The Buffering Effect of Being Buff: Why Fit Bosses Have Fewer Abusive Fits

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According to a recent scientific study, bosses who exercise are less likely to abuse their employees, even if these supervisors are otherwise stressed out.

But why is that true? It turns out, as will be explained here,  that not only are there several possible explanations, but also that at least two of them are in some sense extreme, mutually exclusive “opposites”.

The recent research, “Supervisor Workplace Stress and Abusive Supervision: The Buffering Effect of Exercise”, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology reports, “…increased levels of supervisor-reported stress are related to the increased experience of employee-rated abusive supervision. We also find that the relationship between supervisor stress and abusive behavior can be diminished when supervisors engage in moderate levels of physical exercise.”

In other words, although stress predisposes bosses to abusiveness, moderate exercise makes abuse less likely, melting away staff (verbal) poundings as well as personal pounds.

Is It the Intensity, the Kind or the Psychology of  the Exercise That Counts?

Now why is the intensity of the exercise the key factor in reducing workplace management fits? Intuitively, it seems unlikely that the kind of exercise, apart from being moderate, is not as important a factor.

Doesn’t the diminished abuse effect indeed depend upon the kind, objectives and psychology of the exercise, as much as or more than the intensity?

For example, suppose the boss is a buff bully, like the world-class karate champ and club owner in one of whose franchises I briefly trained.

The word that eventually surfaced on the street was that he would go into bars and volunteer his services as a bouncer, just for the practice and chance to fight.

In one class, I watched in awe as he, apparently bringing a brawler mentality into the club, demonstrated his trademark scissors kick on an employee—another instructor, which he delivered with cocky glee bordering on malice, as he crumpled the hapless target.

“Moderate” exercise or not, it seemed that his attitude toward,  and objectives and anger-management consequences of this kind of “exercise” mattered more than its intensity.

Then there was the chief instructor/manager/owner at another karate club I worked out at, whose nickname prefix was “Crazy-”.

He insisted on full-contact free-fighting (“kumite”) between students, allowing no protective armor to come between full-impact blows and the teeth they knocked out and ribs they fractured. (I was lucky. Just some heavy pummeling.)

That looked like delegated, proxy bullying to me, again, dependent on the attitude and objectives of the exercise, not on its intensity (although the 1,500 kicks and thousands of punches he required in one go felt like direct bullying).

Less extreme and flamboyant boss-based examples can serve to make the same point. For example, suppose the exercise is not as formal and organized as martial arts; say, seasonal snow shoveling (yet just as intense).

What’s the likelihood that gasping and panting while clearing a snow-drifted driveway is going to put your boss in a good mood and mellow him out for the office?

Or how likely is it that any snow shoveling, however moderate will put the boss in a good mood? Won’t it depend on his attitude as much as, if not more than, the intensity of the shoveling?

Somehow, “moderate exercise” seems simultaneously narrow and too broad and vague a descriptor to preclude characterizing snow shoveling as moderate or to make it, even when moderate, a marker for inhibited abusive workplace behavior.

Maybe, after all, only some specific kinds of exercise, the goals and attitudes displayed in them inhibit abuse—with the kind of exercise, attitudes and goals mattering as much as the intensity.

Two Models of Abuse-Inhibiting Exercise: Safety-Valve vs. ‘Reciprocal Inhibition’

To the extent that the reported correlation between moderate exercise and diminished boss abusiveness is strong, it can be speculated that a kind of “fixed-resource” model can explain some of it.

Some bosses with a lot of pent-up hostility (as a dangerous resource) consume and vent it in a gym, e.g., moderately pounding a bag or a sparring partner, leaving less to carry back to the office.

The more of the “resource”, e.g., anger or aggression, used up at the gym, the less will remain or need to be discharged at the office.

Call this a “safety-valve take-out pizza ” model—the more used up before going to the office, the less left over for the rest of the staff.

A second model, “reciprocal inhibition” features a totally opposite premise: If the boss is engaging in a physically strenuous, aggressive sport, e.g., squash, in which the rules, circumstances and rewards preclude being abusive at the same time, the rewards for being nice inhibit being bad.

What makes this the opposite of the safety-valve dynamic is that reciprocal inhibition means that the less anger, aggression, etc., released in the gym, the less that will be released in the workplace.

Here’s how it works: In such behavioral-shaping circumstance, win or lose the actual game, the boss is being rewarded with offers of future games or expressions of appreciation, such as “Good game!”, for being a good sport, including for not being abusive.

The boss can’t vent and be rewarded at the same time, i.e., good-sport behavior inhibits the bad temper and abusiveness.

That’s the hallmark of reciprocal inhibition: Prevent one kind of behavior by rewarding another that is absolutely incompatible with it—a technique that a smart mom will use on her son mercilessly and noisily pounding mom’s laptop keyboard.

She’ll do this by gently inhibiting his destructive tendencies and behavior as she, distracting the child, teaches him how to properly use the mouse and rewarding him with praise and constructive pleasure in his success with it.

Call this the “reciprocal-inhibition take-out pizza” model, or more simply the “less slice, more nice take-out pizza” model.

(Self-)rewarded for being very nice and resisting sneaking a slice on the way to the office with a group pizza increases the odds of resisting snatching extra slices once you’re there too. Ditto for rage.

Being rewarded for being nice outside and in the office inhibits any opposing urge to throw a fit.

All that is required is that the boss transfers to the office the “nice-guy” lessons learned while carrying the pizza (and sacrificing a slice for nice) or while smashing shots at the squash court.

By being “rewarded” for being nice, by relieved and grateful staff, he will be unable to get those rewards and be a bully at the same time—and everybody will be happy.

The key principle: Reward the behavior you want, don’t depend on trying to exhaust the behavior you fear (Indeed, in attempting to exhaust it, you may reinforce it, e.g., by trying to drink one’s way out of alcoholism).

So, if your boss is nice, not abusive and exercises moderately, it may be because whatever exercise (s)he is doing outside the office is providing a non-workplace expressive safety-valve outlet for abusiveness. Or it may be the opposite: The exercise is providing positive, inhibiting practice that carries over into the workplace.

Bottom line: (S)he may either be burning off and venting the rage or inhibiting it through exercise.

Alternative Explanations: Better Self-Image, Better Goals

Alternatively,  the lower risk of abusive supervisor behavior may simply be a welcome effect of his or her positive self-image shaped by exercise.

This includes body image and a greater sense of competence and confidence—especially in managing challenges and crises, without having to resort to crude intimidation or frustration-driven attacks.

Or it may be the result of having other life goals and arenas, e.g., fitness and sports as personal goals, to and through which stress can be deflected, or perhaps even offset or neutralized.

(One more possibility: Maybe exercise-produced, euphoria-inducing endorphins simply put bosses in a better mood.)

Of course, there is no guarantee that a positive body image will inhibit abuse in general. If it did, it would be expected that buff-beef San Quentin body-builder convicts pumping iron in the yard would be among the least abusive populations in the world.

Otherwise, it may be that a buff boss with rock-hard biceps, a six-pack or a sleek, trim figure just doesn’t have to resort to abusiveness to get employees to do his or her bidding.

Simple visual physical intimidation may suffice….

…if visual physical appeal doesn’t.



Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).