How Having a Bad Boss Can Make You a Better Leader

Boss standing over two employees and yelling at them

In their recent study “Breaking the cycle of abusive supervision: How disidentification and moral identity help the trickle-down change course” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers from the University of Central Florida found that victims of bad or abusive bosses more often than not end up becoming better leaders than their toxic influences.

The study found that many employees who suffered from workplace abuse by aggressive or ineffective leaders were so affected by the negative relationship that they resolve to treat their own teams with much more care, respect, and integrity. Not all employees, the researchers noticed, who worked under poor leadership ended up excelling as leaders themselves, but those employees who had a strong sense of morals and integrity were found to be more apt to defy their manager’s abusive example and break the cycle of abuse in their own professional lives.

These employees often became better leaders, because of the bad examples they were given earlier in their careers and the conscious choices they made to chart a different course.

As one of the study’s authors, Shannon G. Taylor, put it, “The lesson here isn’t to hire more abusive managers, of course, but to try to encourage people who have been abused, among other things, to say, “Look, I’m not like my boss” and that “You can take a stand – not just by reporting bad behavior, but by actively rejecting this abusive leadership style.”

Here are some things you should do if you think you might be in an abusive relationship with your boss:

Educate yourself

Consult the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute website and learn as much as you can about the laws, health impacts, checklists, resources, coping techniques, and warning signs around workplace abuse and bullying.

Don’t remain silent

Whether you confront your boss about his or her behavior in an effort to change the dynamic or you go straight to your company’s HR department or more senior leadership, the last thing you should do if you are working under a toxic or abusive person is to suffer in silence, hoping things will somehow change.

Don’t internalize the abuse

Abusers often try to manipulate their victims into thinking they somehow deserve the poor treatment because of their own flaws or mistakes. Don’t let an abusive boss lead you to think it’s all your fault or that you are the one to blame for their bad behavior.

Write everything down

Document instances of abuse with as much detail as possible, including the date, time, place, and what happened. Keep any supporting documents such as emails or messages that corroborate your experiences. You may be asked to provide this to your HR department once your boss is held accountable.

Consider the scope of the problem

Does your abusive boss seem to single you out, or is he/she a bad actor for most of the staff? It’s no less of a serious issue if you’re the only one on the receiving end of the abuse (and this certainly shouldn’t stop you from reporting the bad behavior nor should it lead you to question your own judgment), but HR may be more likely to take swift action if multiple people have either witnessed or been on the receiving end of the abuse.

Find a new job

Bad bosses can create highly toxic work environments, and if you don’t see that changing any time soon or any kind of checks and balances in the horizon, it’s probably time to start searching for a healthier workplace where you can feel more relaxed, supported, and appreciated.

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