Why is my boss such a jerk?
That’s the prototypical workplace question. The first human to ever do work for another human in exchange for money or food probably said, “Ugh. Wages fine, but why Zog grump all the time?”
All these years later, there’s still no answer. We write off bad boss behavior by saying, “Well, that’s just the way he is.” Or we excuse it by saying, “She’s tough, but she gets the job done.”
Some companies take steps to prohibit abusive management practices by creating a culture where such behavior is unacceptable. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t seek out the reason for the abusive behavior.
We may be lacking a root cause because companies rarely look for explanations outside the office. A study soon to be published in the Academy of Management Journal finds a rarely addressed link between bosses behaving badly and stress from home.
The issue of work stress rolling over into a person’s home life has been talked about for ages, and we live in a time when the idea of work-life balance has become hugely important. But, the study suggests, it seems something has been overlooked: “(M)ost research has drawn conclusions about how managers can help their employees to better manage family-work dynamics while failing to give consideration to how family-work dynamics impact managers and their behavior toward subordinates.”
Lest anyone question the scope of the problem, the study — conducted by a team of five researchers from universities across the country — cited the following data:
— 14 percent of U.S. employees are victims of abusive supervision (defined as nonphysical aggression).
— Abusive supervision can lead to poor performance, deviant work behavior, alcoholism and family problems.
— Lost productivity, grievance procedures and health care expenses stemming from abusive supervision cost corporations about $23.8 billion a year.
The researchers found that bosses or managers experiencing “family-to-work conflict” — family demands or stresses that interfere with work — were more likely to be abusive of subordinates. This is explained by a concept called “ego depletion.”
Brian McCormick, an assistant professor of management at Northern Illinois University and a member of the five-person team who conducted the study, said people who expend mental energy dealing with family problems or demands often lose the ability to control their behavior at work.
“If I might have an opportunity as a boss to act out, I’ve got this self-regulating thing, I’ve got this voice in the back of my head telling me what is and what is not an appropriate behavior,” McCormick said. “But as the day goes along and I get mentally exhausted, I have less of that regulatory mechanism, and once I’m depleted, I start lashing out.”
The key here is that we often look at abusive managers as being willfully obnoxious — jerks, in other words — or as people who behave the way they think the company wants them to behave. In truth, the issue might be an inability to self-regulate because of issues outside work.
McCormick noted how the merging of our work and private lives — which is at the heart of the movement to strike good work-life balances — is likely to blame for the impact family-to-work conflicts have on supervisors: “In a sense, this lack of a barrier or lack of segmentation between the home and the workplace means the two are impacting each other more than they used to.”
Women in management who are dealing with family-to-work conflicts, the study found, tend to suffer greater ego depletion and are more likely to be perceived as abusive. “This is because men and women tend to differ in the amount of time and energy that they are expected to invest in work and family roles, and also because they tend to differ in the degree to which being available to family versus work is central to their identities,” the study said.
Many studies have shown that working women still shoulder more housework and child care than men, and McCormick said the team’s research demonstrated that the added pressures some women face at home lead to greater ego depletion.
Much of our work-life balance focus is on employees. Bosses and managers are in charge of finding ways to keep workers happy and productive both at work and at home. Clearly that same level of concern should be applied to the bosses and managers themselves.
Along with that, McCormick said, having a culture that frowns on abusive behavior can act as a backstop for ego-depleted managers.
“A company’s culture can serve as a replacement for that voice in my own head,” McCormick said. “The norms and culture in a company can serve to replace my own ability to regulate my own behavior.”
A simple step is to just provide leaders with time to mentally recharge: “Whether it be a nap during the day, stepping outside the office and taking a walk around the block to clear one’s head. It can be just a couple minutes. I can recharge and get out of that ego depleted state often in a brief burst of time.”
And just being mindful that managers might be wrestling with family issues can help.
McCormick said those who manage the managers can always talk to them about family-to-work conflicts: “One doesn’t have to know every part of someone’s home life to be able to say something like, ‘Research has found there are issues with people who have stresses at home and that can manifest itself in the workplace. So let’s talk about when you’re facing challenges. How can I be a resource to you? What can we do?’”
None of this means bad boss behavior should be excused. It just means there are other places we can look for answers to why the boss is a jerk.
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Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.