South Africans are turning to religion and the gym to cope with ‘managers from hell’

Having a manager from hell can turn many a dream job into a nightmare leaving South Africans to develop a number of strategies to cope with destructive leadership styles.

This is according to a new Stellenbosch University study by consulting psychologist Dr Beatrix Brink which explored subordinates’ direct experiences with destructive leadership behaviour in South African organisations, and how they cope with such behaviour.

Brink interviewed employees, mostly women, in the manufacturing, retail, financial services, community services and public sector.

She also asked them to complete the Psychological Capital Questionnaire which focuses on the individual’s ability to harness psychological resources such as hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism.

Brink said her study showed that in order to cope with the manager’s destructive leadership, participants tried to distance themselves from the situation by avoiding being in the presence of the manager while at work, or by resigning or pretending that everything was fine, or by ‘shutting off’ emotionally.

She said that they also indulged in positive (exercising) and negative (overeating) ways of caring for themselves, including:

  • Finding solace in religion or spirituality;
  • Sought social and family support which included confiding in friends and family;
  • Resorted to professional services, such as seeing a psychologist and asking assistance from their organisation’s Human Resource, mentoring and wellness services;
  • Attempting to re-direct their thinking by looking for anything positive they could take away from the experience.

“With varying degrees of success, they tried to stop the downward spiral of feeling overwhelmed and powerless,” said Brink.

“They did this by asserting themselves and seeking pathways to circumvent the effects of the manager’s destructive behaviour. They also tried to equip themselves with knowledge by seeking information on coping with destructive leader behaviour.”

Brink added that the participants experienced self-doubt and questioned the skills and abilities they previously held in high regard.

“They became fearful and demotivated, experiencing emotions ranging from feeling stupid, tearful to anger.

“They became preoccupied with the experience and struggled to concentrate. They stopped doing the things that gave them joy and some even started to mirror the manager’s negative behaviour in their personal relationships.”

Brink said out for the participants, destructive leadership constituted, among others:

A lack of integrity,

  • Self-centredness, emotionality and moodiness (acting out),
  • Inconsistency,
  • Aggression,
  • Anxiety,
  • Low self-awareness,
  • The tendency to belittle and break-down participants,
  • Blaming and bullying,
  • Introducing negative competition into the work unit,
  • Being unsupportive of participants
  • Sabotaging the ability of the participant to perform by lack of action-taking.

This type of behaviour also had consequences for fellow employees as well as the managers, said Brink.

“Playing team members off against one another’ (a type of attempt at a divide and rule strategy), favouritism and the uncertainty of whose turn it might be next, were described as some of the impacts on other team members.

“Participants acknowledged feeling relief when it was not ‘their turn’ to be targeted, even though they knew that the relief was only temporarily.”

As to what recourse employees can take when confronted with such a manager, Brink advised to proceed with caution and to carefully consider the most prudent channels in seeking a solution to a destructive relationship.

She added that managers, subordinates and organisations are likely to benefit when organisations create environments where people can, without fear, have candid conversations about destructive leadership and the negative impact thereof.

Read: Doing this one thing will double your chance of getting a job in South Africa

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South Africans are turning to religion and the gym to cope with ‘managers from hell’