed that if abusive supervisors had any personality trait in common, it would likely be low agreeableness.

It was a hypothesis that made sense since less agreeable people tend to be less friendly and more aggressive, so you’d expect them to be more likely to be abusive bosses – but it was a hypothesis that turned out to be wrong.

Instead, here’s what the study showed:

Abusive bosses are more conscientious on average

The study looked at 103 pairs of supervisors and subordinates across a variety of workplaces and found that supervisors who were considered abusive by their subordinates were no more or less agreeable than supervisors who weren’t.

Contrary to what the researchers had anticipated, the abusive supervisors ended up being more conscientious as a group than the non-abusive supervisors. This was unexpected because conscientiousness is associated with being organized, rule-abiding, thorough, hard-working and disciplined, none of which necessarily scream “abusive boss” right off the bat.

One possible reason for the connection is that more conscientious people can be less flexible, tend to place more importance on high achievement and might get more frustrated when their subordinates don’t live up to high standards.

Highly conscientious people can also have an authoritarian streak. A 2014 study found that more conscientious people are more willing to administer electric shocks to others when told to do so.

People scoring high on conscientiousness are even more likely to commit white-collar crime. Overall, conscientiousness is generally considered a healthy personality trait since more conscientious people tend to be more successful in school and in the workplace, but these studies suggest that the greater focus on achievement that comes with being more conscientious might also have a darker side in some cases.

They’re also more Machiavellian

Although the recent study is the first to find a link between conscientiousness and being perceived as abusive by one’s subordinates, researchers have previously looked at other personality traits abusive bosses share.

A 2010 study found that supervisors considered more abusive by their subordinates tended to score higher on Machiavellianism, a personality trait associated with being manipulative, deceptive, cynical and selfish.

So combine these characteristics with a penchant for being rule-abiding, hard-working and achievement-oriented, and you can start to see how you end up with an individual you might not want to work for.

And they have low emotional intelligence

The final ingredient in the perfect storm of personality traits that gives you the world’s worst boss is low emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is a somewhat controversial construct, but essentially it’s the ability to work with one’s feelings and the feelings of others. People with high emotional intelligence are good at empathizing with others and processing their own emotions, people with low emotional intelligence less so.

Of course, it goes without saying that most people would rather work for someone with high emotional intelligence, so it probably won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that abusive supervisors tend to have low emotional intelligence.

Environment matters too

Although abusive bosses on average have higher conscientiousness, higher Machiavellianism and lower emotional intelligence, nasty people really come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s entirely possible to end up with an abusive boss that doesn’t fit this profile.

It’s also important to remember that even the most abusive boss doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Studies have found that someone is more likely to become an abusive supervisor if any of the following apply to them:

So the moral of the story is: people are complex. Although there are a few personality traits (like conscientiousness) that are more common among abusive supervisors, there are a lot of different factors that can turn someone into the boss from hell.

That said, one thing is for sure: abusive supervision carries a real cost for the people who have to put up with the abusive supervisor and for the organization in question. That’s why abusive supervision is such a hot research topic lately – a lot of people stand to gain from cutting back on the number of abusive supervisors in the world.

If you’re dealing with an abusive supervisor, then, you should seriously take stock of what your options are. And I know this probably won’t come as much consolation, but at the very minimum, at least you now have a better understanding of how the delightful individual in question ended up that way!