Study: Bullying bosses dominate their way to power

Meryl Streep playing bullying boss Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.

Story highlights

  • Study finds that intimidation can be effective strategy for acquiring power and influence
  • "Dominance" as effective as expertise as means to achieving social rank, says research
  • A person's influence not affected by how much others like them
  • But "too much dominance turns people off," warns leadership expert

If you want to reach the top at work, it's better to be feared than liked, according to a new study.

What's more, bullies are just as likely to achieve high social status as skilled, knowledgeable individuals, according to research carried out at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in Vancouver, Canada.

The two-part study looked at how "dominance" (which the researchers defined as the use of force and intimidation to induce fear) and "prestige" (the sharing of expertise or know-how to gain respect) can be used to achieve social rank and influence.

According to lead author Joey Cheng, a PhD candidate in UBC's department of psychology, the traditional view among social psychologists is that to be a leader you must contribute to the group, make sacrifices and demonstrate expertise. But, she says the reality is often very different.

"People's common experience doesn't match what researchers have assumed for centuries," she says. "When you talk to people and try to get a sense of what motivates them to do things in the workplace, people often say their boss is mean or pushy, or not particularly skilled, but they have to do what their boss asks of them or there will be consequences.

"We wanted to see if who you listen and defer to could also be a result of 'dominance' -- how much you are afraid of the person, how much they're able to intimidate you by virtue of their ability to decide over your fate, for example whether you get fired or whether you get promoted or not."

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In the first part of the study, 191 students in groups of four to six took part in a problem-solving exercise, while being videotaped. Participants then rated each other's influence and leadership, as well as their "dominance" and "prestige."

The researchers found that those rated more dominant and prestigious were also rated as more influential, and had more actual influence on the exercise.

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In the second part, another 59 subjects, wearing eye-tracking devices, watched short video clips of the problem-solving exercise. These subjects paid significantly more attention to individuals in the clips rated as more dominant or prestigious -- with the ability to command visual attention taken as an indication of influence.

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The research -- due to appear in the forthcoming Journal of Personality and Social Psychology -- also found that a person's influence was not affected by how much others liked them. Dominant individuals were, unsurprisingly, not well liked by others, but were still influential.

"It's not enough to be liked to make people listen to you," says Cheng. "You have to also be prestigious -- likable but also skilled at something -- or you can go the other direction and be dislikable and be pushy and scary enough that others will listen to you."

John Baldoni is president of executive coaching and leadership development firm Baldoni Consulting, and author of "The Leader's Pocket Guide." He says that competent, "prestigious-type" leaders often rise through the ranks in corporate environments and are likely to be groomed and developed as senior leaders due to their accomplishments.

"But this definition overlooks the human behavior dimension," he adds. "Competent people do not necessarily make good leaders; you need to want to be in charge and know what to do with your authority. You need the ability to connect to others so that people want to follow you."

He agrees that "dominance" can be important for leadership. "It is necessary to enjoy the challenge of being in charge, and of making your point of view known," he says.

But he adds: "Too much dominance turns people off; no one likes to follow an autocrat, and in an extreme sense it can be interpreted as bullying. But bullies are very often cowards and merely project a dominance they do not have."

Read also: Learn from Steve Jobs how to lead with purpose

Cheng points out that dominance and prestige aren't necessarily character traits, but strategies deployed in certain situations, and can be used by anyone -- with varying success.

She explains: "We all have the ability to do both (use dominance or prestige) but how able we are at using the strategies depends on who you are and who you're with."

While the research showed dominance to be as effective as prestige in brief group exercises, you might expect ability -- prestige -- to be a more effective long-term leadership strategy. But, Cheng says previous research she has carried out on university sports teams found that even in the long term, dominant individuals were rated just as highly as prestigious individuals in terms of leadership.

She says that her team is now researching whether it is better for a group's performance to have a dominant leader or a prestigious leader.

"Preliminary evidence suggests that groups with different types of leader do better at different types of tasks," says Cheng.

"For tasks that involve making decisions quickly, getting things done, it's better to have a dominant leader. For tasks that involve more creativity, more input from subordinate group members, prestigious groups do better, which makes intuitive sense."

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