The authors of “The Knowing/Doing Gap” have figured out why your boss is such an asshole. And it might not be for the reasons you’d think. In their research, Jeff Pfeffer and Robert Sutton found that people who were secure and sure of themselves tend to provide positive reviews, and those who felt insecure and unsure of themselves were more likely to give negative feedback.
The Washington Post’s “Your Mean Boss Could Be Insecure” characterizes it this way:
In other words, when people are intellectually insecure, they come down hard on others — perhaps as a tactic for proving how smart they are. And, sadly, it works. In a different experiment, I found that people perceived someone who was harshly negative to be much smarter than someone who gave positive feedback (even though the negative critique was absolutely identical to the positive critique, except for the substitution of a negative word for every positive word).
So how do you change your insecure boss with negative feedback into a secure boss with positive feedback?
- Praise them! You might not think it’s your job to praise your boss, but it never hurts. Say “great job” when they lead a meeting strategically, tell them you’re excited for them when they run a marathon or accomplish something cool in their personal life.
- Stroke their ego. What makes someone more secure than a younger person asking for their advice? Ask your boss to mentor you, to guide you, and you’ll be stroking their ego in turn. This kind of ego boost might make them more secure and more poised for positivity.
- Make them look good. Of course you want to look good to the higher-ups, but making your boss look good can mean they’re spending more time talking about you. So when someone praises you, you should in turn praise the leadership of your boss.
Remember, bosses — no matter how powerful — are people, too. They get scared, they get sad, they feel insecure. See them as a vulnerable individual who needs praise just like you do and you’ll find yourself with a better relationship and maybe less of a “mean boss” on your hands.