The Bad Boss: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression

The Bad Boss: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression

Who conducted the study?

This study was conducted by Nathanael J. Fast (Department of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California) and Serena Chen (Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley).

What did they find?

Four studies demonstrated that power holders become aggressive when they sense a lack of self-perceived competence. They found that aggression seems to be driven by an internal state of ego defensiveness.

Study 1

They found that high self-perceived incompetence was associated with aggression among high-power participants, but not among low-power participants. Moreover, they found that power was associated with aggression among participants with high self-perceived incompetence, but not associated with low self-perceived incompetence.

Study 2

They found interactions between power and self-perceived competence. Those in the high power condition whom were primed with incompetence were more aggressive than those primed with competence. Those in the low competence condition who had high power were also more aggressive than no power participants.

 Study 3

They found a negative correlation between self-perceived competence and aggression. There was a reduction in aggression among powerful participants with low self-perceived competence, receiving a self-worth boost via positive feedback.

Study 4

Aggression scores had an interaction effect with power, competence, and affirmation. Self- perceived incompetence increased aggression among high-power participants. The incompetence prime decreased aggression among low power participants.

How did they find these results?

They tested their hypotheses in a total of four studies, using multiple measures and manipulations of power perceived incompetence, and aggression to test two of their predictions: a) power paired with self-perceived incompetence leads to aggression, and b) boosts in self-worth eliminate the tendency of power holders who perceive themselves as incompetent to aggress, by reducing the ego threat brought on by the pairing of power and self-perceived incompetence.

Study 1

They gathered a sample of working adults and completed measures of work based power, self-perceived competence, and generalized aggression.

 Study 2

They examined whether people’s responses to a primed power role differed as a function of their perceived competence within that role. Participants were primed with high/no power or high/low competence. If they were in a high power condition, they were asked to write about a time they were in a high power role. If they were in a no power condition, they were asked to write about the previous day’s activities.

The same rules applied to the high and low competence conditions, except for the low competence condition in which they were asked to write about a time (whether in a high-power role or during the previous day) in which they felt incompetent. To measure aggression, they asked participants to select noise levels for 10 trials of a future study on learning.

 Study 3

They collected a sample of university students who were to act as the role of a powerful teacher. The students were first asked to rate their self-competence and then were either affirmed with positive feedback such as “excellent leadership aptitude” or non-affirming feedback such as “average leadership aptitude”. They were then asked to choose tasks for their students that could either help or harm their chances of winning money to measure their level of aggressiveness.

 Study 4

They first measured the participants’ power at work by asking them to indicate their formal authority. They then were asked to write about a time when they were/were not able to meet a demand related to their jobs. Next, they were asked to affirm their self-worth. They finally measured the participants’ aggression using measures of Study 1.

Why are these findings important?

These findings offer further support for the idea that power paired with incompetence leads to aggression. This seems to be due to the consequence of feeling incompetent in a high power role. These findings thus highlight the importance of perceiving personal competence when holding a position of power.

Where can these results be applied?

These results are particularly important for hierarchical organizations. Organizational structures with small spans of control, wherein there are many levels. There has been a wave of research on abusive supervision such as the “Trickle Down Effect” where lower levels of power are effected by upper levels power. For example, if supervisors see their managers engage in abusive supervision, they may also adopt these behaviors and employ them to their own employees. Thus, abusive manager behavior may encourage anti-social behavior towards employees of a lower level. The combination of social hierarchy and abusive supervision has enormously detrimental health implications. The Whitehall Studies, for instance, found that the rise of blood pressure was positively associated with job stress. Both social hierarchy and abusive supervision negatively influence individuals in an organization and thus the organization itself.

In study 2 in the current article, the researchers showed that those in the high power condition whom were primed with incompetence were more aggressive. However, priming had no effect on those in the low power condition.

Similarly, in study 3, participants were primed with a bogus leadership aptitude test. Those who were told their leadership aptitude was high (suggesting high self-perceived competence) were less likely to exhibit aggression toward subordinates. However those who perceived themselves as incompetent were more likely to sabotage their subordinate success. And they replicated findings in Study 4.

Organizational hierarchy can be utilized as a means of organizational effectiveness, however there is a potential for abuse and ill-being. Incompetent managers, as it turns out, are more than just a threat to performance.

Fast, N. J., & Chen, S. (2009). When the boss feels inadequate: Power, incompetence, and aggression. Psychological Science, 20(11), 1406-1413.

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