New research published in BMC Psychology suggests that certain psychopathic traits in managers can either boost or hinder employee engagement and burnout. The study also highlighted the vital role of authenticity in mediating these effects.
Understanding the role of managers in the workplace has always been a topic of interest in the field of psychology and organizational behavior. Prior research has established that employee engagement and burnout are critical factors that affect overall job satisfaction and performance. Engagement is when employees are fully involved in their work and feel enthusiastic about their tasks, while burnout is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.
Psychopathy, a term often associated with criminal behavior, can also manifest in the corporate world, albeit in subtler ways. Psychopathy consists of various traits, including boldness (fearlessness), meanness (callousness), and disinhibition (impulsivity). While previous studies have hinted at the impact of managerial psychopathic traits on employees, this research aimed to delve deeper into how these traits affect engagement, burnout, and the mediating factor of authenticity.
“I have been doing research on authenticity at work for some years now and one of the questions that often comes up from research participants and readers is ‘But what if you have a horrible boss? Can you really be yourself if you’re in a difficult situation at work?'” explained study author Anna Sutton, a senior lecturer in organizational psychology at the University of Waikato.
“Previous research has shown that a sense of psychological safety is important for us to feel able to be true to ourselves at work. We know that having a difficult boss can make people feel unsafe – the boss may bully or otherwise harm them. My PhD student (the co-author of this paper), Madeleine Stapleton, was conducting her own research into the effect of psychopathy on employees, so we collaborated on this study, where we look at the effect of a managers’ psychopathic traits on the employee’s authenticity and well-being.”
To shed light on the connections between managerial psychopathy, authenticity, and employee well-being, the researchers conducted a two-wave study. This involved collecting data at two different points to examine how perceptions of manager traits influenced employee experiences over time. The study included employees working full-time in New Zealand who reported to the same manager throughout the study. The final sample consisted of 246 participants.
At the first time point, participants were asked to evaluate their managers’ psychopathic traits using an adaptation of the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure, a scientifically validated assessment of psychopathic personality traits. At the second time point, they completed questionnaires regarding their own well-being at work, including engagement and burnout.
Additionally, authenticity, a key mediating factor, was assessed among employees. Authenticity in this context refers to the ability of employees to be their true selves at work, expressing their values and personality genuinely. It’s important to note that authenticity isn’t limited to self-awareness but also includes enacting a role that feels true to oneself within the workplace.
The researchers found that managerial boldness, characterized by confidence and charm, had a positive association with employee engagement. When employees perceived their managers as bolder, they reported higher levels of authenticity and, subsequently, greater engagement with their work. Boldness acted as a resource that contributed to increased enthusiasm and commitment.
In contrast, managerial meanness and disinhibition had negative effects on employee well-being. Employees working under managers perceived as mean or disinhibited reported lower authenticity levels, leading to increased burnout. Meaner and more disinhibited managers were associated with abusive behaviors and conflict, reducing the sense of safety at work. As a result, employees felt less able to be their authentic selves, leading to higher burnout levels.
“Having a manager who is mean or disinhibited makes us feel like we can’t be ourselves at work, and that in turn increases our symptoms of burnout and reduces our engagement in work,” Sutton told PsyPost. “However, a manager who is bold (confident and comfortable with risk-taking) can provide the support we need to be more authentic. We know that a lot of organizations are trying to improve employee well-being, so our research shows it’s very important to consider managerial traits and how they affect their workers.”
Interestingly, Sutton and Stapleton found that the direct effects of psychopathic traits on burnout were more pronounced than their effects on engagement. Managerial boldness had a stronger positive impact on engagement but a stronger negative impact on burnout compared to meanness and disinhibition. This suggests that boldness might help in reducing the impact of other job demands that lead to burnout, possibly due to positive leadership styles and effective communication.
“We were surprised the psychopathic traits had a larger effect on employee burnout than engagement,” Sutton said. “We suggest that we could understand this as a sign that managers’ traits act more to increase or decrease the demands people feel are placed on them at work, rather than acting like resources they might draw on.”
Authenticity emerged as a crucial mediating factor in the relationship between managerial psychopathic traits and employee well-being. When employees could express their true selves at work, they reported higher engagement and lower burnout, even when working under managers with psychopathic traits. Authenticity served as a personal resource that employees could tap into to cope with challenging managerial behaviors.
The findings indicate that “being more authentic at work is good for us,” Sutton told PsyPost. “So if we are true to ourselves at work, we tend to be more engaged and less burned out several weeks later.”
The study suggests that organizations should consider the specific constellation of psychopathic traits in managers rather than relying on global psychopathy scales. Boldness, while a psychopathic trait, can be beneficial to subordinates, and excluding it from evaluations could have unintended consequences. On the other hand, training aimed at reducing mean and disinhibited behaviors in managers could potentially improve employee engagement and reduce burnout.
While this study provides valuable insights into the impact of managerial psychopathic traits on the workplace, it has certain limitations. For instance, the study relied on other-report measures of managerial psychopathy, which could be influenced by bias. Future research may explore manager self-report or multiple measures to provide a more comprehensive view.
“We only looked at how employees perceived their managers: we didn’t ask managers to rate their own psychopathic traits,” Sutton explained. “It would be worth finding out whether managers are able to recognize these traits in themselves. We also don’t know yet if there’s a way to help employees to find ways to protect or build their authenticity when they are dealing with meaner and more disinhibited managers – although my lab is working on this at the moment.”
The study, “When it’s not safe to be me: employee authenticity mediates the effect of perceived manager psychopathy on employee wellbeing“, was published October 9, 2023.