If this happened to you during childhood, you enjoy working for a toxic boss

If you’ve never reported to a domineering dictator-like manager or boss, consider yourself lucky. For the rest of us, the stereotype of the patronizing, entitled Bill Lumbergh-Esque office manager is all too real. Puzzlingly, tyrannical managers, bosses, and leaders always seem to have their fair share of supporters and sycophants. 

Why in the world would anyone enjoy working for a boss who treats his or her employees like pawns on a chessboard? A new study from San Francisco State University set out to explore this conundrum and came to an unexpected conclusion.

Researchers discovered a connection between an individual’s family dynamics and home environment growing up and their preference in leaders as an adult. More specifically, they found that children who are raised with a high level of conflict at home often grow up to be drawn toward leaders with “socially undesirable traits.”

“We see it all the time — where the obnoxious leader rises to the top, but we don’t know much about why,” says San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Management Dayna Herbert Walker in a release. “Tyrants, whether they be in the boardroom or in politics, wouldn’t have the power they do if followers didn’t support them. We often look to leaders to explain leadership, but we should also be looking to followers.”

Data from the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, a long-term project that tracked 130 individuals throughout their lives, was used for this research. To start, the research team examined data collected on participants in 1996, when they were all around 17 years old. At that time, subjects were asked how often yelling, physical violence or criticism occurred in their home.

Then, 20 years later in 2016 those same adults were contacted once again and asked about the ideal qualities they look for in a leader. Each person was given a list of 10 qualities considered by researchers to be tyrannical (pushy, manipulative, conceited, obnoxious, selfish, demanding, loud, power-hungry, dominant, and domineering), and asked if they would like to see those traits in an ideal leader.

“It’s critical that we asked about ideal leadership and not just leadership in general,” Herbert Walker adds, “because we really wanted to get at a person’s favored leadership image, the characteristics they ideally want to see in their leaders.”

Once this study’s authors compared participants’ responses in 1996 to their leadership preferences in 2016, a “strong positive connection” was noted between growing up with lots of conflict at home and preferring a leader with toxic traits. Even after accounting for personality and gender, the research team says an individual who grew up in a high conflict environment is 20% more likely to support tyrannical leadership.

Where is this connection coming from? Professor Herbert Walker theorizes that dysfunctional, high conflict homes often include tyrannical parenting techniques. So, children raised in these environments may become accustomed to such behavior.

These findings are quite relevant for followers, but Professor Herbert Walker also says her work could prove useful for the offending bosses themselves. Overbearing managers may be acting in a tyrannical manner because of events from their past as well. 

“The first step is getting them to question their assumptions about why they do what they do,” she concludes. “Maybe they’ll realize that they believe this, because that’s how their dad behaved and he was successful in business. And so they believe that’s how they’re supposed to act.”

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.