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Our fascination with sociopathic bosses

Aubrey Daniels
Aubrey Daniels is the author of Bringing out the Best in People, and, most recently, OOPS! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time & Money And What To Do Instead. He blogs on workplace and management issues.

Why are we fascinated with reality shows in which every other word the boss utters -- or shouts -- is the "f word?" We know why employees on these shows put up with it. In the glamor businesses -- movies, TV and fashion -- people will tolerate anything to have a job where they gain experience and exposure.

But why do the rest of us find enjoyment in listening to Kelly Cutrone chew staff out in front of other employees on the new Bravo series "Kell on Earth"? Or watch Gordon Ramsey shout, throw things and fire people on the spot in Fox's "Hell's Kitchen?"

Kelly and Gordon can be classified as sociopathic bosses. I'd define a sociopathic boss as someone who can be charming when the occasion demands it -- usually with customers, clients or friends -- but who, in the workplace, are domineering, angry and verbally abusive. They publicly humiliate employees and show little tolerance for people who make errors, often firing them on the spot.

Some of us have been unlucky enough to have first-hand experiences with sociopaths like this -- others have been spared. Either way, why would we spend an hour watching them on TV?

Three reasons, it seems to me. First is simple voyeurism. We slow down to see a wreck on the expressway, and we get quiet when we hear the boss chewing out someone else in the next room. There is a safety in being the observer. And of course it is positively reinforcing: Thank God that didn't just happen to us.

The second reason we watch these toxic bosses in action is we're waiting -- hoping -- that the employees will stick it to this boss. Think of the classic workplace movies, like from Nine to Five, Working Girl, and Office Space. You'll remember theater audience breaking into spontaneous applause when the employee exacts revenge on the boss.

This leads to the third reason: Vicarious empowerment. As radio talk-show host Neal Boortz says in his book of the same title: Somebody's gotta say it. Since most people at work won't confront bad boss behavior, we love it when someone else stands up to the boss. And of course when we watch the outrageous behavior of the TV boss, we can say to ourselves or others watching with us, "I would never take that abuse," or "Here's what I would tell her." It is easy to be macho, outspoken or to "tell it like it is" when we don't experience the real consequences of such behavior.

So watching sociopathic bosses on TV might be psychologically satisfying, but does it do us any good to watch these leadership train wrecks?

At the least, these bosses can teach us how not to lead.

On truth of leadership is you get more of what you reinforce. Overly demanding bosses reinforce performance based on fear. That may deliver short-term results, but such bosses miss the vital opportunity to capture the heart, spirit and personal effort of employees. Employees will always respond to shouting, but in the long term they will not deliver necessary results -- and they may not stick around long.

The science of behavior analysis teaches us that when positive reinforcement is used appropriately and genuinely, it can produce long-term positive results for the organization. Bosses that can first understand what is important to their individual employees and second, help these employees achieve their goals through the appropriate use of positive reinforcement have a chance at creating a great organization.

So while "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kell on Earth" might win loyal viewers, with the breath-taking violence of the tyrants-in-charge, those shows are not about creating great organizations. But at least we'll know sociopathic bosses when we see them.

By Aubrey Daniels

 |  February 11, 2010; 6:20 AM ET |  Category:  Pop Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: When megalomania meets financial leadership | Next: Nightmare employees: The three-step solution


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Definitely there are some sociopathic bosses out there. Don't think they don't show up in the fortune 500 companies either, because they do.

I have never had issues with other managers I have had before regarding issues that this current manager is stating I now have.

The manager is trying to find everything wrong with my work and questions that I ask. The manager tries to turn everything around that I say to his/her benefit of scrutinizing me.

I don't know what the reasoning is for it; I haven't figured it out yet. I never did anything to this person and the figures on my times have been incorrect for coming and going on lunches and breaks and other time keeping.

Sometimes I think if you are a good worker they do want or try to make you look bad.

I love my job and what I do, but being scrutinized all the time is ruining my health and I have been losing sleep.

He/She will not say anything negative in front of my co-workers; it is when there are only the two of us. There aren’t any witnesses around to testify.

Yet when I went to his/her boss about him/her, the boss took his/her side, stating his/her boss don’t know what was said because he/she was not there. His/her boss stated he/she had witnesses
that I was yelling, which I was not.

Someone told me this is the tactic they use just so they won’t have to deal with it and turn on the employee. I do believe this from what I have encountered.

I have spoken to another person who states it is not me and that I am not the only person this has happened to with this boss, there has been others, but they would not give any names.

Posted by: kayla2 | February 17, 2010 7:39 PM

Crazy or not , the boss in a position of power and employees have to play along in order to keep their jobs. The boss can't be your friend if he's doing HIS job.

Posted by: mikeperryst | February 17, 2010 5:26 PM

I usually don't watch these kinds of shows. But the fact is I'm not the kind of person to take that kind of crap from bosses. Here in this part of Ohio, we have quite a few monsters like this who think they can lord over people in any kind of fashion. I live near an amusment park and am surprised that someone hasn't been hurt here, especially those who think they can talk to these Detroit kids in any kind of fashion. And some of them can be cruel to the foreign workers who come over here to work. They are a poor credit to our country.

Posted by: RoberttheRocket | February 17, 2010 2:41 PM

I thought it was mostly closet psychopaths and frustrated burnouts who enjoyed watching this sort of show, vicariously shouting along with the jerks at their own coworkers. Be careful if you work with a fan of any of these shows. They are waiting for the opportunity to turn on you.

Posted by: gardoglee | February 17, 2010 1:59 PM

the author missed the fourth reason - I think a few of us bosses long for the days when we could let our employees have it sometimes!

Posted by: DDraper1 | February 17, 2010 9:21 AM

The science of behavior analysis teaches us that:

"positive reinforcement" is action intended to increase the probability of a certain behavior. Whether the reinforcing action is pleasant, or the reinforced behavior produces desirable result is irrelevant.

Posted by: ffoulks | February 16, 2010 4:31 PM


Posted by: vigor | February 16, 2010 1:35 PM

There are psychopath bosses running around so many workplaces, it's almost impossible to know ahead of time if a potential employer is jerk-free or not. Sites like eBossWatch.com let job seekers do background checks on potential bosses to see what their employees really think about them. This is the best way to avoid toxic bosses and hostile workplaces.

Posted by: patjenks | February 12, 2010 4:24 AM

I worked at the bank operations center of chevy chase bank years ago. My direct supervisor was very lazy, and actually became very unsettled when she realized I was coming in early, leaving late, and doing extra work not in my job description
so I could make a name for myself. I was very ambitious, and wanted to stand out so I could move up faster than the inherent seniority based system in place. The Manager was, in other words, afraid for his job. I was subjected to paperwork sabotage, verbal abuse, poor assignments, ie. the works. After one public tongue-lashing too many, I invited the Mgr. to the conference room for a chat. Once in the room, and after waiting for him to be seated, I closed the blinds and locked the door behind me. That raised his eyebrows.
I proceeded to calmly, and matter of factly, without raisng my voice, told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was to criticise only my direct work performance that could be documented. Not myself personally. I said that I was very ambitious, and that I would refuse to do less work so that others could look better.
Also, I said that if he ever confronted me again in a heated, uncivilized manner in front of other employees that I would be very quiet at the moment, but as soon as the workday ended I would be out at the parking lot waiting to re-arrange his teeth. I let him know that I would defend my honor in any attack I deemed to be on me personally, and not my work. Especially if he did not take me aside privately to speak with me, which was not hard to do because I had my own office with a door.
Apparently this method of standing up to him either drew his respect or fear of retaliation, but I never had another problem from him again. It's been my experience that when the tables are turned on them these bullies lose their teeth.

Posted by: donohuebruce | February 11, 2010 3:53 PM

I agree with the posters who stated that HR is virtually useless with a toxic boss, and many attorneys will not take the case.

Working for a toxic boss in a mental health program at Drexel University has been one ongoing lesson in abusiveness, hate and vindictiveness; and the administration looks the other way.

Having a toxic boss is detrimental to both your physical, mental and spiritual health.

Posted by: iknew1 | February 11, 2010 3:49 PM

@bob2davis: you made some great points. i fear that the only way to circumvent a bad boss is leave.

Posted by: nuyorkster | February 11, 2010 1:06 PM

i just confronted very bad behaviour from my boss. everyone (18 people) in my dept knows this happened but no one except one person has come up to applaud and support me. the rest of them are probably just gossiping about it!

Posted by: nuyorkster | February 11, 2010 1:04 PM

When I worked at a private college, i had a boss who was forever finding (a) something that I had supposedly did "wrong", and (b) a "new best friend" in the student body. Consequently, no student respected her.

I left that place 7 years ago, and often wonder just how the Education Dept at that school is now running. I had it running VERY smoothly.

Posted by: Alex511 | February 11, 2010 12:40 PM

I saw Kelly Cutrone on TV for the first time just yesterday and I don't think she's a psycho boss. I noticed three things:

1) Like all reality shows, "Kell on Earth" is edited to show the most dramatic, tense moments and the dull workaday stuff where she's just being a typical, rational business owner isn't seen much.

2) She has some incredibly stupid, demanding, childish, egomaniacal a** holes for clients. They could turn anyone into a screaming basket case. All things considered, she handles things remarkably well.

3) Many of the people she hires are dimwits. As a boss, it's probably her only serious failing. Yelling at people who are doing a lousy job (that they claimed to be qualified for) might not be pleasant, but it might not be entirely unjustified.

Posted by: xaxton | February 11, 2010 11:55 AM

I spent year practicing employment law and the one generality that could be stated about practically all cases was that there were errors on both sides.

Most all cases present with some combination of bad management and poor execution of duties by the employee.

Most all cases can be worked out without a lawsuit.

Roughly ten percent of employees/mangement are the best, ten percent are the worst, and eighty percent are just sort of average with trainable potential.

One of the huge, expensive mistakes American business makes is repeatedly replacing employees. The retraining costs of new people are a gigantic waste and don't justify the marginal gains achieved.

Unless you are dealing with people that are impossibly compromised, corrupt, and incompetent, your better strategy is simply to re-assign duties, and/or retrain.

Posted by: brng | February 11, 2010 11:42 AM

Watching these shows is a guilty pleasure that leaves me with mixed feelings. I've worked for two toxic managers, and when I watch these shows I feel empathy for the employees and disgust for the managers. The bad behavior on these shows perpetuates the myth that you need to be nasty to be successful and that employees learn a great deal from managers who routinely go ballistic. Being mean is the easy way out. Berating an employee doesn't require a lot of skill, taking the time to teach someone does.

For a lot of people, managing employees comes with the job and is a "have to" not a "want to" and they just aren't prepared for the responsibilities. Popular management techniques seem to be straight out of junior high school complete with passing notes (email), backstabbing, and a general disregard for the work that needs to be done. How do we turn things around and create a generation of good managers?

Posted by: rbdexter1 | February 11, 2010 11:42 AM

I've had two sociopathic bosses at the U.S. Dept. of State, both ambassadors. Out-of-control tempers and poor judgment characterized these men. One actually put the lives of embassy staff at risk when he ordered them into the lawless countryside for fact-finding. Foreigners were being targeted for assassination. Two embassy officers went behind this man's back to report his order to senior State Dept. management, who then quickly countermanded it. Trouble is, this countermanding is extremely rare. Gross incompetence and bad judgment typically go unchecked in a govt personnel system with little to no leadership accountability.

Posted by: Angkor1 | February 11, 2010 11:35 AM

This article kind of makes me wonder whether Aubrey Daniels has even watched the two series he's commenting on. I get that he's using them as an introduction to real life issues, but maybe he should have picked some shows he's actually seen. And as for the three supposed reasons that people watch these shows, I'm going to vote for "none of the above". I love Hell's kitchen and thought the first few episodes of Kell on Earth were okay. I may or may not watch it again. If I do, it will be because... the show is not about the boss.

Posted by: Hemera | February 11, 2010 11:35 AM

"A family member complained to HR about his boss and was promptly fired. "

Read the book "HR Confidential".

Never complain to HR. They represent the company's interests, not yours.

Posted by: makeham98 | February 11, 2010 11:22 AM

A secondary problem with tyrannical bosses is that their supervisors are far less interested in employee treatment than they are in sales numbers, quotas and profit. If the boss is meeting his/her goals, the supervisors will easily overlook employee abuse. If the bad boss is a member of a minority group and/or a woman, it is highly unlikely that she will be dismissed barring the commission of a felony. It is never enough for one employee to stand up to a bad boss; that employee looks like the bad apple. Unfortunately, most employees keep quiet and allow the tyranny to continue. I'm not sure what is worse, the bad boss, the complicit employees or the uncaring higher-ups. I would venture to say it is the complicit employees. Silence equals affirmation.

Posted by: bob2davis | February 11, 2010 10:59 AM

Well, sure - its easy for those who have never actually tried to hire an attorney for any wrongful action on the part of their employer, to judge.
It is next to impossible to retain any attorney to represent an individual employee for a myriad of reasons: the attorney may want future business from the company; the attorney has less hope of recouping fees from an individual out of work or precariously employed; the attorney has steep legal hurdles to overcome absent much protection from 'at will' employee states.
Just sue 'em or quit is not a thoughtful or strategic response.
I would prefer to hear strategies from those who HAVE successfully navigated their way around a sociopath boss??

Posted by: Barb88 | February 11, 2010 10:56 AM

No, I really don't get why people like to watch those shows. Ugh.

I've had a couple of mean nasty bosses in my time. The best thing, I think, is to keep your head and do a good job that makes you proud of yourself, whatever your unreasonable boss does or says. And... get another job as soon as you can.

I've never felt satisfaction for losing my temper and mouthing off at someone, even if they "deserve" it; it only makes me feel like I failed for not keeping my cool.

Posted by: catherine3 | February 11, 2010 10:30 AM

If anyone watched Gordon Ramsey in his other reality TV series, "KITCHEN NIGHTMARES" where he helps struggling Restaurants, the TV audiences gets to see another side of him and as such understand that Mr. Ramsey is NOT a sociopathic person by nature. In this other series, Mr. Ramsey demonstrates that he can also be a caring human being who actually cares about people and helps owners especially to stand up for themselves and find the passion of why they originally went into the food service industry. Personally, this is an even better series than "HELL'S KITCHEN."

Posted by: TabLUnoLCSWfromUtah | February 11, 2010 10:27 AM

I'm, admittedly, a fan of Gordon Ramsay's show. I'd have to assume that much of what he does is for the ratings.

However, it doesn't really matter. He does seem like he actually cares for the places he's saving though. He doesn't always come in and fire people with no thought. Usually it's deserved for whatever reason. When they get it right he revels in that with them and almost cheerleads for them.

Interesting dichotomy.

Posted by: TheDutchman | February 11, 2010 10:26 AM

“On(e) truth of leadership is you get more of what you reinforce. Overly demanding bosses reinforce performance based on fear. That may deliver short-term results, but such bosses miss the vital opportunity to capture the heart, spirit and personal effort of employees. Employees will always respond to shouting, but in the long term they will not deliver necessary results -- and they may not stick around long.”
Whether those bosses on TV shows are actual sociopaths or entertainers playing to the crowd is irrelevant to your essay. Demanding workplace bosses (I speak from experience) care ONLY about “meeting budget” and their bonus. Resistance to their reign means you are not a “team player”, and your job gets eliminated or out sourced ASAP. If this writer thinks differently, he should go to Human Resources and get a reality check.

“Whip the serfs harder and they’ll dig up more potatoes” .

Posted by: shadowmagician | February 11, 2010 10:21 AM

I think it should be noted that what Gordon Ramsey does on hell's kitchen is an act for ratings.

Posted by: flonzy3 | February 11, 2010 10:05 AM

If you cant get legal help, document every thing. Post the details on the internet making the company name prominent. Get back at them! There is no reason why anyone should have to leave their job because of a psychopath. Make them leave their job and make the company pay for it's negligence and complicity.

Posted by: Phil5 | February 11, 2010 9:25 AM

I guess the question is how you best handle that sociopathic boss, other than walking away. I recently had one, and couldn't figure a way to work around him, and therefore left.

Posted by: KokomoO | February 11, 2010 9:18 AM

A family member complained to HR about his boss and was promptly fired. He did complain to the EEOC and they may take his case because of some of the slurs uttered by his boss. YOu have to find a lawyer who will take your case as most won't, contrary to popular belief. The boss is now working from home since someone else complained and perhaps this fired employee will get some sort of vindication or even compensation. IT's not so easy to stand up to this behavior.

Posted by: jfk66 | February 11, 2010 8:58 AM

With the ease of access to legal help these days, if you have a sociopath for a boss, get a lawyer and sue him/her and the company for emotional damage and pain and suffering. Don't put up with it. Get him/her fired and make them pay.

Posted by: Phil5 | February 11, 2010 8:22 AM

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