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

Virtual team coaching can help turn around dysfunctional teams

How I Taught the ‘Team from Hell’ to Trust Each Other

Effective organisations rely on teamwork, not least because it facilitates problem solving. Many leaders, however, are ambivalent about teams. They fear overt and covert conflict, uneven participation, tunnel vision, lack of accountability and indifference to the interests of the organisation as a whole. Also, more than a few have no idea how to put together well functioning teams. Their fear of delegating – losing control – reinforces the stereotype of the heroic leader who handles it all.

Published on 26 Aug, 2020

Recognising the Red Flags of Workplace Mental Health

Recognising the Red Flags of Workplace Mental Health

Organisations have a responsibility towards their staff.

Published on 1 Oct, 2020

"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

Leadership Begins at Home

Published on 27 Apr, 2012

What Defines Success in the C-Suite?

Published on 24 Sep, 2010

The Art of Forgiveness

Published on 7 Jul, 2013

Good leadership requires self-aware and vulnerable leaders

Why the World Needs Self-Reflective Leaders

The coronavirus crisis facilitates the rise of autocratic and narcissistic leaders just when we least need them.

 




When asked what the post-Covid world might look like, French author Michel Houellebecq said, “The same – only worse.” While the quip is funny on the surface, there is indeed reason for all of us to wonder where the world is headed.

 

 




Published on 29 Jul, 2020

Five key lessons for entrepreneurs and leadership

5 Lessons for Impactful Leadership

As an organisation, the Virgin Group has been of great interest to the public and business experts worldwide, especially given Richard Branson’s creative leadership style in running and growing the enterprise. We dive into Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries and Robert Dick’s case titled, “Branson’s Virgin: The Coming of Age of a Counter-Cultural Enterprise,” and explore five key lessons for entrepreneurs and leadership.

 

 

Published on 28 Jul, 2020

"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

Putting Leaders on the Couch

Published on 26 Mar, 2008