It is nearly impossible to go through life without having many bosses. Bosses come in all sizes, shapes, and personalities. Not all bosses are horrible. I’ve been lucky enough to have had some truly decent people “manage” me. And I like to think I wasn’t too miserable to those who had the misfortune to work for me.
But there are some, far too many I’m afraid, who, though they might be devoted parents and pillars of their communities, become downright demonic when they are in the position over other people.
While it’s true that being elevated to the position of boss frequently brings out the worst in people, it’s also an element of the problem that it’s too often the nastiest impulses that lead people to seek positions of power in the first place. It doesn’t really matter whether they became monsters only when they became bosses or that they became bosses in order to act like monsters, One way or another they became the sadly warped human beings we’ve all met and suffered under. Either way, once such people taste power, their prognosis is poor. Once they taste the sadistic pleasure of wielding power, their thirst to exercise seems only to increase.
I’m in a bit of unique position to write about this because of a peculiarity of my own “career trajectory.” I have a doctorate in clinical psychology. I did some psychotherapy before deciding I was more suited to the college classroom than the consulting room. In the late 1980’s, it began to dawn on me that my full-time teaching position wasn’t actually paying my bills. I found I had a knack for computer programming. So I shifted my teaching to nights and worked as a computer consultant by day.
Being a consultant meant that I saw quite an array of different “managerial styles.” I saw bosses who screamed so loudly at their employees that people must have been able to hear them on the street twenty floors below. Others barely spoke above a whisper as they told an unfortunate subordinate that they would soon need a heart transplant if they didn’t figure out the magic solution to that day’s impenetrable conumdrum.
Though I mostly kept my two worlds as separate as possible, I kept the psychologist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM), in my computer cubicle to whip out occasionally. I’d ask a manager to put their finger on a random page, telling them this was their diagnosis. Somehow it always seem to land on one or another variant of psychopath.
No, of course all bosses aren’t psychopaths, people without normal human feelings who delight in causing pain and misery to others. Lots of bosses do have a quite healthy concern for others. Many really are just trying to do a difficult job under commonly very stressful conditions. This essay is not about them. What fun would that be?
So here are a few classic “types.” If none of these sound familiar, you should consider yourself a very lucky person indeed.
|Primary Traits||Favorite Cliches||The “Message”||Important survival skills needed by subordinates|
|Tyrannosaurus Rex (aka The Emperor or Queen)||Domination of all forms of human and inanimate life. Living proof that the carnivorous giant reptiles are not extinct, but continue to rule the Earth.||“My way or the highway.”“If you don’t like _______, fine, go out and find another job.”“I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it (and _______________
(whatever you’ve just done)
“Why? Because I said so.”
|Do what I say, regardless. If that turns out to be wrong, then you should have understood what I meant rather than what I said.||Complete lack of ego, gumption, self-respect, etc. when eating crow is required.Mind-reading.Ability to look for a new job while keeping this one.
Ability to feed T-Rex’s ego without throwing up.
|The Regular Guy||Amiable to a fault, unless you’ve done something “wrong,” in which case, hurt, betrayed, disappointed, and on the verge of physical violence.||“Hey, we’re all in this together.”“There’s no ‘I’ in team.”“You’ve done great work, I wish I could do something for you (but I can’t because of those bastards above me).
|Do everything humanly possible to make me look good, but I don’t give a damn what happens to you.||Ability to match The Regular Guy’s amiability with an equal, if less obvious, amiability.|
|The Lunatic||Brilliant, but crazy; Crazy but brilliant; Ordinary ideas come out as though they were unique insights. Never know what to expect.||“All you have to do is take the whatsit, turn it inside out and reverse it, and you’re problem’s solved.”“I’ll be fine as soon as the meds kick in.”||Since you have no idea what’s coming next, treat me as you’d treat a T-Rex and hope and pray my psychosis doesn’t turn homicidal with you as the victim.||Mind-reading an absolute necessity.Ability to suspend sense of reality.Ability to pretend that insanity as brilliance — Must do this believably.|
|The Turtle||Slow. Maybe methodical or maybe just slow. Everything takes forever.||“I have your request right here on my desk”||Don’t expect your job situation to improve within your or your children’s children’s lifetimes.||Patience of a saint, an actual sanctified saint.|
|The Rhinoceros||Classic bully. Closely related to the T-Rex||“Anybody who gets in my way is toast.”||My way or you’ll be crushed.||Ability to ignore all subtlety in achieving goal.Willingness to destroy anyone subordinate to you who is in the way.|
|The Nebbish||No apparent backbone, but transmits orders from above as though they were the word of God||“We need to show the big bosses we can get the job done.”||I’m nothing, but you’re less than nothing. If you need anything (e.g. a promotion) you’re screwed. Meanwhile, work your butt off because your boss does nothing.||Ability to be even more non-existent than the Nebbish.Often requires the ability to do the job that The Nebbish refuses or is unable to do.|
|The Nerd||Appears only to be interested academically or technically and oblivious to your actual job.||“If only they’d gone with my suggestion to write everything in binary code.”||Since I don’t care what the actual job is, you better.||Willingness to engage in endless hours of meaningless conversation or work.|
|The Obsessive||Focuses only on detail.||“I know you’ve worked on this for weeks, but you misspelled a word on page 57.”||I can’t be bothered with the big picture (so you better be!) and I’ll happily ream you ass over the small details||Also requires willingness to engage in endless hours of meaningless conversation or work.To cover fact that The Obsessive isn’t actually doing anything productive, need to able to The Obsessive’s real job at the same time as doing one’s own job.|
|The Political Animal||Only concern is outwitting and destroying others.||“That S.O.B. will eat my dirt!”||I don’t care what you do exactly, as long as you make me look good and my peers look bad.||Willingness to be an S.O.B. also. Must participate, willingly, in all the Politician’s Machiavellian schemes.|
|The Sleaze Ball||Similar to the politician, but the method must be slimy or its not satisfying.Frequently extremely lazy.||“That S.O.B. won’t know what hit ‘em.”||I don’t care what you do exactly, as long as you make me look good and my peers look bad — and will be trying to wash the slime off their bodies for years.||As with the Politician, requires ability to play dirty.|
|The “Innovator”||Similar to the Lunatic, but less obviously crazy; Often not very smart.||“Think outside the box.”||I have no idea how to get the job done, so you better figure out how to do it — and you can’t do it in any ordinary way because that won’t make me look good enough.||Ability to pretend that the most mundane and obvious is actually an entirely new way of doing things.|
|The Traditionalist||Essentially the other side of the coin of the Innovator. Also rarely very smart.||“This is the way we’ve always done it and it seems to work pretty well.”“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.||I have no idea how to get the job done, so you better figure out how to do it — and you can only do it in ordinary, standard ways.||Ability to do the dullest job in the dullest way with getting so bored that you run through the cubicles screaming that your hair is on fire.|
|The Speed Demon||Constant demand to do things faster than they can possibly be done.||“I need it yesterday!”“What have you been doing all week, surfing the Internet?”||I have no idea what you’re doing or how you doing it, but do it faster.||This often requires actual job skills so that you can get the job done in, literally, a quarter of the time it should reasonably take.If the Speed Demon is also a Marathon Runner, invest in long term nursing care and short -term life insurance, you are certain to need one or the other|
|The Risk Avoider||Similar to the traditionalist, but less formally traditional; always evaluating what could go wrong.||“Why did you do that? Are you trying to get me fired!?!”||Get the job done without anything ever drawing any negative attention to me.||Ability to restrain oneself from evereven thinking “outside the box.”Love the box.|
|Your Biggest Fan / Ardent Supporter||Uses a sense that you will not only be ok if you do what’s asked of you, but that you will be loved. Sometimes sexual allure is added to the promise of undying love.||“Do you think you can work your magic and get this done for me?”||Do a great job and even if you won’t see a promotion or a raise, I’ll love you forever (and maybe I’ll even have sex with you!)|
|The Angry Ape||Uses the threat of violent rage (and the public embarrassment associated with it) to get you to do what’s demanded.||“I’ll fucking kill you!”||Just like The Angry Ape says: “I’ll fucking kill you.” In any case, you’ll wish you were dead.||Ability to endure humiliation.|
|“Best Friend”||Uses your need for the job to enlist you in personal needs that have nothing to do with job.||“Why don’t you come over to the house and help me renovate my basement, living room and kitchen. I hope you don’t have a problem with removing asbestos without a mask.”||Doing your job isn’t enough, The “Best Friend” is happy to exploit you far beyond and outside of the job.||Ability to be a perfect sycophant without really trying.|
|The Star Gazer||Only concern is impressing the boss above them.||“My boss will not be happy about this!”||You only exist to make this person look good to their boss; If you do, great; If you don’t, you’re toast.||Again, having no ego, no personal commitment to your work is essential.Willingness to work endless hours for objectives that make no objective sense.|
There are a few basic characteristics that spell the difference between a toxic boss and a boss who’s a decent human being. Honesty is certainly the single most important characteristic of a decent boss. I don’t mean whether he lets his staff know he’s having an affair with one of his staff, or at the very least, desperately wants to. That kind of honesty is too easy for those who hoe the straight and narrow and out of the question for those who don’t. No, I mean the honesty of what the boss communicates straightforwardly to his workers about the job itself without a hidden agenda, with personal aggrandizement, without exploitation.
I went to a job interview once and was confronted with an amazingly onerous hours, vacation and leave policies. I had never seen anything like it in fifteen years of working in technology. I was told that the man I was going to work for was furious at personnel for having gone into this. No, this policy meant nothing; and he was the boss. What he neglected tell me was that it was, in fact, his policy and one enforced relentlessly.
Altogether too much is made of the boss as “motivator.” It reminds of the Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner classic 2000 Year Old Man. Reiner asks Brooks how they got around two thousand years ago, meaning what kind of carts or other vehicles did they have, and Brooks replies that “fear” what got them around. You saw a big lion and you got away from there, fast.
Many bosses act as though their relationship to their staff is like the lion’s to Mel Brooks: They get their employees to move by scaring the shit out of them. And it isn’t just the fear of being fired that can intimidate. I remember a top manager who would yell at his employees, themselves managers of dozens of other people on the floor, so loudly that everyone on the floor heard every word. He was famed for doing this at least once a year to every manager who worked for him. His fury instilled fear in everyone on down the line, including all of of us way too far down the totem pole to ever get this treatment directly.
But did that fear motivate? I doubt it. Most everyone I knew was already trying to do the best they could. They needed their jobs, wanted to keep them, and also wanted to maintain their own self-respect. Fear only increased anxiety to the point, well-known in psychology, where it causes interference with doing the work, rather than improving it. Quaking in fear rarely makes for steady hands.
And even to the extent that a boss’ fury or manipulation does “motivate,” what a hell of a way to get a worker to do something. I don’t recall ever seeing an offer of employment that warns the applicant that exposure to rage and humiliation are part of the job. We don’t even allow that mode of motivation in any humane training of animals. Imagine if it got out that they got Rin Tin Tin or Lassie to play their role by terrifying the animal with electric shock? Yet some bosses do it all the time without a second thought.
It all came clear to me one day when I realized that a particularly obnoxious manager couldn’t possibly be helping the company’s bottom line by his antics. I noticed that his manager was even more loathsome, though with a more smarmy, unctuously amiable style. For all its capitalist trappings, the company was a feudal kingdom, with each higher level taking increasing sadistic pleasure in subjugation of all those below! Where’s Spartacus when we need him to stand up for our rights!
Taking pleasure in the exercise of power for its own sake isn’t, of course, limited to the world of corporations. The titles are different in the world of academia, for example, and power is sometimes wielded more by committees than individuals, but the dynamics are the same. The Chair of a department or an important committee, an Academic Vice President, or Dean of Faculty, or Provost, usually exercises the same disproportionate power over a faculty member as a boss has over an employee. It may look like the faculty member is free, especially if tenured, but the power relationship is still fundamentally unbalanced, leaving ample room for abuse.
There are many other spheres, politics is an obvious example, where these same dynamics apply. They can be seen, of course, in parent-child relationships and marriages, as well. Whenever one person is in a position of power and control over another and chooses to exercise that power abusively, it ain’t no fun to be a position of dependence.
Maybe there’s a special circle of Dante’s Inferno reserved for diabolical bosses or perhaps they’re doomed to be reincarnated as cockroaches. No, that would be letting them off too easy.