This just in: 1 in 4 bosses are psychos!

This was the shocking headline on Mediaite (a reputable news and media blog) yesterday: "Psychological Study Finds That One In Four Bosses Are Secretly Psychopaths."

But readers should be skeptical. These stats are highly suspect. Everyone tells me the ratio is more like one in two bosses. (And what's with the weasel word "secretly"?)

This is yet another aspect of business where rock & roll has much to teach us. In most bands—especially the best and the brightest—there are no bosses (at least in the traditional sense), psycho or otherwise.

Bands tend to be autonomous, self-managed business teams. Leadership is situational and distributed. Different members take the lead for different functions.

Some take the lead for singing, some for songwriting, some for arranging, some for digital expertise, some for business managing. (I go into detail on this in my forthcoming book.) Inspiration, creativity, productivity, and profitability are just a few of the benefits.

But this lesson has not been learned in Officeland, where hierarchy and bureaucracy still reign, allowing for serious abuse. So, even allowing for a mathematical error in Mediaite's reporting (the study actually says that only 4% of bosses are psychopaths not 25%—oops!), we have a problem with bosses.

There are thousands of books and articles on bad managing, bad supervising, and bad bossing. My personal experience reporting to bosses is of course vast (based on a childhood paper route). But more importantly people tell me everyday their horror stories about workplace superiors. They assure me the problem has taken on pandemic proportions. Psychopaths are running rampant in our companies, they say, if not running our companies.

But there is one problem: most of the very same people complaining about their psycho bosses are also bosses, with their own direct reports. So we should expect—based on the 1:2 ratio that people report to me—that roughly half of these psycho victims are psycho bosses themselves (at least when they're running meetings or writing performance reviews).

Yet I've never heard anyone—among the thousand-plus managers I've had serious conversations with in the last 30 years—admit to me: "Yeah, I'm a psycho too with my own direct reports, incapable of personal understanding or any shred of human feeling towards them." In fact most of them think they're pretty effective, caring managers.

It's related to that age-old question every good consultant/counselor/mediator/diplomat has to come to grips with at some point: "How come it's always the other guy, gal, group, organization, political party, religion, or nation that's psycho (or evil, violent, cruel, selfish, dim-witted, etc.)?" The answer, my friend, is still blowing in the wind.

But let's end on a practical note: "How do you know if your boss is a psycho?" Based on numerous interviews I've done, there are many tell-tale signs. Here's my short list.

1. Your boss shows more facial animation talking to the aquarium fish than to you.
2. When your boss occasionally blows up, s/he likes to flop on the floor and chew on the carpet.
3. Your boss fires you by starting out with: "I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is I won a Powerball prize…"

I hope you'll tell me yours.


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19 Comments

  1. Funny stuff! I think that at sometime in society accepting responsibility for what goes wrong and trying to weasel in and steal credit for things that work became more important than fairness and worse, competency. That is why you have, "I know I am alright and deserving while the other guy is a schmuck' atmosphere in the business/clerical worlds. Other professions that take an actual skill and vision, like managing music acts, the arts, engineering, where you can both objectively and subjectively measure talent, tends to have less of the back biting and indelicate behaviour that takes place in the work environment.

    Jus' sayin' (and in run-on sentences too!)

  2. where i work - in government - it's a higher ratio than one out of two. we have mostly psychopaths but we have a few sociopaths too and some paranoid schizophrenics among the supervisors ... then there's the department head who has a dissociative identity disorder. milton

  3. Sounds like an interesting place to work, Milton. Yeah, I'm not totally sure about the ratio numbers, but if you're talking about dissociative identity disorders too (that's split personality, right?) I think it's 2 out of every 1 boss is psycho.

  4. I don't know how serious Milton's comments are, but there are psychologists who are not taking this issue lightly. Here's an article on "6 Signs Your Boss Might Be a Sociopath." http://madamenoire.com/25917/six-signs-your-boss-might-be-a-sociopath/ As a threat it's probably overblown, like most diagnoses of workplace ills, but we're better off educating ourselves on it. Even if your boss isn't a sociopath or psychopath, he or she may not be playing with a full deck.

  5. Well said, CK. We should also add that being a boss is no day in the park (unless of course you supervise park rangers) so I sympathize with the challenges of any boss. And psychopaths are people too. Like you and me, they have feelings...oh, wait, maybe they don't, at least sometimes. Nevermind.

  6. Thanks, Mark. You just reminded me of the 4th telltale sign of psycho bosses: their sentences tend to run on.

    All seriousness aside...someone just asked: how do you tell a psychopath from a sociopath (given that upper management especially is well populated by both)? Well, if the causes of your boss's pathology are social, they probably are sociopaths. If the causes are genetic, they’re probably psychopaths. If you’re not sure, just ask them. Or you can just call them psycho-sociopaths to be safe.

  7. Let's look at a recently exposed business dynamic: upwardly mobile aggressive ethics-free backstabbers are far more likely to get promoted and earn far more than their more demure counterparts. It's a fact.

    This stems from a perception that leaders MUST be assholes. Thus this dysfunctional system is supported subconsciously by the whole. And it's therefore inevitable that a high percentage of bosses must be by definition a predatory, unfeeling buttmunching lot.

    And sorry to point out the divergence from the blog premise but in show biz, as a the above poster noted, you have something much closer to a meritocracy mashed up with anarchy on which individuals are remarkably free to tell everybody to just plain bugger off anytime they feel like it. That tends to short circuit tossers right quick.

    So what business lesson can we learn here? Simple: If you want your biz to be more functional and humane and ultimately successful, unionize--give your workers more input, a piece of the business, more say in promotions and hires, and expose any wankers to regular co-worker feedback sessions. Because that's exactly how rock bands survive fools and brigands and emotionally-plagued ego monsters that would go far in say Google or EA or Microsoft.

    My buddy Don Grolnick used to tell me about the post-show meetings they had in the Linda Ronstadt tours: Immediately after each concert the band would meet with Linda and go over every detail--what worked, what didn't, what felt right, what didn't, and any feelings the members had about song dynamics or even each other's attitude. And it worked like mad. I used to hang out with them, and they were tight like a family. Went to movies together, the whole shot.

    Contrast that with Cream where Ginger used to throw shit around the room, I had to duck out of the way all the time. Poor Jack desperate to hold the band together, Eric aloof and plotting his next move all the time. It was a ticking time bomb in which the most dysfunctional member was allowed to control the situation like any bad corporation where the worst rise to the top and control things.

    One band thrived and had successful tour after successful tour. The other band broke up way too early and deprived the world of great music.

    The rock model that worked involved equality, airing of grievances (raise the Festivus pole high!), deep communication, mutual respect and love.

    Whereas Cream ended up like Enron: a victim of a deeply dysfunctional jerk allowed to control things and set up a toxic environment.

    Bands and businesses both really do need to...

    Let somebody love them
    Before they get too old.

  8. The study is a load of old tosh. 4% of bosses are psychopaths? Pish, tosh and tush. Fact is, 96% of staff are total and utter wusses.

  9. HEY JOHN,I ONCE HAD A BOSS WHO, IF ANYONE SEEMS TO BE FALLING BEHIND IN THE PAPERWORK, HE WOULD STAND BEHIND HIS/HER DESK, AND LOOK OVER HIS SHOULDER AND SAY NOTHING.
    HE WOULD ALSO WALK IN UNANNOUNCED TO A CLOSED DIVISION MEETING AND TAKE OVER.
    THIS IS THE SAME GUY THAT HAD A THRONE BEHIND HIS DESK AND ALL THE OTHER CHAIRS WERE LOW TO THE GROUND HALF/EGG-SHELL SWIVEL CHAIRS.
    DOES HE QUALIFY?

  10. BZ, thanks for the comments. To get serious for a moment (before I get back to trolling for cheap laughs)... What you say may be true in many organizations (and I DO hear the stories) but I haven't seen much of that in the companies I've personally consulted to. First of all, one can be ambitious and assertive without being “aggressive ethics free.” Secondly, in the engineering & manufacturing organizations I’ve known, many talented individual contributors are pushed into management positions RELUCTANTLY, despite their own ambivalence about the move. Some of the best middle and senior managers I’ve known were not fast-trackers by any stretch. But the ones that succeeded did so because they developed a love for people development—which is what separates the greats from the mediocres in the game of management.

    What you say about bands is right on. The great organizations (bands, small businesses, large companies) ARE meritocracies.

    Yes, there are many ways to engage associates & employees and give them ownership of their job, career, and even company. Unionizing is a workable option if it’s a forward-thinking union, but the same can be achieved without unions. There are many hip companies that promote employee autonomy (to various degrees) that aren't union shops. On the other hand, there are many successful employee-focused companies (like Southwest Airlines) that ARE heavily unionized, so there’s no hard and fast rule here. (Much more can obviously be said about that.)

    Gotta hear more about Linda Ronstadt's team-building approach, but it doesn’t surprise me. "Equality, airing of grievances, deep communication, mutual respect and love” always works—in bands and in mainstraim business. Ronstadt’s no dummy and has a reputation for being a straight-shooter. And I got a glimpse of Cream's dysfunction when my band opened for them in New Haven many lifetimes ago.

    Thanks for dropping in, Desparado.

  11. Mark: Pish, Tosh, and Tush is an Bulgarian power trio, if I remember correctly.

    Paul: I'm not qualified to clinically diagnose that fella but I'm betting his emotional IQ is at slug level.

  12. Any org that partakes of your services, JO, MUST by definition be functional, so you would tend not to see the horrors the rest of us have experienced.

    My corporate experience is mainly limited to the video game business and I can tell you every American corp was rotten to the core, stinking like fish from the head. Not so much the Japanese companies which saw video games more as we see art. The Japanese were much more enthusiastic and supportive about new concepts and cutting-edge tech. Very positive, they really enjoyed their work.

    The Americans were far more conservative and interested in only the bottom line, the status quo, same old shooters and sports evergreens.

    All the American companies lied about everything to everyone. Total crooks. And worked their staff like sweatshop slaves for ridiculous hours.

    And not one ever hired a management consultant to improve teamwork. They worked to destroy teamwork as it created a power structure against management!

  13. BZ, the video game industry is one I have no experience in, though one would hope there are some honorable players in the US. But, yes, companies that pay for outside assistance are usually open to change, at least at the outset. Yet when management or intrenched interests recognize the extent of change required ("Oh, you mean I too have to look at things differently?") that's when the game begins—or just as often ends. The antibodies come out to attack the change agent(s). I tend to view these problems as systemic rather than personal, which is why I'm less concerned about individual bosses. Not that psychopathic or sociopathic bosses don't exist, but if the system is designed right, they can't last. Of course if the psycho boss STARTED the business, then you're screwed. :-)

  14. The picture you paint of bands sounds utopian. You say they're self-managed yet most of the good ones have managers, yes? You refer to the Beatles a lot yet Brian Epstein supposedly got them to stop swearing on stage and dress in suits, right?

    Also, doesn't rock have its share of psycho lead singers (Morrison, Osborne, etc.)? What about the most psycho record producer of all time, Phil Spector?

  15. Good points, Shivra.

    In the Beatles case, Epstein certainly took over the booking of the band (and made several strong suggestions regarding how to look, in order to increase bookings—like wearing suits, not chewing gum, bowing at the end of the show, etc.). But the Beatles kept their creative autonomy. They wrote and arranged the songs themselves and decided which ones to perform. When they began recording, George Martin initially chose which of their songs should be recorded and released, but it eventually became a consensual decision. Also, Lennon had become less of the guy-in-charge by then. (Incidentally, drummer Pete Best told me he did a lot of the bookings just before Epstein became manager.)

    Rock has had its share of stars who posed as crazy (Alice Cooper) or who desperately wanted to be crazy (Jim Morrison), but I can't think of anyone I spent any time with in the 60s, 70s, or 80s (out of hundreds of great artists)—who struck me as genuinely psycho, tho I'm no shrink and psychopaths aren't wearing signs. Phil Spector might be the one exception. I was surprised when I later heard stories of his wild paranoia, but given that he's doing time for murder, we can probably agree the dude has a few issues.

  16. sufrank - Having been both in the recording industry and in corporate America as a consultant and corporaye trainer I probably have a bit of a biased viewpoint however, in my career the best boss I ever had was in the recording industry. Now we are talking the 70's and 80's. This man was serious about business. We started out as a regional division of 2 recording companies and 3 years later had control over 26 states. So, no question that this man knew how to negotiate and gobble up state after state leaving distributors in his wake. However when it came to the office, this man had integrity, loyalty to his employees, humor, creativity and led an autonomous shop. YOU knew what you were to carry out and like his love of initiative he welcomed any new positions you wanted to take on. It was a time of flourishing - the organization and the people in it. I would have to surmise that more than 60% of the people who came out of that office ended up either in New York or LA in National positions. This man believed in giving people the opportunity to be all they could be during a time where punching a 9-5 clock was the best you could get out of people. I used to get up at 5 in the morning and go to work simply because I LOVED being in that line of work, that kind of environment and challenging myself daily.
    In the corporate world, ya, I have to admit things changed however, only until I went back into the arts did I run into a full fledged psycho. Lasted a year and then left not needing that kind of energy.
    As John mentions, or alludes to, it is up to us each and everyone of us to create cultures in our businesses that drive (as one commentor said) psycho's out. The sad thing is when you are working for a psycho, many people turn the drama of working for one, into more of a drama by engaging in it as in water-cooler talk - the adult version of the clicks we all belonged to in high school, or wished we belonged to - the talk keeps it alive! The lack of straight talk keeps it alive. It ain't gonna change folks, until all the someones in organizations say so, or.................someone starts to re educate business. Face it our companies are frozen. What we have for management in organizations, for the most part, are more, better different versions of the Industrial Age. With the possible exception of Demmings, and technology, 'everything old is new again....... '

  17. I dont really have a list of warning signs except that one psycho boss I knew started sleeping in his office and stopped bathing. When he had something to say, instead of looking at me he would stare at his shoes (unless he was barefoot.)

  18. Thanks for the reminder that a good manager can have a lasting impact on a career AND that our organizations are still relics of the Industrial Age.

  19. Yes, yes, those are classic signs! I can't believe I left them off my list. Were you working in the restaurant or hospitality industry by any chance? Of course a lot of people in that situation begin to mimic their boss's behavior, which I actually don't recommend in this case.

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