Boss Science

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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.”

As a TV character, Scott is laughable, in part, because we assume no one quite like that could really be boss. Yet the sad irony of office life is that a large and growing body of evidence argues that narcissistic personality traits are some of those that propel the jerk up the ladder. Research suggests that he who climbs quickly is likely more talkative, social, and at the same time more obviously—obviously is the key word—dominant than his peers. “He answers to himself,” as one management consultant puts it. He’s self-referential—“I believe … ” is the way he starts most every sentence. He has a talent for manipulating others’ impressions. One way he sometimes does that is by flashing a little anger. “Leadership research shows that subtle nasty moves like glaring and condescending comments, explicit moves like insults or put-downs, and even physical intimidation can be effective paths to power,” reports Robert Sutton, a Stanford professor and author of The No Asshole Rule.

And so, the research shows, employees tend to see the jerk, the narcissist, and yes, even the asshole, as boss material. “Yeah, the narcissist has advantages,” Adler says, as if fingering a nemesis. Most important among them, the narcissist believes that it’s his natural right to be the boss. “Narcissism,” says Adler, his hands flapping the air, “makes a person feel that he should be a leader. He’s the one motivated to sell himself to peers.”

Certainly no one in the corporate-psychology business wants to be seen as soft-minded about nasty, brutish workplace tactics. If the jerk who shoves others aside to rise in fact makes the best boss, so be it. If employees have to suffer, so be it. That’s why they call it work.

But the one who reaches the top fastest doesn’t necessarily make the best boss. A foundational bit of research on this issue was done by Fred Luthans at the University of Nebraska. “What do successful managers—those who have been promoted relatively quickly—have in common with effective managers—those who have satisfied, committed subordinates and high-performing units?” asked Luthans. “Surprisingly, the answer seems to be that they have little in common.”

And the problem isn’t easily controlled. Dysfunction at the top tends to infect an organization. When the boss is disagreeable, disagreeableness spreads. Sutton and others see assholicness as a disease vector. “There’s powerful evidence from longitudinal studies that if you’re around jerky people you’ll become like them if you don’t leave,” Sutton tells me. “Specifically, studies show that if you work for a bully boss, you will become a bully.

“Being an asshole,” he says flatly, “is a contagious disease.”

We Hold the Boss to Be Self-Evident

The fact that the boss was a bastard didn’t used to make such a difference. Dad, the Organization Man, put in his time at the office—he called it the grind, the rat race—then caught the 5:14 home to an armful of kids. That one’s boss was an old-fashioned authoritarian, a yeller, and possibly not the smartest guy in the room was simply part of the natural order. At your job, you were a cog, a tool. Life took place at home.

That idea took a couple of decades to die, but by the nineties it was clear that work was viewed differently. It became a place (perhaps the place) where people look for personal fulfillment. The office, by this view, isn’t a big anonymous organization to be tinkered with by engineers; it’s as intimate as a family.

In this paradigm there is no room for the boss-as-tyrant. Leadership books of the nineties, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey, and Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, often cast the boss as a kind of ideal parent. Soon, books with titles like Growing Great Employees would take up more and more real estate on the business bookshelves. One talks of a boss who “believ[es] in people’s potential and want[s] to help them grow.” Another book says the boss ought to be like the Buddha; it suggests the key to leadership is “loving kindness.” In the same vein, “servant leadership” has recently become a popular term; the idea is that the boss serves his employees.

Not all office psychologists have a lot of patience with this theme. “Where do they get this stuff? Do they make it up?” asks Hogan.

For these psychologists, the personality is a deconstructible combination of five sets of traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. (Conveniently, they spell OCEAN.) These traits are statistical clusters that can describe every one of us. And also predict leadership.

Researchers have found a moderate correlation between each of the five traits and the effective boss. But when the traits were amalgamated into a kind of personality profile, their predictive power proved stronger than intelligence, a quality every boss is supposed to have.

And yet, in their hardheaded way, organization psychologists incorporate their own version of the touchy-feely vibe. For the effective boss, openness may be the most important personality trait. Someone high in openness, as the expression goes, is open to new experiences, new ideas, new people. He’s not dogmatic. He likes diversity. He’s not a routinized taskmaster barking orders down the organizational chart. Organizations change quickly these days. They’re supposed to be nimble, and bosses are, too.

The conscientious person shows up on time, he meets deadlines, he’s got a good work ethic. He’s a dependable achiever. Conscientiousness may be most significant when climbing the ladder, less so when you’re at the top. Then, apparently, others can be conscientious, just as others can be agreeable.

The agreeable person likes everyone and enjoys being liked. It’s a great trait for the team member, less important for the boss. In fact, effective leadership correlates with low agreeableness.

Someone high in neuroticism is a natural alarmist. He’s antsy and prone to anxiety. He’s the office catastrophist; something is always going wrong. “I’m working with a hospital now,” says Adler. “You don’t want a hospital run by neurotics emoting stress all the time. You can’t project urgency.”

“Managers are rarely promoted based on their talent for leadership,” says Hogan. The challenge is to sort out effective leaders from effective climbers.

When it comes to whether one personality is good or bad, nice or mean, the organizational psychologist is agnostic. Given certain situations, you may want a neurotic boss. “What is good about a neurotic?” asks Adler. “Our research shows that neurotics are emotionally expressive. They’re candid and honest, and have a sense of urgency. Sometimes that’s exaggerated, which creates unnecessary anxiety, but other times it has a place.” Take financial services, which is subject to market fluctuations worldwide. “You need to operate in conditions of uncertainty,” says Adler. “In this case, a sense of anxiety, of alert, is not a negative. If you are not neurotic, maybe you can’t create a sense of urgency.” So your boss on the trading desk may be a yeller with a short fuse. That, quite possibly, is bad for the heart-disease rate, but good for business.

Adler and his colleagues sometimes observe the nuances of the different personalities by putting a dozen people in an ordinary conference room, the usual bland office setting with the firm’s founder pictured on the wall, a pitcher of water on the large rectangular table. The drill is to give them an hour to choose a location for a new office, or some other task. Then ask the group to vote for a leader. The exercise mirrors the way bosses are often chosen.

In its purest form, the purpose is to observe how the group interacts when there’s no structure. It’s Lord of the Flies in a conference room. “We study people exerting power” is how Adler puts it.

Often you find the Big Five represented. There’s at least one agreeable personality. He may have the best ideas but presents them politely, even meekly. There’s that neurotic, watching the clock. He’s the emotional one, his voice rising. There’s an achiever (an element of conscientiousness). He’s full of ideas and determined to figure out the best result. There might be an obsessive, taking notes, making sure everyone sticks to the topic. Invariably from this mix one person emerges as a leader figure, often the same type of person.

The researchers call the person who wins the nod “an emergent leader,” which they distinguish from “effective leader.” The effective leader will be suited by personality to manage others. The emergent leader seems bosslike, and, most of the time, gets the job. He’s the successful climber. But will he be the effective boss?

The Origins of Office Totalitarianism

“Leaderless-group research provides virtually no information about the effectiveness [of the leader],” says Hogan. “Rather it tells us about what a person must do in order to be perceived as leaderlike.” It turns out that people, including those who do the hiring, select bosses based on what they think bosses should be. Hogan points out: “Managers are rarely promoted based on their talent for leadership.”

The challenge is to go beyond the leaderless group and sort out the emergent from the effective leader; the successful climber from the good boss. The difficulty, as Luthans discovered, is that there is little overlap between the great climber and the great leader; 10 percent is all he found.

The narcissist, inevitably, performs well in the conference-room experiment, partly because the narcissist manages to act like he already is the boss. In leaderless groups (as at dinner parties) he’s an expert, which he doesn’t mind letting you know. Think of Harvey Pitt when he was the embattled SEC chairman. “It would be unthinkable to deprive people of my expertise,” he said, a few months before being forced to resign.

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?

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.

Boss Science