Friday, June 06, 2014

Is your boss a loony?

We tend to think of corporate bosses, including CEOs, as supremely well-adjusted beings, people with a high EQ who have, over the years, smoothed out their edges, perfected the art of dealing with people and- lest I forget- with a terrific sense of values.

The truth is often to the contrary - and it can be rather unsettling. Insead professor Manfred Kets de Vries points out in a recent HBR article that a surprisingly large number of senior executives have a serious personality disorder. As a result, the environment of the company in which the leader operates becomes toxic. People find it hard to function.

Vries identifies four main disorders; pathological narcissists, who are selfish and entitled, have grandiose fantasies, and pursue power at all costs; manic-depressives, who can leave a trail of emotional blazes behind them; passive-aggressives, who shy away from confrontation but are obstructive and underhanded; and the emotionally disconnected—literal-minded people who cannot describe or even recognize their feelings.

I am sure this is something many of us will have no difficulty relating to. We have all encountered bosses who are tyrannical, unreasonable, deceitful and full of themselves. The question is: how common or uncommon is this syndrome? Perhaps the more acute or psycopathic manifestations are somewhat rare. However, it appears almost inevitable that, in clawing their way to the top, executives require and develop qualities that renders them toxic by the time they get there. Among these qualities are: ruthlessness, disregard for scruple, a certain low cunning, an ability to manipulate people, and a degree of megalomania that gets confirmed with each round of "success" achieved.

These are the very qualities that contribute to their success- and, of course, they enhance shareholder value. It is important to understand, however, that the very drive, ambition and focus on achievement that propels them to the top enhances their toxicity and that of the companies to which they belong. As one reader writes in response:

If "a surprising number of senior executives do have a personality disorder of some kind", isn't there something inherently wrong in the way we select leaders in business as well as the kind of behaviors we encourage in order to make it to the top?

Vries believes that by identifying these pathologies, one can "coach" leaders back into normal behaviour. I am inclined to be sceptical. Once a person is high enough up the ladder, who are the people who would dare to tell him that he's bonkers? And which leader would want to acknowledge a serious disorder and would want to deal with it.

The unpleasant reality is that, in the competitive world in which we operate and the single-minded focus on results, defined entirely in terms of profit, such behaviours are almost inevitable. We will need to question the basic purpose of the corporation and its culture if "toxic" leaders are to be checked. It is not that you create a situation that requires leaders to be "toxic" if they are to succeed - and then proceed to treat them once you notice the fall-out.


Anonymous said...

Dear Prof TTR,

Many thanks for the Brilliant blogpost...I feel very lucky for my boss is a through gentlemen and I too emulate him (am assuming my team would acknowledge)

However, I have experienced toxic bosses first-hand and do observe some of my peer-group behaving obnoxiously citing Steve Jobs methodology (without matching his innovation, hard work and importantly vision).

Thank you,
your ex-student and admirer

T T Ram Mohan said...

Thanks very much, ex-student and admirer, I'm glad you could relate to what I have written. Yes, you are indeed lucky in having a different sort of boss. And, yes, it is always worth asking how one is regarded by those below- and here I would include the non-officer staff.If the office peon, accountant and bearer in the canteen think well of you, you have achieved something.


chandramouli said...

In recent years there is a system of 360 degrees appraisal introduced in some companies like Asian Paints etc. where the sub-ordinates are asked to evaluate their bosses. The feedback is given to the bosses for rectification. The evaluation is also kept confidential so as to ensure sub-ordinates can come out with their observations. The system appears to have brought some improvements in the functioning styles of the bosses. I think the concept of whistle blower is also one in this direction. As per corporate governance norms The Whistle Blower policy has to be pronounced in the web site of the company and all employees should be made aware of the existence of such policy.