Blogs

The Bad Influence of Aggressive Bosses (2017)

Manfred Kets de Vries

“The most complete revenge is not to imitate the aggressor.”

Derek, a senior VP in an engineering firm, had a legendary temper and no qualms about publicly castigating anyone who got in his way. He was an insufferable micro-manager and his habit of taking credit for other people’s work created great resentment. Given his leadership style, his subordinates were perpetually on edge, always wondering when it would be their turn to be his target. His toxic behaviour was so pervasive that his actions impacted the morale in the company.

 

To make matters worse, Derek’s leadership style had led to copycat behaviour, with some of his key lieutenants mimicking his abusiveness. Like Derek, they had developed a knack for terrorising their juniors.

 

Mirroring as an evolutionary defence mechanism

 

By identifying with their aggressor, Derek’s colleagues were exhibiting a psychological behaviour typical of people who find themselves in a weak position. Mirroring a person who represents a threat allows people to deal with painful and extremely stressful experiences. It gives them a way to conquer their fears by becoming like that person. 

 

“Identification with the aggressor” as a psychological defence mechanism was first introduced in the context of child development by two psychoanalysts: Sándor Ferenczi and Anna Freud. Ferenczi found evidence that children who are terrified by out-of-control adults will “subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor”. Freud noted that by impersonating the aggressor, “the child transforms himself from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat”.

 

In its mildest form, identification with the aggressor can be seen as a healthy defence mechanism, allowing people to adjust to situations perceived as threatening. However, as illustrated in the opening example, chronic identification with the aggressor can lead victims to become aggressors themselves. What’s even more troublesome is that, over time, people who identify with their aggressor may lose their sense of self and become hyper-attentive to people who intimidate them. They quickly put their own thoughts, feelings, perceptions and judgements aside, and instead, do—and more importantly think and feel—as they are expected to.

 

Breaking the pattern

 

How can we resist this dysfunctional behaviour process? The first step in breaking a victimisation pattern is recognising that we have fallen into the trap of identifying with the aggressor. It is usually others who make us see the light. When we are defending or rationalising the actions of someone who is mistreating us, it takes people who know us well to call us out.

 

The question then is, how do we digest the feedback given to us? Are we ready to face the unpleasant truth that we have become the aggressor? Freeing oneself from an identification bond isn’t easy. People prone to identifying with an aggressor may, due to shame and guilt reactions, resort to denial.

 

Unfortunately, lengthy exposure to an intimidating boss can affect someone’s personality, to the extent that behavioural changes endure outside the intimidating person’s orbit. If that’s the case, extensive coaching or therapy can play an important role and help us understand that there are complex psychological dynamics at play and that mirroring behaviour derives from a basic human survival strategy. Only through recognising the source of these dynamics will we be able to exert control.

 

Going back to Derek’s example, was it inevitable that his lieutenants would come to mirror him? Could there have been other, more productive ways of dealing with such an intimidating boss?

 

Fighting back

 

One way to build up “immunity” against people like Derek is to band together and create a support group. Instead of individuals coping in isolation, a support group can provide strength and reassurance, as well as a reality check that can help prevent members from identifying with the aggressor. Another proactive measure could be to build up a political network inside the organisation with the ultimate purpose of getting rid of the toxic boss.

 

It’s important to let other people in the organisation know about the destructive consequences of Derek’s leadership style. The expectation is that, if enough people realise the human and financial costs of his behaviour, senior leaders will take notice and be forced into accountability. It may be wise to document specific incidents of abuse to build a case (if necessary) for potential legal proceedings.

 

In sum, we should remind ourselves that in the worst-case scenario, it’s always possible to walk away. And whatever we do, we should always keep in mind Marcus Aurelius’s remark: “The most complete revenge is not to imitate the aggressor.”

 

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2017.

 

INSEAD Knowledge, September 27, 2017
https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/the-bad-influence-of-aggressive-bosses-7281

 

INSEAD Knowledge, 2017

Read more

Add Comment

Go back


Related content

"A lot of leadership skills are learned at home"

Leadership Begins at Home

Published on 27 Apr, 2012

"How to manage brilliant but tumultuous leaders"

Managing Thrill Seekers

Thrill-seeking employees' addiction to risk can create havoc in the workplace. Managed correctly, their fearlessness can be a great advantage to any organisation.

Published on 7 Jul, 2016

"Can forgiveness make us a better leader?"

The Art of Forgiveness

Published on 7 Jul, 2013

"What does success in the C-suite look like?"

What Defines Success in the C-Suite?

Published on 24 Sep, 2010

"Looking at the emotional sides of leaders"

Putting Leaders on the Couch

Published on 26 Mar, 2008

"Managing the passive- aggressive leader"

Helping the Passive-Aggressive Executive

This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review discusses challenge of managing passive-aggressives.

Published on 20 Feb, 2014

"How to identify and manage star performers?"

Star Performers

Published on 3 Oct, 2012

"What makes wisdom more important than success and riches is that it enables us to live well"

Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught

The day after becoming the CEO of a company facing turbulent times, David had a dream. In it, while walking on a beach he discovered a bottle. On opening, a genie appeared offering him a wish in exchange for her freedom. Eschewing riches, fame or a long life, David chose the gift of wisdom.

 

In today’s hyperactive digital age, attaining wisdom is a challenge. With tablets and phones and their apps constantly vying for our immediate attention, it is increasingly difficult to find the time and mental space for making meaningful connections or engaging in the deep conversations, reflection, emotional awareness and compassion, necessary in the pursuit of wisdom.

Published on 4 Jul, 2017

"In search of introspection and reflection"

The Importance of Doing Nothing

This blog entry explores how slacking off and setting aside regular periods of ‘doing nothing’ may be the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.

Published on 23 Jun, 2014

"Insatiable desire for more can be destructive"

Seven Signs of The Greed Syndrome


It is said that without greed we would still be living in caves but, left unchecked, the insatiable desire for more and better material things can be destructive.

Published on 8 Apr, 2016