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Boss Science

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A body of research holds that complacency, the kind that results when everyone gets along, depletes workplace energy just as much, perhaps, as office strife. In nature, randomness creates a robust system. Boot out the uncongenial and you end up with a kind of office inbreeding. The idea pool shrinks with the personality pool. “You end with people who are going to be followers,” as Michael Maccoby, author of The Productive Narcissist, puts it.

Simply put, you need a strong leader. The boss-as-guidance-counselor with nurturing instincts may be the rage, but a strong leader stirs the pot. Maccoby, who has been writing about leadership for the better part of four decades, extols the virtues of the narcissist’s selfishness, ethical blindness, and lack of empathy as indispensable to being an agent of change in a large corporation—or the world. To move the cheese, a strong man is needed. The book is a paean to strong leadership of a kind that Leni Riefenstahl might have admired.

That is not an employee’s point of view; we like the person who waits his turn. And seeing as there are more employees than leaders, this may be why books about asshole bosses tend to sell so well.

And yet, anyone can see, rationally, that unless the cheese is sometimes displaced, no one will end up with anything to eat. And the best person to move the cheese, the only person with the inner strength, is the narcissist. Narcissism can work.

The narcissistic boss doesn’t tend his employees’ sensitive inner selves. For him, it’s all about the means. The process may be brutal. The ends justify the means.

Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, who’s fired over a hundred assistants, says, “It’s impossible to get to the level I want to get to without making a lot of enemies.” Andrew Grove, Intel co-founder, encourages bosses to be blowhards, oozing confidence, even when they’re wrong. “Act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction,” he says, and when you change convictions, act sure of that one, too.

Of course, the organizational psychologist is onboard (the boss pays him, remember?). He’s no sentimentalist. (“The office is a family? No,” says Adler.) He doesn’t care about our happiness unless it adds to return on investment. He wants the machine to work. “The question isn’t necessarily, ‘Is narcissism bad?,’ ” says Timothy Judge, the University of Florida professor, “but rather, ‘In what ways is narcissism bad and in what ways is it good?’ ”

Because, after all, it’s a tragic fact of the human condition that the world changes, the cheese gets moved, and someone has to move it. Which is why your office, whatever else it is, will never be a Utopia.

Research assistance by Keira Peikoff and Jonah Green.


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