Our fascination with sociopathic bosses
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.
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