Bad Bosses Make Themselves Feel Bad Too

What Comes Around Does Indeed Go Around, Research Finds

Jun 27, 2019
As Featured In 
Academy of Management Journal

Power corrupts, they say. Throughout history there are examples of people in positions of power who have acted in ways that have harmed others.

What’s less understood, perhaps, is that when the powerful abuse their positions, they hurt themselves as well.

Maryland Smith’s Trevor A. Foulk’s research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, confirms it.

He and his co-authors conducted a two-week field experiment with 108 managers and business leaders, employed across a range of industries, including engineering, medicine, finance and education.

On half of the experiment days, the research subjects participated in a manipulation that was designed to make them feel powerful. On the other days, they took part in a control manipulation – one not designed to make them feel powerful. Foulk and his co-authors then compared the way participants interacted with others, examining both how they treated others and how they felt others were treating them

When leaders felt powerful, the researchers found, they were more likely to act abusively and to perceive more incivility from their coworkers. And, they found, it had an effect on the leaders, themselves.

The study found that leaders who were abusive to colleagues had trouble relaxing after work. They worried more about whether they were competent in their positions, they felt less autonomous in their workplace, and perceived others as lacking in respect for them.

Foulk, now an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, began the research as a doctoral student at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business.

Read more: “Heavy Is the Head that Wears the Crown: An Actor-centric Approach to Daily Psychological Power, Abusive Leader Behavior, and Perceived Incivilityis featured in the Academy of Management Journal.

About the Author(s)

Trevor Foulk

Dr. Trevor Foulk is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, and his Bachelors of Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts.

More in


The Work Habits of Highly Effective Teams
New research detects a common thread among high-functioning teams – members who understand how colleagues see things.
May 20, 2020
Machine Learning Has a Flaw. It’s Gullible.
New research explores the potential biases that limit the effectiveness of ML process technologies and the scope for human capital to be complementary in reducing such biases.
May 06, 2020
Can We Trace Corporate Generosity to Employee Moods?
New research finds employee moods have a lot to do with a company's philanthropic efforts.
Mar 23, 2020