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Work for a horrible boss? You’re probably going to be like them in the future

A work-from-home set up - Joe Giddens/PA
A work-from-home set up - Joe Giddens/PA

You really do turn into your horrible boss, according to a new study that has found employees mirror the abusive behaviour of a nasty manager.

In an example of trickle-down social dynamics, scientists from Anglia Ruskin University found bad behaviour at the top of an organisation encourages the same amoral behaviour among the rank and file.

The team found evidence that aggressive bosses create a workplace atmosphere rife with insecurity and exhaustion and then junior members of staff respond to their own maltreatment by abusing others, in what the scientists call a “reciprocal relationship”.

Inappropriate language, sexual harassment, outbursts, humiliation and misuse of power were all examples of hostile behaviour, according to the researchers, who surveyed 323 employees across the UK, Pakistan, China and the United States.

They found that more than two-thirds of employees who experienced hostile behaviour from a senior colleague then witnessed interpersonal aggression within the general workforce.

Writing in Frontiers in Psychology, the scientists also found that horrible bosses are also linked to feelings of emotional exhaustion and job insecurity in their employees.

More than one-third of people who suffered hostility from a leader also received some form of abuse from a peer, the data show.

Dr Nadeem Khalid, a co-author and senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and strategy at ARU, said the damage done to employees by bullish bosses can persist throughout the workplace.

He argued it wasn't an effective strategy either, noting previous studies showed hostility discourages commitment from staff.

“It's clear from our study that hostile behaviour at the top of a workplace is not only likely to be damaging to individuals in terms of their emotional exhaustion and job security, it is also likely to encourage other employees to act in unethical ways, creating a toxic environment across the entire organisation,” Dr Khalid said.

"This mirroring of negative behaviour may have its roots in the reciprocal relationship between leaders and employees.

"An employee who is mistreated may feel the only way to get ahead in their job is to treat others as they have been treated themselves - this may not always be intentional but it results in a race to the bottom among employees and damages job security and leads to stress and exhaustion.

"Previous studies have shown that abusive behaviour from leaders is associated with a lack of commitment from employees, and has a negative effect on emotional wellbeing.

"Our study suggests that the situation could be exacerbated by the negative behaviour of general workers as well as the leader."