The Reason You Hate Your Boss

The Reason You Hate Your Boss

Neuroscience reveals why bosses seem to be so terrible at relating.

It’s a common axiom in the workplace: “I hate my boss.” A boss, be it mid-level manager or corporate executive, is often seen as inept, insensitive, abusive, or just stupid. The sentiment is so common it’s inspired a number of songs, television episodes, and movies, including the latest one aptly named, Horrible Bosses. Recent social cognitive research, an area within the neuroscience field, reveals that there may be some very basic human psychology behind this perception, but it’s not what you’re thinking. Your boss might actually be horrible.

In a recent blog post in the Harvard Business Review, contributor David Rock reports on the research that was presented at the 2011 NeuroLeadership Summit revealed that although bosses are often promoted based on technical expertise rather than their social skills, “this may simply be a function of the leader's role.” The study, presented by UCLA neuroscience professor Matthew Lieberman, focused on people’s ability to mentalize, or predict others’ emotional states and needs. The finding was that people’s ability to mentalize is very low even in ideal conditions, and with any amount of stress, or “cognitive load”, the ability dropped even more. In other words, predicting people’s needs is not a strong-suit of ours on average, and in the workplace it’s likely even worse.

In one study, Lieberman noted, 50% of the respondents predicted that others would be able to work out the name of a tune based only on tapping out the beat. The results, however, were that only 2.5% of people could work out the name with “tapping the beat” as the only information. With no pressure to perform, people proved to be very poor in their predictive reasoning regarding others.

The other finding, which has been supported by other neurological studies, reveals that the brain’s pathways for thinking analytically and systematically is mutually exclusive with the pathways for thinking socially and relationally. Leaders are often looking at statistical evidence or procedural efficiency, analytical modes, which inhibits their ability to interact socially and consider the needs of their employees. Combine this with the fact that most leaders are under a large cognitive load most of the time, stress from their own supervisors, the performance levels of their particular employees, and other factors. Additionally, many of these leaders were, as mentioned above, often lacking in certain social skill sets in the first place. This may not persuade us to like our bosses more, but maybe by understanding the nature of our neurology we can at least feel a bit more sympathetic when they ask us to come in on the weekends.