Caricatures of bosses, both horrible and heaven-sent, are a familiar on-screen presence. There’s the tyrannical top-dog who delights in subordination, the smarmy bro-boss who plays nice but steals credit, the bumbling Michael Scott-esque manager who pathetically vies for Office approval. And we can’t forget “the generally ethical boss who inexplicably acts like a real prick on a semi-regular basis.” Okay, that’s not a trope yet, but it should be, according to a recent study on the phenomenon of the sweet-and-sour supervisor.
In the paper, published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Michigan State University researchers present a counterintuitive argument: By going out of their way to be fair and thoughtful, ethical bosses actually become more likely to follow up scrupulous behavior with displays of assholery. And, to avoid falling into this good-today-jerk-tomorrow pattern, the study says, higher-ups should take more breaks.
Workplace psychologists spend a lot of time exploring the impact of ethical leadership on employees. But, according to the Michigan State team, we should be more invested in the impact of moral boss behavior on the team-leaders themselves. Because bosses aren’t as uniformly “good” or “bad” as we might believe. More likely, they alternate praiseworthy and prickish tendencies, and the dissimilar management styles actually reinforce each other.
Why? Well, study authors floated two explanations. First, being a good boss is draining. At some point, the patient team leader runs out of steam and self-control, and morphs into a snippy jerk. Researchers also point to the concept of moral licensing: When we do good deeds, we feel as though we “earn” some license to slack off in the morality department. Basically, managers build up “world’s best boss” credit until they’ve culled enough favor to unleash some abuse.
To see how their hypotheses measured up, researchers recruited bosses and boss-employee pairs to participate in two studies. Mental depletion, the results suggested, plays a stronger role than moral licensing in good bosses breaking bad.
The first study involved 172 participants, recruited online, who worked above two or more subordinate employees and worked in industries including retail, education, manufacturing and healthcare. Participants, who skewed white, male and late 30s, took personality tests and filled out surveys about how they felt (in terms of mental depletion and moral “credit”) and acted towards their employees at different points throughout the workweek. For how they felt, participants assessed statements including, “Generally speaking, I feel like my willpower is gone” and “I earned credit for performing a morally laudable behavior.”
Participants also rated the frequency with which they engaged in ethical and abusive behavior. Descriptions of ethical behavior included “I discussed business ethics or values with an employee,” whereas examples of abusive behavior included “I ridiculed an employee,” “I gave an employee the silent treatment” and “I put an employee down in front of others.”
In the second study, researchers surveyed 127 boss-employee pairs throughout the workweek. As with the first study, managers assessed their own personalities, mental depletion and feelings of moral credit. But, employees also assessed their bosses’ demonstration of ethical and abusive behavior.
Across both, researchers found a pattern of bosses following ethical behavior with abusive behavior. “The interplay between ethical and abusive leader behaviors is more nuanced when a short-term, day-to-day perspective is adopted...it may not be accurate to categorize individual leaders as ethical or abusive.”
While they found evidence that both mental depletion and moral licensing contributed to bosses engaging in abusive behavior, they surmised that depletion is a more pervasive problem. Additionally, a company has more tools to help supervisors avoid burnout.
“One way to buffer leaders from depletion is to offer opportunities for them to periodically disengage psychologically during the work day in order to replenish their regulatory resources," study authors wrote.
In other words? Bosses need to take breaks. Researchers also recommend a more curious remedy: “Other interventions are helpful for mitigating depletion,” they write, including “incentivizing leaders to enact ethical leader behaviors throughout bonuses and higher performance evaluations.”
This study, however, doesn’t address the opposite behavior pattern: Are bosses more likely to act ethically after they act like jerks, out of guilt or shame? Probably, researchers conclude, but say they can’t be sure without further research.
In the end, don’t be suspicious of the boss who kicks off the work-week on a moral high note. Just call in sick on Tuesday. Or make sure your boss gets a break.