This type of behavior is a dead giveaway you have a toxic boss

We’ve all had to deal with a particularly difficult or harsh manager at some point. No matter what you say it’s the wrong answer, and even moments of great success come and go with no words of congratulation or support to be found. In more extreme scenarios abusive or toxic managers have been known to berate and belittle their employees and or commit egregious violations of privacy.

A new study from the University of Wyoming investigated how so many awful bosses can retain their positions of power despite such abusive tactics toward employees.

The research team, led by Shawn McClean, an assistant professor in UW’s College of Business, found that many toxic bosses put on a false display of affection or warmness following an especially intense abusive episode.

For example, imagine on Monday the manager at your office publicly reprimands a member of the accounting team over a small numerical error. The manager is in rare form, and really insults the accountant’s intelligence, and in a public setting to boot.

Come Tuesday afternoon, though, you and the rest of the office take note when the manager approaches that very same accountant and compliments their hard work and attention to detail in an uncharacteristically friendly tone. 

According to these findings, that manager didn’t go out of his or her way to be nice to that accountant because they truly felt bad about their actions, but as a self-protective strategy to repair their social image in the office among everyone else.

In most cases, these short bursts of kindness following an abusive episode are not a sign of legitimate behavioral changes. In the researchers’ own words, toxic bosses “fake nice” instead of “making nice.”

“Our study shows that supervisors are often driven by simply repairing their social image rather than making genuine amends and changing their behavior,” McClean says in a release. “As a result, employees may seemingly forgive abusive supervisors who try to ‘fake nice’ after abusive behavior, thus reinforcing the cycle of abuse.”

A collection of 79 managers and bosses working in a variety of fields (retail, health care, consulting) volunteered to take part in this research. Study authors collected information on how each one of those bosses behaved in the days following a work situation in which they insulted one or more of their employees’ intelligence, violated workers’ privacy, or made negative comments about one worker to others.

An analysis of those scenarios revealed a prevailing trend among most studied bosses. Common sense and decency dictate that when we’re unjustly mean or abusive toward another person an apology is in order. However, most bosses failed to even attempt to apologize to their employees or address and repair the damage they had done.

Instead, the vast majority of supervisors appear to only be concerned with building back up their public image among the entire office. For instance, after a harsh moment with one employee, many bosses started performing “small favors” for various members of the office in an attempt to cultivate a more positive reputation. Similarly, other bosses opt to highlight their successes or strong work ethic following an abusive outburst, seemingly as an attempt to emphasize why they were made boss in the first place.

“Consequently, even though abusive bosses may appear on the surface to be considerate to their victims following one of their abusive episodes, the bosses in our study reported behavior that was instead a superficial attempt at impression management,” researchers write. “As a result, toxic bosses were not likely to change their ways, mainly because their focus was on covering up their bad behavior through manipulative ingratiation and self-promotion behaviors, not on actually changing their toxic behaviors.”

What can be done to discourage and put a stop to these manipulative and selfish tendencies? Researchers say those even higher on the organizational totem pole must follow a strict no-tolerance policy when it comes to abuses of power. In light of these findings, they say it isn’t enough to simply believe managers when they say they’ll change their ways moving forward. 

“That said, a boss’s behavior can never be fully regulated by organizational policy; in the end, whether a boss fails to exhibit common decency and civil behavior to his employees is ultimately up to them,” study authors conclude. “Sincere apologies and reconciliations on the part of the offending boss are the only sustainable way of regaining credibility and moving forward from a lapse in civil behavior.”

Leading and being responsible for an entire group of people isn’t easy, but that’s no excuse for any manager to make a subordinate feel subhuman. As Uncle Ben would say, with great power comes great responsibility. These findings suggest far too many managers are focusing solely on the power and neglecting their responsibility to their employees.

The full study can be found here, published in Personnel Psychology. This research was also recently featured in the Harvard Business Review.