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Why you should watch out for ‘nice bosses’

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Have you ever taken advantage of an employee? Don’t feel too bad if you have because it is human nature for one to take advantage of others, especially if a power imbalance exists, such as in a boss and employee relationship.

According to a new study, bosses are more successful in their efforts to “blackmail” employees into co-operation if they maintain a friendly demeanour, acting as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” to hide their selfish strategies.

Bosses often turn to blackmail to drive co-operation, the researchers explain, pointing to the common example: If you don’t want to do the job, I’m sure we’ll find somebody else who does.

The study, led by a team from Harvard University, the Institute of Science and technology Austria, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany used both a model and an experimental set-up to analyse the behaviour of 160 students.

The scientists asked 160 students to take part in the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma” game where two players choose, over several rounds, if they will co-operate with each other or not to receive a cash payoff.

In this study, however, the researchers changed the rules of the game: In their experiment, one of the players had the opportunity to swap their opponent if they were not satisfied with the latter’s co-operative behaviour. The swapped player was then replaced by a previously inactive player and was suspended from the game for several rounds.
“This is the equivalent of a boss firing and replacing an employee,” explained Christian Hilbe of IST Austria.

Nearly half the players who were given this opportunity took advantage of the asymmetrical power structure to force their opponents to co-operate – without being similarly co-operative themselves. In this way, they achieved significantly better pay-offs than the players in a control group who were not allowed to replace their opponents.

It seems like a dog eat dog world, but researchers also found in order to be most successful, the extortionists must also co-operate sometimes as well.

Acting selfishly in a way that was too obvious would work against the extortionists; the strategy works only if an extortionist sometimes co-operates with an opponent.

“A heavy-handed boss who always solely relies on exploitation is not successful,” said Manfred Milinski, director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, in a press release. “Without occasional co-operation, the system doesn’t work. It is therefore those people who appear to be friendly on the surface we maybe should be most wary of.”

The researchers also suspected that extortionate behaviour is much more common than previously believed – especially, but not exclusively, when a power imbalance exists, such as between a boss and an employee.

ALSO READ: Top 5 reasons why employees don’t trust bosses

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