Study shows how people cope with ‘manager from hell’. Picture: energepic.com from Pexels
Study shows how people cope with ‘manager from hell’. Picture: energepic.com from Pexels

Study shows how people cope with ‘manager from hell’

By Alec Basson Time of article published Feb 25, 2020

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Having a manager from hell can turn many people’s dream job into a nightmare. 

To keep their wits about them in such a toxic environment, people develop various strategies to cope with destructive leadership styles.

“People use different coping strategies that vary in degree of effectiveness and range from healthy coping with positive outcomes to unhealthy coping with negative outcomes,” says Consulting Psychologist Dr Beatrix Brink, who obtained her doctorate in Psychology at Stellenbosch University recently. Her study explored subordinates’ direct experiences with destructive leadership behaviour in South African organisations and how they cope with such behaviour.

Brink interviewed employees, mostly women, in the manufacturing, retail, financial services, community services and public sector. She also asked them to complete the Psychological Capital Questionnaire which focuses on the individual’s ability to harness psychological resources such as hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism.

Brink says her study showed that in order to cope with the manager’s destructive leadership, participants tried, among others, to distance themselves from the situation by avoiding being in the presence of the manager while at work, or by resigning or pretending that everything was fine, or by “shutting off” emotionally.

“They also indulged in positive (for example exercising) and negative (for example overeating) ways of caring for themselves; tried to find solace in religion or spirituality; sought social and family support which included confiding in friends and family; resorted to professional services, such as seeing a psychologist and asking assistance from their organisation’s Human Resource, mentoring and wellness services; and attempted to re-direct their thinking by looking for anything positive they could take away from the experience.

“With varying degrees of success, they tried to stop the downward spiral of feeling overwhelmed and powerless. They did this by asserting themselves and seeking pathways to circumvent the effects of the manager’s destructive behaviour. They also tried to equip themselves with knowledge by seeking information on coping with destructive leader behaviour.”

Brink adds that the participants experienced self-doubt and questioned the skills and abilities they previously held in high regard.

“They became fearful and demotivated, experiencing emotions ranging from feeling stupid, tearful to anger. They became pre-occupied with the experience and struggled to concentrate. They stopped doing the things that gave them joy and some even started to mirror the manager’s negative behaviour in their personal relationships.”

Brink points out that for the participants, destructive leadership constituted, among others, a lack of integrity, self-centredness, emotionality and moodiness (acting out), inconsistency, aggression, anxiety, low self-awareness, the tendency to belittle and break-down participants, blaming and bullying, introducing negative competition into the work unit, being unsupportive of participants and sabotaging the ability of the participant to perform by lack of action-taking.

This type of behaviour also had consequences for fellow employees as well as the managers.

“‘Playing team members off against one another’ (a type of attempt at a divide and rule strategy), favouritism and the uncertainty of whose turn it might be next, were described as some of the impacts on other team members. Participants acknowledged feeling relief when it was not ‘their turn’ to be targeted, even though they knew that the relief was only temporarily.

“Participants described how these managers’ own careers were derailed by their roles being eroded, being demoted, ‘let go’ from employment or experiencing psychological and emotional consequences, resulting in time off work, rumoured to be from depression and nervous breakdown. These adverse effects resulted in reputational damage for the destructive leader.

“The manager’s perceived disruptive, passive, avoidant and obstructionist behaviour prevented the authorisation of tasks and decision-making, which impeded the swift and effective execution of tasks and the attainment of goals,” adds Brink.

As to what recourse employees can take when confronted with such a manager, she says it is important to proceed with caution and to carefully consider the most prudent channels in seeking a solution to a destructive relationship.

She adds that managers, subordinates and organisations are likely to benefit when organisations create environments where people can, without fear, have candid conversations about destructive leadership and the negative impact thereof.

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