Top 10+ Personality Traits of Bully Bosses (and workers too?)

“It is estimated that half of all executive careers end in failure. “

The dark side” of a supervisor’s personality can impact their ability to manage.  The angel on their shoulder can make them a leader.  The devil can derail a business.  No one asks to be abused at work nor should it ever be excused.  And, victim/targets currently struggling with the dehumanizing experience of bullying can hardly be expected to look for the charming aspects of their boss. But, and this is a big BUT, the rest of us need to have the ability to admit that it’s not just bosses who have these traits.  How often have you had to deal with a co-worker with “attitude” who uses these same tactics toward the boss – or even you? 

Here is an excerpt from an article published by the APA that summarizes 30 years of research on why executives fail. It’s a sobering read, especially if you ask yourself if you could  avoid all of the pitfalls in the categories below if you were boss:

Trying to Succeed by Intimidation and Avoiding Others

1. Excitable.

High Excitable people expect to be disappointed in relationships—as a result, they are alert for signs that others may treat them badly. When they think they have been mistreated, they erupt in emotional displays that may involve yelling, throwing things, and slamming doors. From the observer’s perspective, that which is most distinctive about these people is their emotional eruptions; they are the people for whom the term “Emotional Intelligence” (Goleman, 1997) was devised. Because they are so volatile and unpredictable, they have difficulty building and maintaining a team—the fundamental task of leadership At their best, these people have a great capacity for empathy; because they know that life is not always fair, they can genuinely feel others’ pain. At their worst, however, they require a lot of personal attention and reassurance, and they are very hard to please.

2. Skeptical.

High Skeptical people expect to be betrayed, cheated, or deceived in some way. They specialize in conspiracy theories, stay alert for signs of mistreatment, and when they think they detect it, they retaliate directly. This may involve physical violence, accusations, or litigation, actions announcing that they are prepared to defend themselves. From the observer’s perspective, that which is most distinctive about these people is their suspiciousness, argumentativeness, and lack of trust in others. At their best, they are insightful about organizational politics and the motives of their  counter players, and they can be the source of good intelligence regarding the real agendas of others, and the real meaning of events. At their worst, their stubbornness and inability to compromise or trust others erodes their ability to build a team.

3. Cautious.

High Cautious persons fear being criticized, blamed, or possibly disgraced; as a result, they are constantly on guard against making mistakes that might cause them public embarrassment. To avoid criticism, they follow rules and precedents, resist innovation, and cling to that which worked in the past. Their cautiousness sometimes extends to their staff, whom they fear will embarrass them, and whom they often discourage from taking any initiative. At their best, they are prudent and careful about evaluating risk; they rarely make rash or ill-advised moves, and they provide sound advice about intended courses of action. At their worst, however, they avoid innovation, resist change, stall, drag their feet, and are indecisive— even when it is apparent that something needs to be done.

4. Reserved.

High Reserved people seem indifferent to the expectations of others— especially their staff. As a result, they seem formal, aloof, introverted, and lacking in social insight. They prefer to work alone, and are more interested in data and things than in people. They communicate poorly, if at all, they are unrewarding to deal with, and they have trouble building or maintaining a team. At their best, they are tough in the face of adversity; they are unfazed by criticism, rejection, and opprobrium; they can stay focused and not be distracted by emotional upheavals, and stressful meetings. At their worst, however, they are insensitive to others needs, moods, or  feelings, and can be tactless, imperceptive, and gauche.

5. Leisurely.

High Leisurely people seem overtly pleasant and cooperative, but privately they expect to be mistreated and unappreciated. They are stubborn and independent, cynical about the talents and intentions of others—especially superiors—and insist on working at their own pace. When pressed for additional output, they tend to slow down even more. They express their resentment indirectly, in the form of procrastination and excuse making. At their best, they have good interpersonal skills; at their worst, they are peevish and stubborn, they focus on their own agendas, and refuse to support their colleagues and subordinates. Their prickly sensitivity, subtle uncooperativeness, and stubbornness make them unrewarding to deal with.

Trying to Succeed by Charm and Manipulation

6. Arrogant.

High Arrogant people expect to be admired, praised, indulged, and obeyed. They expect to be successful in everything they do, they believe in their own legacy, and when their expectations are frustrated, they explode with “narcissistic rage”. From the observer’s perspective, that which is most distinctive about these people is their self-assurance which often gives them a certain social presence—they are the first to speak in a group, and they do so with great confidence, even when they are wrong.  At their best, these people are energetic, charismatic, leader-like, and willing to take the initiative to get projects moving. They are fearless about taking on any task and some elevation on this characteristic is needed for success in management, sales, and entrepreneurship. At their worst, they are arrogant, demanding, self-deceived, and pompous. Because they are so confident and aspirational, they often attract followers. But they take more credit for success than is warranted; they refuse to acknowledge failure, errors, or mistakes; they are unable to learn from experience; and, ultimately, they alienate their colleagues and subordinates.

7. Mischievous.

High Mischievous people expect other people will find them charming, clever, even irresistible—as a result, they are willing to ask for favors, exceptions, allowances, and to do so without incurring obligations. Also, they see themselves as bullet proof, they enjoy risk taking for its own sake, and they often live on the edge. From the observer’s perspective, that which is most distinctive about these people is that they are bright, witty, and engaging, which is why they are able to extract favors, promises, money, and resources from other people with relative ease. They see others as utilities to be exploited, and therefore have problems maintaining commitments, and are unconcerned about violating expectations. At their best they are self-confident and have an air of daring that others often find attractive and even intriguing. At their worst, they are impulsive, reckless, faithless, exploitative, and manipulative. Their self-confidence and recklessness lead to many mistakes but they seem unable to learn from experience; as a result, they tend to be underachievers, relative to their talent and capabilities.

8. Colorful.

High Colorful people expect others will find them attractive and entertaining, and the natural focus of attention. They are good at calling attention to themselves—they know how to make dramatic entrances and exits, they carry themselves with flair, wear attention grabbing clothes, and are constantly on stage. Some elevation on this characteristic is essential for a career in sales, politics, or the theater. From an observer’s perspective, what is most distinctive about these people is their stage presence—they perform well in interviews, in assessment centers, and other public settings. They are also impulsive and unpredictable; that which makes them good at sales (and selling themselves) makes them poor managers—they are unfocused, distractible, over-committed, and always in search of the spotlight. At their best, they are bright, entertaining, flirtatious, and the life of the party. At their worst, they won’t listen or plan, they self-nominate and over-commit themselves. Although they
are entertaining, they are also easily distracted, impulsive, hyperactive, and unproductive.

9. Imaginative.

High Imaginative people think about the world in different and often interesting ways, and they enjoy entertaining others with their unusual perceptions and insights. They are alert to new ways of seeing, thinking, and expressing themselves, and they enjoy the reactions they elicit in others with their unexpected forms of self-expression. From the observer’s perspective, these people often seem bright, insightful, playful, and innovative, but also as eccentric, odd, and flighty.  At their best, these people are visionary, creative, and insightful. At their worst, they can be self-absorbed, insensitive to feedback, and indifferent to the social and political consequences of their egocentric focus on their own agendas. They communicate poorly, and as managers, they often leave people confused regarding their directions or intentions.

Trying to Succeed by Ingratiating Others and Building Alliances

10. Diligent.

High Diligent people expect their performance to be rigorously evaluated. As a result, they have high standards of performance for themselves and others; they are concerned with doing a good job, being a good citizen, and pleasing authority. When they think they have not lived up to their standards, they redouble their efforts and try even harder. They are hard working, careful, and planful; they live by the rules and expect others to do so too, and become irritable when others don’t follow their rules. From the observer’s perspective, that which is most distinctive about these people is their conservatism, their detail orientation, their risk aversion, but also the degree to which they are steady, dependable, and predictable. They are model organizational citizens who can be relied upon to maintain standards, do their work competently and professionally, and treat their colleagues with respect. At their best, these people are good role models who uphold the highest standards of professionalism in performance and comportment; they are typically popular with their bosses because they are so reliable. At their worst, however, they are fussy, particular, nit-picking micro-managers who deprive their subordinates of any choice or control over their work. The micro-management alienates their staff who soon refuse to take any initiative and simply wait to be told what to do and how to do it.

11. Dutiful.

High Dutiful people think others expect them to behave well. As a result, they are concerned about being accepted, being liked, and getting along, especially with authority figures. They are alert for signs of disapproval, and equally alert for opportunities to ingratiate themselves, to be of service, to demonstrate their fealty and loyalty to the organization. When they think they have given offense, they redouble their efforts to be model citizens. From the observer’s perspective, that which is most distinctive about these people is their good nature, their politeness, their cordiality, and their indecisiveness. As managers, they will do anything their boss requires; this means that they are reluctant to support their staff or challenge authority, and this inevitably erodes their legitimacy as leaders. At their best, these people are polite, conforming, and eager to please. Because they are so agreeable, because they seldom criticize anyone, complain about anything, or threaten anybody, they rarely make enemies and tend to rise in organizations. But they have problems making decisions, taking initiative, or taking stands; consequently, the units for which they are responsible tend to drift, their staff feels unsupported, and they have trouble maintaining a team.

Hogan, J., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2010). Management derailment. In S. Zedeck (Ed.)American Psychological Association Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 3 (pp. 555-575). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

7 thoughts on “Top 10+ Personality Traits of Bully Bosses (and workers too?)

  1. I do not agree, this has us all as bullies, not so, a bully and their minions don’t care who they hurt and set out to do so.


    • Great point to raise and I understand and appreciate your opinion. I find it interesting that many of the major researchers on this topic have stepped away from the concept of “malice” or “bad apples” (their term not mine). Many practitioners currently seem to prefer to look at the organization as a whole so as to correct the culture that either encourages or allows a person to bully others.


  2. Good eFFing god, this is RIDICULOUS. This is obviously written by a bully who is looking for an excuse to do so. Let me tell you this. Bullies are the BIGGEST cowards in the office. I just reported my bully boss, talked to him directly and he RAN and then transferred me out of his office because bullies and COWARDS!!


    • One of the problems that those of us seeking to pass legislation in the U.S. have encountered is the concerns about how to avoid frivolous or unsubstantiated claims. The question becomes how to avoid that since it’s what stands between employees who are being legitimately abused and those who aren’t. Not all cries of bully are real. How do legislators address that and pass meaningful legislation.


    • Absolutely correct, d……. Naivety has saved many a bully – even got them the management job.


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