Why Do Bosses Become Bullies And Bully Their Best Performers?

A must read for employers is an article in the Harvard Business Review by Sherry Moss, a professor of organizational studies, entitled “Why Some Bosses Bully Their Best Employees,” which discusses workplace bullying, and why some bosses bully their star performers.

Citing her own research, she notes that abusive supervisors, who she refers to as “bully bosses,” are especially likely to pick on employees with low self-esteem who appear weak and vulnerable, who are negative or hostile, and especially those who are poor performers. “Poor performers are challenging to deal with and often cause frustration and angst for their supervisors.  As a result, they sometimes become victims of bullying.”

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She discusses the damage done to employees, the workplace and to productivity by bully bosses, and notes that “star performers are sometimes bullied by their bosses as well.”

She asks “what drives bosses to become bullies?”  And why pick on star performers?

Her answer is the key to the conundrum, and for that she refers to the Social Dominance Theory, which “postulates that some people have more of a tendency toward ‘social dominance orientation’ (SDO) than others.”

She says that:

“People with high SDO are more likely to have ‘a view of the world as a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of winners and losers.’ They’re attracted to institutions and professions that enhance and reinforce social hierarchies and will tend to discriminate against individuals from lower-status groups. As such, individuals high in SDO seek to reinforce inequality between groups in order to sustain their access to resources such as power, status, and wealth. Conversely, individuals with low SDO attach more importance to cooperation, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism.”

So why are star performers bullied?

This has the negative effect, among many other things, of “driving out top talent.”  Professor Moss’s explanation is that the bosses may be “high in social dominance orientation:”

“[H]igh performers represent a threat to supervisors who place a high value on their dominant position in the hierarchy. To such a boss, an up-and-coming subordinate who performs beyond expectations might replace them, supersede them, or garner some of the resources normally reserved for them, such as status, attention from higher-ups, or advancement opportunities.”

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So what can star performers do?

They can “signal their respect for rank,” share the spotlight, and “acknowledge[] both publicly and privately the instrumental role their boss played in their accomplishments.”

Will these suggestions work?  I don’t know, but somehow they do not sit well with me.

And what can other managers do?

I’ve revealed enough — I suggest that you read the article – it has many prescriptions and suggestions, most better than the ones directed at employees.




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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]