New study shows employees accept their bosses’ red flags when they are successful


Jul 09, 2024 05:34 PM IST

Employees may overlook the abusive behavior of successful bosses, believing it’s ‘tough love’ and a path to career advancement.

Success is like a blinding spotlight, where you can only squint at the achievement, illuminated in all its glory while casting shadows on the flaws. This phenomenon is applicable everywhere, where success as a trait holds a monopoly over human perception, warping judgments and overshadowing any shortcomings. A new study from Ohio State University validates this idea, focusing on the dynamics between leadership perception and success. The toxicity of abusive bosses, who are seen as successful, is often excused. From belittling ideas to making insensitive personal attacks, employees tolerate their arrogant bosses and hesitate to call out their behaviour. This tolerance creates a vicious cycle, as employees become more docile to arrogant superiors, under the allure of success.

The more successful the superior is, the lesser the resistance in the face of their harsh behavior. (Pexels)

Well-meant toughness

The study revealed that employees regard their manipulative bosses less negatively when they are high performers in the company. The toxic harshness feels like ‘tough love’ to the employees, who reevaluate their boss’s behaviour as a means to unlock their full potential and improve their skills. They are hesitant to stand up to their abusive boss, justifying that they can’t be abusive if they are successful. This change in outlook makes them overlook all the negativity of their boss. 

They rationalize it as a well-meaning necessity for their growth. A successful boss could be the gateway to career advancement and promotion opportunities, however toxic the boss may be. With the allure of promotional success, they endure the abuse and feel motivated to work in a negative environment. They show low disobedience and become emotionally withdrawn, not letting any personal comments affect them. Due to low resistance, the study found that abusive bosses had longer careers than those who were not. Their success shields them from the consequences of their poor behavior. 

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Observing ‘tough love’ in real-world experiments

The study assessed the intersection of leadership and employees’ perceptions in a controlled and simulated work environment. A group of students worked under an MBA leader who sent disparaging and demotivating messages to his team. However, when they were told that they had performed well, they did not call their boss abusive, despite the harsh messages. This was primarily because they attributed their ‘supposed good performance’ to their boss’s capability and influence.

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Success should never come at a cost

The researchers warned about this abusive dynamic between the employees and the boss. There is overwhelming evidence against such practices, which negatively impact the employees and the organization. Promotion and career growth may seem like an ambitious justification to endure the abuse and remain motivated. But it comes at the cost of mental and physical well-being. Abuse is not the gateway to healthy career growth. Empowerment accelerates excellence, not humiliation. In the pursuit of chasing the spotlight, one may end up wandering in the dark


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