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Boss Science


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.

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