First, about the study: Two researchers at the University of Southern California wanted to explore "the interactive effects of power, competency threats and gratitude expression on the tendency to denigrate others." In everyday speak, this means looking at how a subordinate's good attitude and general level of gratitude changes how someone in power (the boss) reacts and generally acts. Maybe, just maybe, if employees would show the boss a little thankfulness and respect for a change, then he or she wouldn't have to be such a bellicose, condescending bitch around the office, m'kay?
So does niceness negate negativity and neediness? Annoying alliterations aside, the researchers divided study participants into two groups ("high power" and "low power") and put them into separate rooms. Then they had both sides "evaluate" the work of the other, and exchange notes with or without expressions of gratitude (e.g., "Thank you so much! I really appreciate it!"). Here's the catch: Study participants got a chance to "denigrate" their "workmate's" general competence level. Does this person seem competent, intelligent and capable, or incompetent, unskilled and likely to fail?
In general, the designated "high powered" types who got bit by a low-powered person's thankless attitude tended to bite back with negative feedback, but if a "low powered" person seemed thankful, well then, hey you're doing great pal! Keep up the good work!
So start showing some appreciation if you want your angry and insecure boss to be less angry and insecure toward you. Or maybe not? I'll let USC researcher Yeri Cho explain:
"We think that this can be an effective short-term strategy to enhance a subordinate-boss relationship," said Cho. "As a long-term solution, we are not sure if this is going to be effective. The main long-term solution should come from the powerful themselves, as they are the ones with the power to control the situation."
Yes, that's what I was thinking before I even read the study, because I'm a big believer in the idea that we don't change people, people change themselves, especially when we're talking about matters of anger and insecurity. Change starts from within. From within your boss, in this case.
It doesn't mean that you can't show a little bit of appreciation and up your game in the niceness department -- you'll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as grandma used to say -- but the very act of being nicer to your boss isn't necessarily going to change his or her denigrating, belittling, needling and needy ways. Bummer. But saying "thanks" and letting an angry, insecure boss know every so often how much you appreciated his or her effort on something specific might get you a little more favorable feedback on your quarterly performance review, even if your direct manager makes it hard for you to say, "Thank you so much! I really appreciate it!" Yes, I know; it would be like pulling teeth, wouldn't it? Thank you sir, may I have another. Well, let me know if it works.