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Leadership & Organisations

The Bad Influence of Aggressive Bosses

The Bad Influence of Aggressive Bosses

Identifying with an aggressor is a basic strategy for human survival. It’s time to call it out in the workplace.

Derek, a senior VP in an engineering firm, had a legendary temper and no qualms about publicly castigating anyone who got in his way. He was an insufferable micro-manager and his habit of taking credit for other people’s work created great resentment. Given his leadership style, his subordinates were perpetually on edge, always wondering when it would be their turn to be his target. His toxic behaviour was so pervasive that his actions impacted the morale in the company.

To make matters worse, Derek’s leadership style had led to copycat behaviour, with some of his key lieutenants mimicking his abusiveness. Like Derek, they had developed a knack for terrorising their juniors.

Mirroring as an evolutionary defence mechanism

By identifying with their aggressor, Derek’s colleagues were exhibiting a psychological behaviour typical of people who find themselves in a weak position. Mirroring a person who represents a threat allows people to deal with painful and extremely stressful experiences. It gives them a way to conquer their fears by becoming like that person. 

“Identification with the aggressor” as a psychological defence mechanism was first introduced in the context of child development by two psychoanalysts: Sándor Ferenczi and Anna Freud. Ferenczi found evidence that children who are terrified by out-of-control adults will “subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor”. Anna Freud noted that by impersonating the aggressor, “the child transforms himself from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat”.

In its mildest form, identification with the aggressor can be seen as a healthy defence mechanism and may serve an evolutionary purpose. It allows people to adjust to situations perceived as threatening. However, as illustrated in the opening example, chronic identification with the aggressor can lead victims to become aggressors themselves. In particular, children who have been exposed to highly dysfunctional childhood practices are in adulthood more likely to adopt the same negative behaviour patterns as a survival strategy.

What’s even more troublesome is that, over time, people who identify with their aggressor may lose their sense of self. Haunted by anxiety, they become hyper-attentive to people who intimidate them.

Identification with the aggressor is a human foible

As Stanley Milgram's disturbing electric shock experiments showed, most of us are all too willing to give up our autonomy when confronted with forceful, strong-armed figures. It’s fair to assume that identification with the aggressor (on a smaller scale) operates invisibly but pervasively in the everyday lives of many people.

In the company of authoritative individuals, we quickly put our own thoughts, feelings, perceptions and judgements aside, and instead, do—and more importantly think and feel—as we are expected to.

Breaking the pattern

How can we resist this dysfunctional behaviour process? The first step in breaking a victimisation pattern is recognising that we have fallen into the trap of identifying with the aggressor. It is usually others who make us see the light. When we are defending or rationalising the actions of someone who is mistreating us, it takes people who know us well to call us out.

The question then is, how do we digest the feedback given to us? Are we ready to face the unpleasant truth that we have become the aggressor? Freeing oneself from an identification bond isn’t easy. People prone to identifying with an aggressor may, due to shame and guilt reactions, resort to denial.

Unfortunately, lengthy exposure to an intimidating boss can affect someone’s personality, to the extent that behavioural changes endure outside the intimidating person’s orbit. If that’s the case, extensive coaching or therapy can play an important role and help us understand that there are complex psychological dynamics at play and that mirroring behaviour derives from a basic human survival strategy. Only through recognising the source of these dynamics will we be able to exert control.

Going back to Derek’s example, was it inevitable that his lieutenants would come to mirror him? Could there have been other, more productive ways of dealing with such an intimidating boss?

Fighting back

One way to build up “immunity” against people like Derek is to band together and create a support group. Instead of individuals coping in isolation, a support group can provide strength and reassurance, as well as a reality check that can help prevent members from identifying with the aggressor. Another proactive measure could be to build up a political network inside the organisation with the ultimate purpose of getting rid of the toxic boss.

It’s important to let other people in the organisation know about the destructive consequences of Derek’s leadership style. The expectation is that, if enough people realise the human and financial costs of his behaviour, senior leaders will take notice and be forced into accountability. It may be wise to document specific incidents of abuse to build a case (if necessary) for potential legal proceedings.

In sum, we should remind ourselves that in the worst-case scenario, it’s always possible to walk away. And whatever we do, we should keep in mind Marcus Aurelius’s remark: “The most complete revenge is not to imitate the aggressor.”

Manfred Kets de Vries is the Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change at INSEAD and the Raoul de Vitry d'Avaucourt Chaired Professor of Leadership Development, Emeritus. He is the Founder of INSEAD's Global Leadership Centre and the Programme Director of The Challenge of Leadership, one of INSEAD’s top Executive Development Programmes. His most recent books are: You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger: Executive Coaching Challenges; Telling Fairy Tales in the Boardroom: How to Make Sure Your Organization Lives Happily Ever After; and Riding the Leadership Rollercoaster: An Observer’s Guide.

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Anonymous User

22/06/2018, 09.03 am

Ive had the misfortune to work under not only a hyper-perfectionist boss but one who was a Screamer, Verbal Abuser and Hot-Head at the same time. He would scream abuse at us at the top of his lungs even going as far as threatening physical violence. He mad unrealistic demands including telling us to Hurry tasks which we knew had to be taken with time and care. We complained to the project manager about this but He told us in effect to Put up or Shut Up. Everything had to be done 100% correctly - any minor mistake w would concur his screaming threatening wrath. Once a computer crashed beyond my control instead of trying to correct the issue he screamed and swore at me "why did you allow this to happen on your watch?" then was followed by name calling and threats of both dismissal and physical violence. He Literally Threw a Diary across the room and began blaming me for the computer fault. This was not an isolated incident as he continued with the tirades, abuse, patronizing and screaming at not only myself but my fellow co-workers, he seemed to single out some more than others. One guy was sacked for standing up to him, the Managers where on his side. One day the abuse got to me in in such a way that while out at lunch I Got into a physical altercation with a random stranger with a tirade of verbal abuse preceding the incident. People had to pull me off the guy but not after a struggle to which i went as far as threatening to lay charges against them for touching me. After the incident i threatened all and sundry with physical violence and later that day i was arrested by law enforcement over the incident but was issued with a formal caution due to my otherwise clean criminal history, no drugs or alcohol where involved in the incident, and provided i apologize to my victim which i did. At that point i realized that this boss had severely damaged my mental health and i quit this job and sought counselling to address the issue. Even though im long gone from this workplace some of the effects still linger. I Still get angry at very minor things and when technology crashes but other than that im on the mend with no further run-ins with the law.


Franck Devillon

13/10/2017, 09.56 pm

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses mays suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him - mentally and spiritually. - Viktor E. Frankl - "Man's Search for Meaning"


Anonymous User

08/10/2017, 12.16 pm

An aggressive boss was successful in the past, about 3 decades ago. At that time many subordinates found it difficult to find alternative employment. In today's scenario, when different employers are inviting the right persons and there being many right persons, a persuasive and understanding boss is desirable.

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