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Does fear provide a shield for bad bosses?

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Does fear provide a shield for bad bosses?

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Employee engagement is widely reported to be at rock bottom levels, and it’s equally widely reported that a bad boss is a major cause of this disengagement with our work.  The illusory superiority bias often prevents bosses from improving their behaviours because it shields them from the reality of their work.  Therefore it’s crucial that feedback is frequent and candid, and that feedback feeds up as well as down the organization.

Alas of course, it is often rare for employees to feel sufficiently comfortable to provide feedback to their boss, especially if that feedback is negative.  A new study has explored the kind of environment through which this fear often spreads.

The study, led by researchers from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology set out to explore the conditions that allow or encourage employees to speak up, or at least get their own back on their boss.  Of particular focus was the management style of the bosses in question.

Two conclusions emerged from the study.  Firstly, self-control was important, as when employees didn’t have high levels of self-control, they would snap at their boss much faster than their more controlled colleagues.

Secondly, and more interestingly, the fear of punishment was also a big factor.  When a lack of self-control was paired with a lack of fear towards any potential consequences, then it resulted in a combustible atmosphere.

Reporting on their findings in the Academy of Management Journal, the researchers say the findings show that abusive bosses operate with impunity when they motivate employees by inflicting punishments rather than parsing out rewards. In essence, employees are more likely to retaliate against a supervisor whom they don’t fear.

I’ve posted previously about the fundamental role conscientiousness plays in workplace success, and with self-control a core part of that character trait, this study provides further evidence to support that belief.  It also goes some way to reinforcing the point that motivation seldom works via punishments.

The sad thing is, it’s often those that are sufficiently angry to want to change things that come up with the best innovations. Or, “innovation comes from angry and driven people”, as Tom Peters more snappily said.

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