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Leadership

Why do abusive bosses act nice after being mean

One day your boss is berating you in public, and the next day they are buttering you up. What gives? Their mercurial personality changes now have a name – “moral cleansing,” a theory that Michigan State University researchers named for why jerk bosses change their tune after being abusive.

In their study published in Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers found that some abusive bosses recognize their immoral bad behavior and use moral cleansing as a way to make up for it.

“Moral cleansing” spurs guilty bad bosses to change for better

Some terrible bosses are always going to be oblivious to their bad habits. But some can be guilted into becoming better humans. The researchers documented the latter case by collecting evaluations from abusive bosses and their employees who bore the brunt of it.

“Perpetrating abusive supervisor behavior led to an increase in experienced guilt and perceived loss of moral credits, which in turn motivated leaders to engage in more constructive … leadership behavior,” the study states.

Turns out, when you know you’re acting badly, your soul may squirm, and you’ll be inspired to do good deeds to make up for it.


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“People often act as though they have a moral ledger or bank account, such that doing good deeds adds credit whereas bad deeds withdraw credit. When there is a shortfall of credits, they are motivated to engage in good deeds to restore a balance,” Russell Johnson, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Abusive behavior weakens leaders’ moral credit. To try to compensate for their wrongdoings, they show behavior to make reparations and amends toward abused staff.”

For employees suffering under domineering managers, this study gives hope that your jerk boss can change. Bosses who engage in “moral cleansing” are eager to make amends by showing thoughtful consideration to employees and going the extra mile of giving fair feedback and support to them. For some employees, this may not be enough to make up for the hurt.

Studies have found that incivility can irreparably break employee-manager relationships. Jerk bosses start losing the trust, support, and productivity of employees once they cross the line, and start acting out.

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