Stroking the boss

Bosses bully most when they feel inadequate. If there ever was a reason to kiss-up the boss, this has to be it. Common sense, of course, but two California college profs have confirmed it in a study. When bosses feel they are not up to the job (the key is how they feel -- even if they are actually doing a good job, it doesn't matter) they tend to be harsher with those around them. 

In role-play situations, participants who felt their egos were being challenged would sabotage an underling's chance of winning money. In another situation, those who felt inadequate would use a loud obnoxious horn to reprimand underlings for mistakes. The more secure would choose a more quiet sound, or even silence.

On the other hand, participants who scored high on a leadership test or who recalled a time that made them feel good about themselves were not harsh with their underlings. In all cases, the participants were asked to rate their own competency, allowing them to report on their self-image. 

"Incompetence alone doesn't lead to aggression," co-author Serena Chen, associate professor of psychology at University of California at Berkeley, said a news release about the study. "It's the combination of having a high-power role and fearing that one is not up to the task that causes power holders to lash out. And our data suggest it's ultimately about self-worth."

Our takeaway: The more secure you can make your boss feel, the better it'll be for you. But you knew that.    

The study, also conducted by Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California, is published in the November issue of Psychological Science.