7 Questions on Bully Bosses

Sherry Moss
Summer 2016

How can you spot a bully boss?

Bully bosses use various forms of non-physical aggression with their employees, such as ridiculing them, putting them down in front of others, blaming them, lying, accusing them of incompetence, and not giving them credit for their work. These actions can cause a whole set of negative consequences for employees, including psychological distress, job dissatisfaction, and emotional turmoil.


Why do they bully?

The bully boss may be stressed, possibly receiving pressure from his or her own bosses. The bully boss may also be experiencing conflict with coworkers, or have a history of family abuse and have little ability to manage their emotions.

Story continues below:

In your past research with Ben Tepper and Michelle Duffy, you found that poor performers are especially likely to be bullied by their supervisors. Does that still hold true?

Yes, it is still the case that poor performers are more likely to be bullied by their bosses. However, my recent research with Abdul Karim Kahn, Samina Qurtatulain, and Imran Hameed suggests that sometimes, the best performers are bullied as well. One would think that a manager’s star performers would be immune from bullying. After all, supervisors should want to protect and enable their star performers, giving them every opportunity to continue to excel; however, superior performers who have bosses high in Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) may also experience bullying.


How does social dominance factor in?

Social Dominance Orientation is thought to be a basic ruthlessness and a view of the world as a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of winners and losers. Individuals with high SDO are more likely to be attracted to institutions and professions that enhance and reinforce social hierarchies, and will seek to reinforce inequality between groups in order to sustain their access to power, status, wealth, and other resources. Conversely, individuals with low SDO attach importance to cooperation, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism.


So a supervisor with a high SDO feels threatened by high performers?

Yes, because to that supervisor, a subordinate who performs beyond expectations is likely to either replace the supervisor, or to garner some of the resources normally reserved for the supervisor – status, attention from higher-ups, advancement opportunities, etc. The boss will bully the high performer to put them in their place and restore hierarchical order. In the process, the bully boss is likely to drive out top talent, which is ultimately a threat to the future and well-being of the organization.


What can an employee do to avoid being bullied by the boss?

High performers can try appealing to their supervisor’s superior hierarchical status to signal respect for their rank. This might be done by acknowledging both publically and privately the instrumental role their boss played in their accomplishments. They might also share with their supervisor any additional resources they enjoy as a result of their performance. These actions may reduce the level of threat experienced by the high SDO supervisor.


What responsibility do organizations have to bullied employees?

Organizations may consider adding in a pre-employment screening for high SDO as part of the hiring process for supervisors. Organizations can also create cultures where social dominance is discouraged by incentivizing supervisors to protect, support, and promote high performers, rather than undermining them. Supervisor evaluation processes should acknowledge the value of developing and elevating top talent.

Finally, because hierarchy and status are extremely important to high SDO individuals, explicit messaging about the careful treatment of top performers from higher status managers may be key to removing the temptation for high SDO supervisors to bully their best employees.




Sherry Moss is professor of organizational studies at the School of Business. Her research interests include abusive supervision, meaningful work, multiple job holdings, and feedback dynamics.