Bad bosses may be a go-to joke in sitcoms and workplace comedies, but they’re a very serious problem in real life and can cause significant stress for employees working under them. Now, researchers have divided bad bosses into two broad categories: dysfunctional or dark.
A dysfunctional boss is one who simply isn’t that good at their job. Some aspects of the personality prevent them from being organized or from communicating what their employees need to know, or any number of other problems. These bosses are stressful because they often leave employees unprepared for challenges or prepare for the wrong challenges.
“They don’t want to hurt you,” says researcher Seth Spain. “[T]hey’re just not very good at their job. Largely, that’s what we would call ‘dysfunctional.’”
Dark bosses are those who have actual destructive behaviors, the kind who will “throw people under the bus” in order to give themselves an edge. These are people who actively (though perhaps subconsciously) want to see others around them fail, and will go out of their way to ensure that this happens.
“[These are] people who enjoy the pain and suffering of others—they’re going to be mean, abusive and harassing in daily life,” says Spain.
A boss might have aspects of both categories too, and it’s possible that otherwise good bosses might share aspects with dark or dysfunctional bosses. The value of the categorization is that it can be used to try and figure out why a boss might be bad at their job, locate the specific problematic characteristics of their leadership, and then look for ways to address those problems.
Addressing those problems can go a long way toward improving the workplace, and reducing the stress that is put upon employees. Putting workers under bosses who can’t handle their jobs, or who don’t manage the employees in a way that is productive, can lead to a workplace in which little gets done right or which has significant turnover.
“Understanding the role that [dark or dysfunctional] characteristics play in stress experiences at work is extremely important, especially since bad leaders can cause so much suffering for their subordinates,” says Spain.