A Psychological Profile of an Abusive Boss

Researchers working to determine whether abusive bosses share certain personality traits have ended up with some unexpected findings.

Going into the study, the team of psychologists from University of Cambridge in the UK and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium guessed that if abusive supervisors had any personality trait in common, it would likely be low agreeableness.

It was a hypothesis that made sense since less agreeable people tend to be less friendly and more aggressive, so you’d expect them to be more likely to be abusive bosses – but it was a hypothesis that turned out to be wrong.

Instead, here’s what the study showed:

Abusive bosses are more conscientious on average

The study looked at 103 pairs of supervisors and subordinates across a variety of workplaces and found that supervisors who were considered abusive by their subordinates were no more or less agreeable than supervisors who weren’t.

Contrary to what the researchers had anticipated, the abusive supervisors ended up being more conscientious as a group than the non-abusive supervisors. This was unexpected because conscientiousness is associated with being organized, rule-abiding, thorough, hard-working and disciplined, none of which necessarily scream “abusive boss” right off the bat.

One possible reason for the connection is that more conscientious people can be less flexible, tend to place more importance on high achievement and might get more frustrated when their subordinates don’t live up to high standards.

Highly conscientious people can also have an authoritarian streak. A 2014 study found that more conscientious people are more willing to administer electric shocks to others when told to do so.

People scoring high on conscientiousness are even more likely to commit white-collar crime. Overall, conscientiousness is generally considered a healthy personality trait since more conscientious people tend to be more successful in school and in the workplace, but these studies suggest that the greater focus on achievement that comes with being more conscientious might also have a darker side in some cases.

They’re also more Machiavellian

Although the recent study is the first to find a link between conscientiousness and being perceived as abusive by one’s subordinates, researchers have previously looked at other personality traits abusive bosses share.

A 2010 study found that supervisors considered more abusive by their subordinates tended to score higher on Machiavellianism, a personality trait associated with being manipulative, deceptive, cynical and selfish.

So combine these characteristics with a penchant for being rule-abiding, hard-working and achievement-oriented, and you can start to see how you end up with an individual you might not want to work for.

And they have low emotional intelligence

The final ingredient in the perfect storm of personality traits that gives you the world’s worst boss is low emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is a somewhat controversial construct, but essentially it’s the ability to work with one’s feelings and the feelings of others. People with high emotional intelligence are good at empathizing with others and processing their own emotions, people with low emotional intelligence less so.

Of course, it goes without saying that most people would rather work for someone with high emotional intelligence, so it probably won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that abusive supervisors tend to have low emotional intelligence.

Environment matters too

Although abusive bosses on average have higher conscientiousness, higher Machiavellianism and lower emotional intelligence, nasty people really come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s entirely possible to end up with an abusive boss that doesn’t fit this profile.

It’s also important to remember that even the most abusive boss doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Studies have found that someone is more likely to become an abusive supervisor if any of the following apply to them:

So the moral of the story is: people are complex. Although there are a few personality traits (like conscientiousness) that are more common among abusive supervisors, there are a lot of different factors that can turn someone into the boss from hell.

That said, one thing is for sure: abusive supervision carries a real cost for the people who have to put up with the abusive supervisor and for the organization in question. That’s why abusive supervision is such a hot research topic lately – a lot of people stand to gain from cutting back on the number of abusive supervisors in the world.

If you’re dealing with an abusive supervisor, then, you should seriously take stock of what your options are. And I know this probably won’t come as much consolation, but at the very minimum, at least you now have a better understanding of how the delightful individual in question ended up that way!


  1. Shelly on March 9, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Yup. My leader at work definitely has low emotional intelligence. She likes to be mean and takes joy at being mean and letting everyone know she is mean. She’s a jealous, overbearing woman who likes to talk about people, especially if they’re are attractive. She is not. At 60 and after years of smoking, umm, no, not attractive at all. Therefore, anyone attractive gets her attention but in the wrong way. After 4 years of working with this woman, I have learned to just let most things slide and to invest in really good headphones to drown her out unless she is talking to me.

    • Neil Petersen on March 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm

      Good headphones sound like an excellent solution to this problem. Good luck!

    • Pam on June 2, 2017 at 2:34 pm

      My boss and office manager have known of my major surgery for sometime. I will be in hosp fo2 to 3 days 6 weeks recovery.mind you they knew. But I did get letter from my Dr so it would be in my file. I had never been written up nothing ect , but hard worker. My boss comes in office this morning screaming at me about my surgery.and how inconsiderate I am.tears poured down my face. After the on going criticism, I ran to bathroom and cried very hard. Wondering who treats a person like this after I have been with her for 4 years.so I left for the day. I’m to return tomorrow. Anyone have suggestions?

      • Pam on June 2, 2017 at 2:37 pm

        There has been mental abuse all along , feeling unworthy and hated.but I stuck in.

      • Neil Petersen on June 4, 2017 at 11:49 pm

        Really sorry to hear that, Pam. It sucks to feel like you have gone out of your way to do everything right and then have to deal with that. If this is an ongoing pattern of behavior, it’s definitely worth looking at whether you have other options — it’s not worth sacrificing your mental health for if you have a choice!

  2. Amy on March 9, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Loved this article!

    • Neil Petersen on March 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks Amy!

  3. Faces on March 10, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    I too have an extremely abusive boss. I was hired by a great boss who died three years later. The man who took his place was great for about a year to everyone in our department. Now we have been working together for 8 years and the past 7 have been completely unbearable. He continually screams, accuses people of doing wrong when they haven’t and just shakes everyone on a daily basis each and every time there is any interaction with him. He berates and puts us down, tells us everyday that we can easily be replaced. And almost every single time he sees you, he makes some kind of hateful or just flat out mean comment to you. He tells people to do something and after they do, he denies telling them and will verbally attack them for doing it and for saying he told you to do it. I have been written up for that myself once. I try everyday to keep smiling but after so many years of this, now I try never to leave my office or even look up when he passes by my door. I cry every night wishing I could go elsewhere. But we are in a very small town with very few jobs. I have searched for years now. He has even gone as far to tell me to stop taking my medication for a life long condition I have that my doctor says I can not go without. I have tried going over him to get someone higher up to do something, but all they see is how much work has been done in the department as a whole. And since I am the only one who works inside our office (everyone else are outside workers and I am inside doing bookkeeping), I get most of it. It has gotten worse since nothing was done, Everyone else is afraid of losing their job so no one else will report him. More work is getting done because he follows them if he doesn’t like them until he can catch them stopping at a store for a drink or snack. It’s almost as if he thinks we are robots and we can run without breaks or eating? Now he knows he can do it and no one above cares as long as work is done. The others are doing more because they don’t want to come inside anymore. I can barely get the paperwork I need to get my job done. I am desperate, how do I keep this up without losing it? I stay sick since all this started and all I hear is how it’s all in my head because I am a female and females likes drugs! Even though I have had my neurologist send him paperwork on my condition and how stress makes it much worse. Advice from anyone would be greatly appreciated. If I lose this job it’s doubtful I will be able to get another job here and I can not afford to move not to mention, I have been here my whole life. I don’t know if I could just pick up and move. I’ve never been anywhere.

    • Neil Petersen on March 11, 2016 at 8:07 am

      It’s extremely difficult to be in a situation where you have to choose between what’s right for you as a person and what you need to do to get by financially.

      Without knowing the details of your situation, I think you owe it to yourself to spend some time brainstorming every option you have to get into a better work environment. For example, how do the downsides of moving stack up with the downsides of continuing to work for this guy? Again not knowing the specifics, it seems like moving is an unknown whereas your current situation is something you know will be bad for your health and your happiness.

      If it’s an option, I’d also think about finding a therapist to talk to because one of the things they’re best at is being sounding boards for untangling these complex sorts of situations. All best!

      • Nedra Devine on March 16, 2016 at 7:31 am

        I had a boss like that at my last job. I haven’t worked since. I didn’t have a white collar job like you, I was a waitress, but the premise was the same. All the coworkers got along until the boss got there, and then you could instantly feel the tension. He would scream and cuss us out in front of our customers, (which several complained about), tell us to do something one way one day and scream at us for it the next, telling us to do it differently. He was especially nasty to people he didn’t like, downright cruel, until they couldn’t take it and quit. He would call you stupid and make you feel stupid, and nothing you did was enough. I had reasons for staying there, everyone there did (financial) but it stressed me out so bad I wound up on drugs and eventually quit to get myself together. Not worth it.

  4. Dana on July 11, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Is there anything legal people can do against bosses like this? Aren’t there labor laws out there to help or can these people just get away with it?

    • Neil Petersen on July 11, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      I’m not a lawyer, but I think it would depend on the specifics of your situation. If some kind of discrimination is involved, that could warrant legal action. On the other hand, it’s not necessarily against the law to be a jerk. I’d do some research and consult a lawyer if possible — good luck.

  5. john on March 19, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    I try my best to ignore it all and cleanse myself of the daily crap with doing meditation.

  6. Mark on August 31, 2018 at 3:28 am

    I feel for you all. My boss is an abusive piece of crap. He targeted me as weak and an easy outlet for his anger. At first we all joked around with each other than he started calling me dumb and stupid more often in front of my coworkers. Finally, after a couple months of this abusive b.s. I exploded at him and told him with many expletives to never talk to me like that again. He looked wide eyed and petrified like the cowardly bully I thought he was. I am now treated with much more respect but our relationship has gotten colder but it was worth it. I now feel more confident about myself and stopped taking crap from any abusive jerk. Life is too short to deal with jackasses. Hope my story helps those people dealing with bully bosses. Sometimes you gotta lay your job on the line to confront ahole bosses for your own sanity and self esteem.