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Why some workers are happy to have an abusive boss

Defining sexual harassment

Can't figure out why your co-worker isn't bothered by an abusive boss -- and may even seem to be thriving? One clue, a recent study suggests, could be that "bad" employees have the same characteristics as "bad" bosses. Known as primary psychopaths, the underlings are able to brush off abusive managers and get ahead. Familiarity, it seems, does not breed contempt. 

The study, published last month in the Journal of Business Ethics, suggested that those who fit this description "do have access to greater psychological resources than their peers under abusive supervision." Still, the researchers wrote, abusive supervisors might empower employees who "hold strong potential to damage the organization and its stakeholders."

"If, as we have argued, individuals higher in primary psychopathy do not react negatively from an emotional standpoint to abusive supervision when others do, they may be among those most likely to remain in the organization, maintain their performance levels, and be promoted as a result," the researchers wrote.

Primary psychopaths tend to under-react emotionally, lack anxiety and be highly narcissistic, while secondary psychopaths tend to be reactive and tense. Those able stay detached may do better in an abusive atmosphere than everyone else, the study found.

The cost of being a mean boss

Primary psychopaths "don't react to negative signals that provoke other people's anger or fear," Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor of management at the University Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business and the study's lead researcher, said in an interview. "They have a really high tolerance for stress and for aggression toward them. They just don't react. And they don't have normal emotional reaction that would be helpful in an environment where you have someone who is behaving or who engages in behavior that usually invokes anger and fear." 

Researchers conducted two studies with about 400 working adults each, all in their mid-40s. In the first, participants were asked to react to profiles of managers drawn as constructive or abusive. In one group, those that tested as higher in primary psychopathy reported feeling happier imagining themselves working for abusive manager. 

A second group said they felt less angry and more engaged when rating how abusive their own supervisors were once they were asked about rudeness, gossip, taking credit for others' work invasion of privacy and breaking promises.  

"If they look at someone who's a supervisor who's abusive and they say 'oh look, if somebody like that can get ahead in this organization, that means I have a chance of getting ahead, too," Hurst said. "So instead of seeing abuses that are stressful and seeing somebody standing in their way that's going to hinder their progress and destroy them, they say 'yeah, the fact that this guy or this woman acts this way means I have potential here. They promote people like me.'"

Hurst said she became interested in patterns of psychopathic behavior in the workplace in the wake of the financial crisis. In recent years, the Wells Fargo scandal offers an example of an abusive culture that led to bad business practices, eventually.

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Still, the ability to stay calm and perform in the face of such abuse might be seen, in some circumstances, as a positive trait. 

"It's likely a double-edged sword, and perhaps psychopaths can be a net positive as long as there are institutional constraints to curb inclinations toward bad behavior," Hurst said. "On the other hand, organizations might be able to get the same benefits from people high in other personality traits, such as emotional stability, without the downsides."

How employee traits line up with business needs is important for organizations to analyze, Hurst said. That's "something that research like this helps to shed light on. However, we still have a ways to go in really understanding the effects of psychopathy in the workplace."