There are few good things you can say about the experience of having a nasty, overbearing boss (it teaches you to have a thicker skin... maybe?). New science may have added one more item to this incredibly short list.

Mean bosses, it turns out, aren't just poisonous for other people's happiness, they also make themselves miserable too. It's best not to have to put up with jerks, of course, but thanks to this new study, at least you can take comfort in knowing that the bully in the corner office probably isn't getting any enjoyment out of abusing his staff.

Trying to feel powerful will probably just make you miserable.

The study, carried out by the University of Florida's Trevor Foulk and written up in The Washington Post, builds on earlier research into the concept of "psychological power," or our subjective sense of feeling powerful. Previous studies looked at how a boss's pursuit of psychological power affects others. Foulk wanted to know how it affects the boss.

The answer he found not serves as a stark warning to those who aim to build themselves up by throwing their weight around at work.

To figure out the effects of chasing psychological power Foulk asked 108 employed MBA students to fill out thrice daily surveys about their real jobs, but with one important twist. One group of students was subtly nudged by the morning survey to think of themselves as powerful. Another was given no such prompt. Both groups had their actual behavior and feelings measured by further surveys later in the day.

The results showed that those primed to think of themselves as powerful did, in fact, tend to engage in more bullying and abusive behavior to support that self-image (subjects that were exceptionally high in agreeableness, aka niceness, were the exception).

But the findings also showed that this nasty behavior backfired badly. Rather than get a kick out of their antics, the power-hungry participants felt worse about themselves and more anxious by the end of the day than participants who behaved decently.

What's the takeaway?

That's a healthy warning to those inclined to worry about whether they're coming across as powerful at work. That concern is probably making you less nice to work with and less happy yourself. And the misery of the power-seeking might also offer some cold comfort to those they step on chasing the feeling. But all of that is rather intangible. Are their any concrete lessons for bosses?

Beyond (yet another) reminder not to be (or work with) a jerk, Foulk offers one simple takeaway. "Everybody would benefit," he told the Post, "if companies just hired people who were more empathetic, cooperative, kind and like helping others."

Amen to that.

Published on: May 16, 2017
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