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Mean management – miserable mood

How do ‘mean’ managers actually feel? Do they enjoy their subordinates’ discomfort or are they secretly suffering themselves? Conversely, are nice managers relaxed people or are they perhaps not quite so satisfied? Scientists now have answers to these questions.

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Professor Claudia Buengeler from the Institute of Business at Kiel University explained: “There are all kinds of studies on the relationship between management behaviour and how subordinates feel. Yet there is significantly less, and less systematic, knowledge available on how management style affects the manager themselves.”

In a team consisting of psychologists Antonia Kaluza, Diana Boer and Rolf van Dick, the economist dug deeper into the subject in a meta-analysis that enables some key conclusions to be drawn. “There is a clear connection between how managers lead and how they feel,” said Professor Buengeler, stating perhaps the most important finding.

How can management behaviour even be categorized? From the subordinates’ view it can be seen as either constructive or destructive, although the world of science draws finer distinctions. The most pleasant style is relationship oriented. The boss is focused on every individual in the team, acts in a friendly and open manner, often expresses recognition and appreciation. Many employees also cope well with task-oriented managers who define clear goals and ways to achieve them. They are constantly focused on the goal but place less value on the human side of things. “Change-oriented management behaviour is inspiring, motivating and intellectually stimulating,” said the economist from Kiel of another variant. Ideally, this leads to a strong team spirit while still paying attention to the individual.

Destructive management also means less management success, less positive feedback and more negative experiences in the workplace, which can of course take its toll on a manager.

Claudia Buengeler

However, strongly charismatic, visionary types like Apple icon, Steve Jobs, or Tesla founder, Elon Musk, can show destructive sides, too, by building up enormous pressure to perform, massively criticizing subordinates or showing them up in public. Such behaviour forms part of actively destructive leadership, in which damaging behaviour is repeated and exhibited deliberately. This includes frequent criticism and condescension as well as leading with an iron fist and not tolerating any objections. Exploitation of subordinates and even other abusive behaviour further characterize this type. Actively destructive managers are perceived as accordingly mean and miserable from the perspective of those who work below them. And such managers often feel miserable themselves, explained Buengeler: “Destructive management also means less management success, less positive feedback and more negative experiences in the workplace, which can of course take its toll on a manager.”

Better, yet still negative, is passive leadership behaviour such as a laissez-faire style. Problems or decisions are often ignored, praise and criticism remain vague or even unspoken. Although this is far less poisonous for the working atmosphere than the destructive variant, there is still discomfort on both sides regarding the dominance of such vagueness. According to the expert, “Clarity is important in leadership. Passive management is not the same as no leadership, as a manager has been appointed. If this manager then fails to fulfil their leadership tasks, this often has a negative correlation with the well-being of subordinate employees as well as the manager themselves.”

What experts have discovered so far should give those responsible within companies and authorities pause for thought. Constructively-oriented management figures often feel good in themselves, whereas the opposite is true of actively destructive and passive managers. One type enjoys friendly communication, the other gets mired in conflict and often takes problems home with them. Plus, destructive managers get stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of criticism, surveillance and patronization toward employees who have all but thrown in the towel, show little willingness to perform – and at the end of the day go looking for another job.

Irrespective of the fact that hardly anyone fits such leadership categories to a T, Professor Buengeler feels that the recognizable connections are too significant to be ignored. “We often assume that good leadership is purely innate or that it can be learned overnight,” she said, stating two common misconceptions. In her opinion, training courses on successful leadership behaviour and continuous self-reflection should be as commonplace as offers for mental well-being – particularly for bosses.

Author: Martin Geist