Does Having a Bad Manager Mean that You Will Become One?

What makes a bad manager is a question that has plagued managerial studies for years. The question isn’t about the characteristics of a bad manager — bad manager traits are pretty easy to spot. Instead, the question is more about whether exposure to a toxic manager encourages an employee to develop bad manager traits when they attain supervisory positions. 

It’s a question worth asking. Bad managers can lower productivity, reduce morale, and drive away talent. Roughly 50% of employees would leave their position if they felt unappreciated by their manager. 

Bad Management and the Cycle of Dysfunction

The concern that bad management can spread in a never-ending cycle comes in part from decades of psychological studies into how humans learn behavior. Humans learn by watching and mirroring the behavior of parents and other role models. If role models are negative (and bad managers can be highly toxic role models), the theory goes that such learned misbehavior will be perpetuated. For instance, many psychological studies have shown that children who experience high levels of parental conflict are more likely to divorce as adults

As the theory of mirroring entered popular culture, it became oversimplified into a pop psychology equation. For example, media outlets took the above-mentioned studies, boiled them down, and promulgated the misinformation that when parents divorce, their children are more likely to divorce, completely eliding over what the studies had actually proven: it’s exposure to high levels of parental conflict over time, not divorce, that increases the risk of divorce in later life.

Role models influence human behavior, but we’re not necessarily doomed to make the same mistakes in perpetuity. While some evidence supports the notion that people reproduce the behavior of role models, other studies indicate otherwise.

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Mirroring or Disidentification?

A study into the likelihood of adult survivors of childhood abuse becoming abusive parents offers an alternative. Survivors of abuse can become abusive parents themselves, or they can “disidentify” with their parents, and become determined not to repeat the cycle of abuse.

This ability to disidentify with toxic role models means that no, you’re not doomed to become the manager you hated during your internship. When Harvard Business Review examined real work settings in a variety of Indian organizations and industries, they found exposure to a bad manager resulted in a 12% increase in an employee’s disidentification with that manager. In other words, the employee was less likely to display bad manager traits. 

Furthermore, the study noted that employees who have “a strong moral identity” had a 14% increase in disidentification. A similar study by the Journal for Applied Psychology yielded similar results. Exposure to a bad manager does not automatically result in a new generation of toxic managers. This is good news for businesses, as people tend to leave managers more frequently than companies.

This isn’t to say that exposure to a bad manager doesn’t have an effect. Employees unlucky enough to experience toxic managers often do learn from bad bosses — they just learn to identify the characteristics of bad managers and actively work to ensure they don’t display those traits themselves.

If you’re currently suffering under bad management, take heart. Being concerned that you might become your bad boss in the future is a sign you’re aware that they’re toxic, so you can make a commitment to not repeat their mistakes. You’re not your boss, and you don’t have to be. If anything, you’re probably learning how to be a good manager by identifying and rejecting the traits that make your manager toxic.

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