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Boss Science


At heart, the emergent leader might not particularly value people. But he seems to listen and to care. He is, in the language of the trade, a high self-monitor, a gifted manager of perceptions, a winning quality in a leaderless group. He’s got a sixth sense—“at the blink level,” says Adler—for knowing what people want to hear. Or, as Sutton explains, “narcissists are socially skilled at adjusting their personality.”

Still, perhaps the most prominent characteristic of the emergent leader—the engine of the rest—is that he seems charismatic. “I can light up a room with my eyes,” one narcissist confided to Robert Kaiser, co-author, with Hogan, of The Versatile Leader. People love charisma, the sense of something big, alive, engaging. Freud was probably the first to point out that the narcissist is “the type of person who impresses us as a personality.” We not only want our boss to like us, we want to like him. In this regard, charisma is like fairy dust. And so the guy with the narcissistic instincts, with personal command and an ability to fill up a room (especially a leaderless one), gets the tap on the shoulder. And that’s where the calamity begins.

Sadly, once he is the boss, the narcissist often sees the job as a stepping-stone to the next one. Climbers climb. They don’t even do the same job as the effective manager. As one told Luthans, “I find that the way to get ahead around here is to be friendly with the right people … I find a common interest … and interact with them on that level. The other formal stuff around the office is important, but I really work at this informal side and have found it pays off when promotion time rolls around.”

Charisma may be an asset for the climber, but it doesn’t necessarily help the manager. “Four scholarly studies have examined charisma,” says Kaiser. “Not a single one finds charisma and performance linked. The only thing charisma correlates to is high salary.”

The promise of the new office psychologists is that they can do something about the self-absorbed guy before he gets to the top. Personalities don’t change, they know; better to eliminate those you don’t want before they strike.

For this, the tool of choice is the business simulation, a kind of business video game. Aon, where Adler works, has its own proprietary version, called the Leader. A candidate sits in front of a computer and a phone, the modern manager’s tools. A video pops up on the screen. It’s a supervisor behind on a product development. He wants to borrow another team’s engineer. Who is this guy? What’s the project? The executive candidate has to dig into the e-mails, the organization chart. Meanwhile, the phone rings. It’s one of his reports calling for a scheduled job-performance discussion, a role played by one of the test administrators. The simulation tests intelligence and skills. The real purpose, though, is to filter out personality traits. “We determine which is your preferred style,” he says. “We can’t change it. But we can measure it.”

Companies look for different personalities, but not many want the thoroughgoing narcissist. (And watch out: There is no more toxic colleague than a thwarted narcissist, with his rage and sense of victimization.) There’s a no-asshole rule, as the popularity of Sutton’s book suggests. And here, apparently, the enemy can be met.

“We’re likely to spot them and red-flag them,” says Adler, “and the odds are they won’t make it to a top spot.”

Workers of the World, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Jobs.

The truth is that many employees are utopians of a kind, too. No one wants to work with ego monsters. The office is still supposed to be a kingdom of fairness where no one’s feelings get hurt and everyone gets the same portion. Excellence is an end, but not the only one. Teamwork is our watchword; we are all proud, busy collaborators. The office, in this view, is a happy tribe sharing everything, making decisions communally, with the same worldview, the same DNA.

Some studies inevitably buttress this conception. People are more satisfied in their jobs if they like their co-workers. If they fit in, they tend to stay longer. “There is powerful evidence from longitudinal studies of accounting firms that the people who fit the culture better have lower turnover and better performance,” says Sutton.

But should the office really be a welcoming mother ship full of happy people and groovy background music? Organizations can slip toward homogeneity, not only in race or gender, but in personality. In the absence of objective criteria, search committees tend to select people they like. And they like people who resemble them. What’s more, the research shows that people who are already similar tend to grow increasingly alike the more time they spend together. The office moves toward sameness—comforting for the employee, but is it healthy for the organization?

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