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Hiya Matt:

I haven’t actually worked for too many bosses, so maybe this isn’t true for everybody, just for me. Out of three bosses I have had two of them turned out to be crazy. They played mean tricks on their employees, especially women, and would make these strange rules out of the blue, like when I was a salesman and the owner of the place decided one day that we all needed to wear ugly red-striped shirts for about six months. He said it would make people buy more and make us stand out. One said nobody could put up pictures of their families or pets at their workstation because we worked for him, not our pets. I’m surprised he didn’t give us each a picture of him to put on our desks. These guys weren’t people you would like to invite to your home or have around your family. Is there something about being a boss that does something to your brain? Or do people with something wrong with their brains make it to positions of power? Am I going to have to put up with this the rest of my working life?

— Lucky to have a job, San Diego

This answer is going to explain so much. It’s based on research in business environments, but it sounds suspiciously like politics, too. You couldn’t have asked your question at a better time.

Back many eons ago, before yours truly was recognized by the world as the brain I am, I actually had a boss. Back before computers were ubiquitous in the workplace. People used things called typewriters; kids, ask your parents. So, for example, my insufferably arrogant bossy boss insisted that his letters go out without any corrections in them. Typo-free. No Wite-Out, no type corrector, no eraser, nothing. And perfectly centered on the page. I noticed that telling this to a secretary guaranteed she (all were shes back then) would be incapable of typing even the simplest memo. Hands shook, breathing went sharp and shallow, eyes filled with tears. Sometimes he’d watch, just for the fun of it, as each made try after try to get it right. Every day this went on. Every day. I assume no one kept track of how much expensive letterhead or time he was wasting, or the secretarial turnover.

We have to clarify here, a psychotic is not an ax murderer. Well, he might be, but it’s not that extreme we’re talking about. A psychotic, according to science, is someone who’s manipulative, has no empathy or remorse — no feelings for other people, is very egotistical, with a tendency to abuse others in one way or another. Not physically, much more subtly than that, but with the ability to schmooze his way out of scrapes. There are written tests that will pick out a psychopath with surprising accuracy, testing for glib and superficial charm, sexual promiscuity, and pathological lying, all proven to correlate with psychopathic behavior.

Recently, psychologists from the University of British Columbia and the University of North Texas set about studying the mind of the corporate up-and-comer, the guys and gals that CEOs saw as potential stars in their firmament. A battery of tests to 203 such subjects indicated that 1 in every 25 qualified as a psychopath, based on a standard psychological test for psychopathy. A scary 3.9 percent of them were at the top of the psycho pile, full-fledged; that compares to 0.02 percent of such loonies in the general population. Another 6 percent were walking a thin line between full psycho and merely kinda’ psycho. The general population yields only 1.2 percent. In general, the up-and-comers matched average Joes in the mid-range of the psycho curve, but the business guys were more extreme at the upper end of the curve.

The real mind-bender in this study is the fact that the nine most far-out psychos had risen highest in their companies. And the psych profs found that many in upper management already knew, or suspected, that these people were wacko.

How do the up-and-comers get away with this? Psychotics generally lack realistic goals, but upper management wants to interpret their strange ideas as being “visionary,” a highly regarded quality in an employee. Someone who has no empathy, remorse, or feelings for others generally appears to be good at making or carrying out “tough” business decisions and being “cool under fire.” They get high marks in communication (a.k.a. manipulation) and creative thinking (no reality check). And they’re seen as extremely charismatic. What’s worse, a review of these scary folks’ past job performances shows that they’ve been dinged by their bosses for their bad management style, for not being team players, and poor job performance in general. You or me? We’d be out on the street. We’re not psycho enough to manipulate our way around the boardroom brains. Why some psychopaths become killers and others become CEOs is unknown. A psychopath apparently has the drive to claw his/her way to the top, and once they get there they exploit the power. Truly depressing, the whole thing. But as I said, it explains a lot.

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Comments

Ken Harrison Jan. 22, 2012 @ 7:53 a.m.

As a psychopath . . . er . . . business owner, when you lose sleep at night wondering how you're going to pay the company's bills, if you'll make pay-roll, why your business is down one week, then up the next, what government agency will require something new of you, and why you friends are talking two weeks paid vacation or getting 99 weeks of unemployment and you're working more and more hours for less money and can't even stop to think about retirement . . . yes it may make us bosses a little crazy. Hopefully we take time to step back and appreciate our employees who get up every morning to serve us. An occasional thank you, an unexpected gift card, maybe a paid weekend getaway for their years of service, all things we good bosses try to do but sometimes need to be reminded of in our ranting, raving, and struggling mentality. But we wouldn't have a business without our employees.

And then there is the true thought that most small business people have no business being in business. They don't have a clue, no plan or vision. They've only created a job for themselves because they can't work for others. Almost every boss I had was an idiot, until I became the idiot and had to pay off the Karma that I created as an employee.

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Matthew_Alice Jan. 22, 2012 @ 6:37 p.m.

Very well put. there are pressures on both sides. I think what the good doctors are talking about are the con men and smarmy pretenders who weasel their way up the corporate ladder and step on everybody else in the process. Not the beleaguered boss in a bad economy who's so stressed he forgets his corporate manners for a while. Employees can easily tell the difference. You sound like a good guy to work for.

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Twister Jan. 22, 2012 @ 8:23 p.m.

Context is everything. Gassy/oily feces float to the top in watery organizations. Dense ones get flushed. Oh, the irony!

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FatCatSegat Jan. 23, 2012 @ 8:02 a.m.

Someone very close to me is the psychopath at his, (and I emphasize HIS!)small business. This is his take on why he's the way he is. Apparently his first boss was the world's biggest anal aperture. Abuse, taking employees for granted. Whatever, the case. He's egotistical, abusive to subordinates with no empathy or remorse for the way he treats them, or he'll feign remorse with the crocodile tears that he swears, serve him so well. Yes, manipulative. The only reason he can and does get away with this behavior is because the business is his. Seems to me that when you're an emotional midget and haven't been able to see yourself in action nothing changes. Who wants to pick on the megalomaniacal 400lb. gorilla? These wounded souls just pick on the truly talented only to chase them away. What was once a valued part of the team is now verbally trashed once they're gone, thus justifying the fact that this person left. Another asset discarded.

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