When “tough love” turns toxic: Why some abusive bosses get a pass

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Ever wonder why some abusive bosses seem to get away with their bad behavior?

A recent study suggests that employees may tolerate an abusive boss if they believe the leader is a high performer.

When a boss is seen as successful, employees often label their harsh behavior as “tough love” rather than abuse.

The study, conducted by researchers at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, found that workers are less likely to view a high-performing boss as abusive.

Instead, they might see the boss’s actions as strict but ultimately beneficial for their careers.

Robert Lount, the lead author and professor of management and human resources, explained, “If employees see their boss as successful, they might not view them as abusive.

They might think the boss’s tough behavior is just a way to help them grow.”

The study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, included two parts. The first part involved 576 workers from various industries in the United States who completed surveys over six weeks. The surveys asked about their boss’s behavior and how effective they thought their boss was. When employees rated their boss as abusive but also a high performer, they were more likely to describe the boss as a “tough love” leader. But if the boss’s performance was low, employees were more likely to call them an abuser.

Bennett Tepper, a co-author of the study, said, “Employees might think that a successful boss’s harsh treatment is meant to help them improve. If the boss is getting good results, employees might believe that they, too, will benefit in the long run.”

The second part of the study involved a lab experiment with 168 college students. The students were told they were part of a team led by an MBA student and given either an abusive or a supportive message from their supposed leader. When students believed their team performed well, they rated the abusive leader less harshly than when the team performed poorly. This showed that even a brief experience of success could make employees more forgiving of abusive behavior.

Lount and Tepper emphasize that abusive behavior is never good for employees or organizations. Their study highlights how employees might react to abusive but successful bosses, often giving them a pass because of their high performance.

In summary, the findings suggest that the perception of success can shield abusive bosses from being labeled as such. This might explain why some bosses continue their abusive behavior without facing consequences—they are seen as “tough love” leaders rather than true abusers.