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One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.
(Photo: Craig Wactor/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Craig Wactor/Shutterstock)

Imagine this email from your boss: “From what I’ve observed, your ideas have been pretty lousy and have little potential to be successful. I question the value you add to this team and your ability to deliver high quality work—don’t bring the team down, okay?”

If you actually receive notes this mean at work, your commitment to your employer is probably as low as the effort you’re willing to put into your job. You might feel distressed and depressed, or go out of your way to be counter-productive. You’re certainly likely to leave.

Researchers have spent years tallying the personal and professional damages that jerk bosses can inflict on individual employees. What they haven’t explored in any depth, however, according to Crystal Farh, a management professor at Michigan State University, is how these damages reverberate through a workplace. Can picking on a single person make office life worse for an entire team?

"Employers and team leaders need to realize the full extent of their abusive actions for employees in teams and that the toxicity of abuse spreads beyond the individual being targeted."

To tackle this question, Farh and Zhijun Chen, a management professor at the University of Australia, developed two question-based studies to measure boss and co-worker dynamics, one across businesses in China and one in a lab at Michigan. The first study surveyed 295 Chinese workers on 51 teams (defined as “members reporting to the same team leader and work[ing] independently to achieve shared goals”), asking both workers and leaders to agree or disagree to statements about work relationships and conflicts on a seven-point scale (e.g. “In this team, I can make a difference,” “My supervisor blames me to save himself/herself from embarrassment,” etc.).

The second study assigned 276 undergraduates to hypothetical task forces and measured their responses to different types of email exchanges with their imaginary co-workers and team leader. Some were encouraging. Others, like the one at the beginning of this article, weren’t.

For each data set, Farh and Chen ran a series of regressions, making sure to control for a host of variables like team size, power structure, and sense of collectivism in the first survey. The results, which were recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, were clear: Being a jerk even to one person brings down the entire group. An abusive boss-worker relationship reduced everyone’s contributions and cooperation, and made them more willing to quit.

“Employers and team leaders need to realize the full extent of their abusive actions for employees in teams and that the toxicity of abuse spreads beyond the individual being targeted,” Farh says in an email. “Realizing this makes it a lot harder to justify the use of abuse for strategic purposes.”

While it’s not easy to map the array of interactions that amount to a dysfunctional workplace, Farh hopes the study's comprehensive approach—what she calls an “integrative, multilevel framework”—will help future research on interdependent group work, as well as point toward the best way of combating bully bosses.

“Now that we have a fuller understanding of what the consequences are, we can focus on finding options for resilience for both individuals and teams,” she says.