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Boss Science

The psychopathology of the modern American corporate leader.


Possibly, your boss is a truly fine person—wise, kind, perceptive, capable, understanding, the all-seeing director of the office sitcom, the sort of individual one might like to have, in an ideal world, as a parent or a confidant. Or not. In the real world, bosses are known to suffer from a long list of social pathologies: naked aggression, credit hogging, micromanaging, bullying, you name it. According to one report, 60 to 75 percent of employees—it doesn’t matter the organization—say the worst aspect of their job is their boss. It’s not difficult to believe, as one office expert concludes, that “every employed adult will have to work for a bad boss for some significant period.”

In the natural world, there are brutal processes by which, say, one especially vicious bull walrus ends up on the rock, with all the females, while all the others are forced to skulk around the periphery. Dogs, we’re told, inevitably select a leader, who emerges naturally through some mysterious language of dominance rituals, reinforced with tactical urination. Could the same be true, somehow, in the world of work? Is there some law of office life that dictates that jerks rise to the top?

In search of an answer, I began to explore the vast and ever-growing field of office psychology. The field is packed with off-the-top-of-their-head pundits and latest-idea peddlers of all stripes. Sprinkled among these are a few thinkers and scientists. One of them is Seymour Adler, an industrial-organizational psychologist at Aon Consulting. Adler is tall, talkative, and unassuming; he wears large glasses, khakis, a shirt without a tie. He has the mild look of a weekend boater. And yet it doesn’t take long to figure out that Adler is a kind of office utopian, who dreams of remaking the office cubicle by cubicle. Adler is one of a brash, almost swaggering set of psychologists with a wildly ambitious goal: the perfection of the society of work. “The thrust of my research is to identify the traits required to be an effective leader,” says Adler, “and then systematically select those traits”; each according to his personality, if not exactly according to his needs.

Adler has a new set of scientific tools by which to remake the office. “There’s been a revolution in thinking about personality,” he tells me. “The revolution is how little of who we are is determined by nurture and how much is determined by genetics.”

Psychologists are reducing personality to a linked series of statistical clusters that the research literature now confidently correlates with performance. Essentially, Adler makes his living by helping companies decide which pegs should go into which holes.

Adler says he knows which personality traits help make for a responsive customer-service rep, which make for an eager salesman. (Rule of thumb: Throw the obsessives into operations.) That customer-service rep should have an agreeable, tolerant personality and one without deep ambition. “There’s no incentive pay,” Adler says. The salesman probably should be achievement-oriented, someone who needs to prove himself against measurable goals. In the same vein, another researcher reports that one law firm deconstructs its HR needs by personality traits. It insists on extremely bright employees who are also extremely insecure. “They want them to think that working really hard matters,” he explains. Through this prism, personality types can even be mixed and matched to make a team function more efficiently. Psychologist Robert Hogan, a pioneer in organizational psychology, says it’s a matter of balance; three basic types are required. “You need an ambitious person, someone who will step up. You need someone inquisitive and with ideas. Then you need one smoother-outer, a person who’ll keep on task.”

In this view, failure is nothing more than incompatibility. Match the appropriate trait cluster to a well-understood task and you’ll have rebuilt the office along rational lines.

Like other utopian visions, Adler’s can seem profoundly inhumane—reducing people to a collection of qualities, manipulating them by identifying their weaknesses. In a sense, it’s a boss’s vision.

Man Is Born Free, But Everywhere He’s Working for a Jerk

In many offices, the boss’s focus tends to be on himself, in a mirror, heroically distorted. Take Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s character in The Office. Scott is craven, self-admiring, clueless, the Ur-narcissist. Others’ feelings and talents register little, if at all. Subordinates exist to serve—one, in fact, does Scott’s laundry. Scott’s only redeeming trait is that he’s a buffoon, the butt of the running joke. Still—and this is a crucial insight into the narcissistic boss—he is among the few who don’t see this. “Narcissists have unrealistically exaggerated views of their abilities and achievements,” reports University of Florida professor Timothy Judge, whose 2006 study of narcissists was titled “Loving Yourself Abundantly.”

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