Thursday is National Boss Day in the United States.
And, unfortunately, there are lots of bad bosses out there.
Some psychologists say that more than 60% of managers are bad leaders.
In an effort to understand why it’s so rare to have a great boss, we looked at the management and organizational psych literature. Here’s what we found.
Many bosses are bad because they were promoted for technical skill, not management ability.
In 1968, University of Southern California professor Laurence Peter became famous for coining the Peter Principle, which explains why
people often get worse at their jobs the higher they climb the ladder.
In his book, “The Peter Principle,” he writes:
[I]n a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence.
Why is this?
Derek Salman Pugh, professor emeritus of the British Open University, says that if we assume that everybody is in a constant quest for status and high performance, then people will get promoted to higher positions of power so they can have an even greater positive effect on an organisation. But the skillset needed for one job, like developing websites, isn’t the same as the next one — managing a team of engineers.
Competence in each new position qualifies for promotion to the next, until people arrive at jobs beyond their abilities; they then no longer perform in a way that gains further promotion. This is the individual’s level of incompetence.
Many bosses are bad because they’re narcissists.
We tend to think of narcissism in its most severe forms, like the movie villain who manipulates everyone around him to get what he wants; think Matt Damon’s character in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or Christian Bale in “American Psycho.”
The economic crisis had its narcissists, too. The Financial Times writes that Lehman Brothers head Dick Fuld was your classic narcissist, “someone whose character at first brought success but then allowed catastrophe to strike.”
But the truth is much more nuanced.
Narcissism exists along a scale in the same way that introversion and extroversion lie along a gradient — everybody’s at least partially introverted and partially extroverted. This also means that everybody’s got at least some narcissistic tendencies.
Bosses might have a lot. Psychologists say that narcissists often rise to leadership positions because they’re amazing at managing people’s impressions of them. They’re expert at manipulating people with credit and blame, and they fit the stereotypical mould of a leader — all confidence and charisma.
And this, obviously, can be a problem. As Claremont McKenna College leadership professor Ronald E. Riggio says:
Leaders who are too narcissistic are convinced they are right, sensitive to criticism, and may ignore valid warnings. Because they lack empathy, they are not sensitive to the impact of their behaviour on others, and they may act out. Steve Jobs was known to berate and publicly humiliate subordinates.
Moreover, leaders with too much narcissism begin to believe that they are above the law. The rules that govern others don’t apply to them, and they may engage in illegal or unethical behaviour — and that is the downfall of many narcissistic leaders.
If that sounds like your boss, here’s how to deal with it.
Many bosses are bad because they fill a psychological need for authority.
In “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” Claremont University professor Jean Lipman-Blumen says bad bosses become bosses because they (falsely) fulfil people’s needs.
The most relevant psychological needs are those for authority figures to replace our parents and other early caretakers; for membership in the human community; for a conception of ourselves as significant beings engaged daily in noble endeavours in a meaningful world; for the hope that we can live at the centre of action, where powerful leaders congregate to make important decisions.
We’re all looking for security, purpose, and clarity in our bosses, she says, even if they can’t provide it in a way that’s healthy for us and our organisations.
But why would this be an issue?
Because as we now know, just because someone projects the leadership qualities of confidence and charisma doesn’t mean that they’re actually leadership material — they could just be very charming narcissists.