Why Bad Bosses Sabotage Their Teams
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Leadership Organizations Careers Jan 5, 2015

Why Bad Boss­es Sab­o­tage Their Teams

Boss­es who crave pow­er but fear they might lose it can under­mine their teams’ productivity.

How to deal with a bad boss depends on the situation.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Jon Maner

Charleen R. Case

The dread­ed Bad Boss comes in many vari­eties. There are the incom­pe­tent ones, the lazy or defen­sive ones, the ones who claim your work as their own, or those who pre­fer to rule through intimidation.

Jon Man­er, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, has stud­ied a spe­cif­ic breed of bad boss — those who inten­tion­al­ly sab­o­tage their teams’ cohe­sion in order to pro­tect their own sta­tus as leader.

Maner’s research shows that lead­ers will inten­tion­al­ly side­line high-per­form­ing team mem­bers, lim­it com­mu­ni­ca­tion and social bond­ing among team mem­bers, or com­pile ill-matched teams if they think it will help ensure their own place at the top.

The dan­ger of this type of bad boss is significant.

It can cause the group to fall apart at a basic lev­el,” Man­er says. If you have peo­ple who don’t like each oth­er and aren’t allowed to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tive­ly with one anoth­er, then real­ly, you don’t have a group at all anymore.”

Man­er and col­lab­o­ra­tor Charleen Case, a doc­tor­al stu­dent at the Kel­logg School, found that lead­ers who were dri­ven by a desire for pow­er (or dom­i­nance moti­vat­ed) were more like­ly to under­mine a group’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion and cohe­sion than those who were moti­vat­ed by a desire for respect (or pres­tige moti­vat­ed). Those pow­er-hun­gry lead­ers were most inclined to behave this way when they were told that the pow­er hier­ar­chy in the group was unsta­ble and they may lose their posi­tion at the top. And they were most like­ly to under­mine group cohe­sion by iso­lat­ing the one high­ly skilled mem­ber of the group.

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The irony, of course, is that this behav­ior is being per­pe­trat­ed by the per­son who should be most invest­ed in and most skilled at get­ting his or her team to work togeth­er in order to be productive.

Beware the Threat­ened, Pow­er-Hun­gry Boss

Man­er and Case led under­grad­u­ate stu­dents in one study to believe that they would be lead­ing a group in per­form­ing a ver­bal task. The bet­ter the group scored, the more prizes it would win.

Par­tic­i­pants were told that one of their group mem­bers in par­tic­u­lar was very high­ly skilled at the task. Par­tic­i­pants were then assigned to one of three exper­i­men­tal con­di­tions. In the first, they were told that as the leader, they would be respon­si­ble for super­vis­ing the task and divid­ing the prizes among the group. In the sec­ond, they were told that they would super­vise the task and allot prizes, but also that the hier­ar­chy was mal­leable and some­one else could become leader. The third con­di­tion was an egal­i­tar­i­an con­trol group where there was no leader and all group mem­bers would share the prizes equally.

The researchers sought to answer two main ques­tions: Which lead­ers under what sce­nar­ios are most like­ly to sab­o­tage their groups’ com­mu­ni­ca­tion and cohe­sion — even know­ing that cohe­sion can improve a group’s per­for­mance? And will they be more like­ly to do so by iso­lat­ing the high­ly skilled group member?

They found that, as pre­dict­ed, par­tic­i­pants in the mal­leable hier­ar­chy who had pre­vi­ous­ly scored high­ly on a test assess­ing their desire for pow­er were the most like­ly sabo­teurs. And they were most like­ly to go after that one high­ly skilled group member.

It’s sur­pris­ing to me just how will­ing lead­ers are to real­ly under­mine group suc­cess in favor of their own power.”

In one exper­i­ment these lead­ers paired the high­ly skilled per­son with a work part­ner who the lead­ers knew would not like or get along well with his skilled col­league. In anoth­er exper­i­ment they made this indi­vid­ual work alone in a room, even after being told that work­ing close­ly with team­mates would improve performance.

It’s sur­pris­ing to me just how will­ing lead­ers are to real­ly under­mine group suc­cess in favor of their own pow­er,” Man­er says. These tal­ent­ed, high­ly skilled group mem­bers are in one of the best posi­tions to help the group suc­ceed. But rather than being seen as a valu­able ally, they’re instead seen as a threat by lead­ers who are afraid of los­ing their power.”

Cur­tail­ing These Bad Behav­iors at Work

These types of inter­ac­tions are more than just the­o­ret­i­cal; they hap­pen in offices every day. In fact, Maner’s research ini­tial­ly grew out of com­plaints from a friend about her boss’s bad behavior.

So how do orga­ni­za­tions, which want teams to func­tion as cohe­sive­ly as pos­si­ble, pre­vent this sort of sab­o­tage from above?

One key is mak­ing sure that lead­ers’ job secu­ri­ty is con­tin­gent upon the suc­cess of their group and ensur­ing those lead­ers know that they will be held account­able for their actions, Man­er says.

If lead­ers knew that their deci­sions were pub­lic and could have ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the sup­port they receive, I think that might under­cut some of this cor­rupt behav­ior,” Man­er says.

Orga­ni­za­tions could also insti­tu­tion­al­ize lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion among teams, which would make it hard­er for a bad boss to inter­fere with them, Man­er suggests.

The ques­tion of how to ensure that boss­es feel their pow­er is sta­ble is trick­i­er, since orga­ni­za­tions need to bal­ance cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment where boss­es feel secure with the abil­i­ty to change lead­ers when the sit­u­a­tion calls for it.

Man­er sug­gests hav­ing peri­ods of sta­bil­i­ty, per­haps two or three years, where boss­es know their jobs are secure, inter­spersed with times when lead­er­ship can change if war­rant­ed, kind of like the sys­tem of hav­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions every four years.

What might help lead­ers per­form at their best is know­ing that they’re not going to lose their job today or tomor­row, that they can real­ly fol­low through on what­ev­er vision it is they have and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out,” he says. But at least they’ve real­ly had a chance to put their vision into action.”

Find­ing the Best Leaders

There is also the ques­tion of find­ing lead­ers who are more inter­est­ed in receiv­ing pres­tige and respect than hav­ing pow­er. This is a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge since many peo­ple who desire pow­er tend to self-select into posi­tions of lead­er­ship, while pres­tige-moti­vat­ed work­ers may be hap­pi­er work­ing in less flashy positions.

A real trick for orga­ni­za­tions is to iden­ti­fy who those peo­ple are and raise them up into posi­tions of lead­er­ship, whether or not they ask for it, because they might not always be as inclined as pow­er-hun­gry peo­ple are to seek high-sta­tus posi­tions in their orga­ni­za­tion,” Man­er says.

But Man­er cau­tions against see­ing these pres­tige-moti­vat­ed lead­ers as a cure-all.“Our work has paint­ed a pret­ty mag­nan­i­mous por­trait of pres­tige-ori­ent­ed lead­ers,” Man­er says, but I think that’s prob­a­bly an oversimplification.”

In future research, he hopes to explore how pres­tige-moti­vat­ed lead­ers make deci­sions when forced to choose between what will make the group hap­py and what is best for the organization.

We have some pre­lim­i­nary evi­dence that they will under­mine the goals of the group if it means main­tain­ing pres­tige with­in the eyes of their sub­or­di­nates,” he says.

In the end, the goal of his research is to help orga­ni­za­tions func­tion smooth­ly and productively.

The ulti­mate goal here is to fig­ure out how to help groups per­form bet­ter,” he says. That means select­ing bet­ter lead­ers and bring­ing out the best in lead­ers. By under­stand­ing the motives that might dri­ve lead­ers to behave in ways that hurt their orga­ni­za­tion, we’re bet­ter armed to com­bat those behaviors.”

Featured Faculty

Jon Maner

Member of the department of management and operations from 2014-2017.

About the Writer

Emily Stone is the research editor at Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Case, Charleen R., Jon K. Maner. 2014. “Divide and Conquer: When and Why Leaders Undermine the Cohesive Fabric of Their Group”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 107: 1033-1050.

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