We know some bosses who are cruel beyond imagination.  Their very presence is enslaving. They cause so much of harm to the subjects under them. But new research from the University of Florida shows that when the powerful misbehave, they hurt not only others but also themselves.

“We always think those who have power are better off, but having power is not universally or exclusively good for the power holder,” said Trevor Foulk, who led the research as a doctoral student at University of Florida's Warrington College of Business.

Foulk and fellow Warrington researchers Klodiana Lanaj, Min-Hsuan Tu, Amir Erez and Lindy Archambeau found that leaders who acted abusively to colleagues had trouble relaxing after work and were less likely to feel competent, respected and autonomous in the workplace. The findings, published in the Academy of Management Journal, stemmed from surveys of 116 leaders in fields including engineering, medicine, education and banking over a three-week span.

Rather than structural power — a leader’s position in the hierarchy — the study looked at psychological power, or how powerful a leader feels, which changes as they move through the workday. When leaders felt powerful, they were more likely to act abusively and perceive more incivility from their coworkers, which in turn harmed their own well-being.

“This flips the script on abusive leadership,” Foulk said. “We tend to assume that powerful people just go around and abuse and they’re totally fine with it, but the effect of power on the power holder is more complex than that.”

Side-stepping the negative effects of power might require us to rethink the qualities we look for in a leader. Foulk’s study suggests that agreeable leaders — those who value social closeness, positive relationships and workplace harmony — may be less susceptible to the misbehavior brought on by psychological power, reports DailyScience, citing the website of University of Florida.

It’s also possible that, over time, the consequences of psychological power are self-correcting. If a leader acts abusively, then goes home and feels bad about it, he or she might come back to work the next day feeling less powerful and behave better.

Although a boss who yells, curses or belittles might not seem to deserve our sympathy, “they’re suffering, too,” Foulk says. “Even though your boss may seem like a jerk, they’re reacting to a situation in a way many of us would if we were in power. It’s not necessarily that they’re monsters.

They are also part of a system, where power can corrupt, making people act in ways that harm others. So we need to move away from the easy choice of demonising them or making them monsters. They are harmful and yet they deserve respect and sympathy.  They definitely cause harm and they cannot be fully blamed for the situation.

Such leaders are in need of reform. The best reform that can happen to them is when the subjects try to understand them, relate to them gently and firmly. It is when we recognise that their abuse of power is indication of their own vulnerability or weakness.

This example of a boss in a company is true of the father in the family and leaders in the world. We cause harm to others. But we are not totally responsible for it. We need to improve the situation and make the world a better place.  Tragically even people called to make the world a better place are smitten by their own inadequacies and stupidities, some of which remain hidden to themselves.

Instead of further vitiating the atmosphere by adding more injuries, the way out is to practise compassion: to the victims first and to the villain next

(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu