Horrible bosses

It’s a dog-eat-dog corporate world. Does that mean the bad-boss types rise to the top and the nice guys finish last?

When a CEO who employs several thousand people admits to her psychoanalyst that she dreams of simply ordering her “underlings” to stay home — with pay — and that she’ll get the job done alone, the therapist is likely thinking the CEO might have some leadership issues to work on. Similarly, when a powerful executive of a large corporation that espouses a culture of cooperation and trust looks upon his team members as disorganized ants, hopeless and helpless without his kingly supervision, again, a degree of leadership dysfunction might well have to be addressed.

Yet, these are executives who have steadily risen up the ranks, and they have proved that their management styles lead to measurable success. Poisonous disaffection may be rife among the cowed ranks of their employees, but the job is getting done.

But is it? Corporations and business schools have been understandably obsessed with the mechanics of leadership and how an individual can most effectively climb up the corporate ladder. Can a horrible boss actually perform better than a good boss? Despite corporate mission statements of inclusivity, do nice guys really finish last?


In late 2015, the Harvard Business Review explored this idea in an article entitled Why Bad Guys Win at Work. Many workers have encountered colleagues or bosses who exhibit traits known in psychology as the dark triad: Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy.

The Harvard Business Review’s piece reflects studies such as those out of Ghent University and the University of Bern, where it has been determined that higher salary earners are often individuals with strong narcissistic traits; and that Machiavellianism has positive links to leadership position and possibly career satisfaction.

For Julian Barling, professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business and author of The Science of Leadership, there is little surprise in the results from these studies. “I think it is fair to say that those bosses who are more overtly uncivil, harsh, volatile and abusive often do pretty well in organizations,” he says. “People in decision-making positions have this notion of what makes for good leadership: they feel that acting in these ways keeps people on their toes and motivates them.”

So there may be a “bright” side to the dark side. “Yes, there is some awful truth to that,” admits Stephanie Bot, president of BizLife Solutions and a psychoanalyst whose practice specializes in dysfunctional corporate executives. “They’re generally not getting a better salary or position because they’re blatantly awful people; they’re getting a better salary because they’ve made the people above them believe they’re fantastic. They know how to brand themselves.”

Yet surely branding or, as Barling puts it, a preternatural expertise for “sucking up” to leaders and “blowing down” on employees, can’t entirely explain a horrible boss’s career success. The easiest measurement of a leader’s abilities remains that of generating bottom-line profit. Exceeding quotas, reducing costs and attracting clients can all be achieved by good bosses, but such results also provide excellent cover for the deplorable ones. “In society, we want leaders who share our values and demonstrate empathy, that sort of thing,” says Daniel Skarlicki, Edgar Kaiser professor of organizational behaviour at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. “But the financial and economic markets tend to put quite a different spin on it. They want leaders who are ambitious, self-interested, charismatic, bold and unencumbered by their sympathy and their emotions. So they’re not that interested in empathy; they want someone who will deliver results.”

“They don’t get to the top for no reason at all,” agrees Bot. “They’re manoeuvring, they’re calculating and they’re very smart. They know how to read people; and they know what to do and say in a given situation to make people do what they want.”

And in today’s business world there are rewards for the results garnered from these sensibilities. In the University of Bern study, Do Bad Guys Get Ahead or Fall Behind? researchers analyzed surveys from 793 German workers between the ages of 25 and 34. They explored whether “narcissism is positively related to objective and subjective career success because of motivational tendencies to get ahead and to be successful and because of a high self-worth.” Machiavellian leaders, they suggest, tend to focus on maintaining and broadening power and control, and have a desire for status. Similarly, the Ghent University study, Expanding and Reconceptualizing Aberrant Personality at Work, found that schizotypal tendencies — people with anxious, awkward or loner personalities — resulted in poor career results, “whereas individuals with antisocial and narcissistic characteristics tended toward higher hierarchical and financial attainment.”

Perhaps these seemingly sinister and ruthless traits help explain the rise of Donald Trump and his ilk. “This describes Trump to a T,” says Skarlicki. “It’s a personality that is characterized by shallow emotions, a lack of fear, an inability to empathize, tolerance for stress and impulsiveness.”


Such dark traits in bad bosses may well propel them inexorably up the corporate ladder, but according to Barling, in most cases, this is a short-lived ascent. When he looks at the functional health of the entire organization, he rejects any notion of a possible bright side to toxic, self-aggrandizing leadership behaviour. The individual may do well, but only for a time, and certainly in a way that’s so corrosive, the effects on the company could well be catastrophic. From the wider, corporate perspective, he says, “there’s very little support [in leadership research] for notions of organizations wanting people who are composed of both the bright and dark side. What there is is growing research that the very inspirational roles of humility and inclusiveness all the way up to the CEO level are what is sought.”

Barling and others are quick to point to a flurry of studies over the decades that have found that a bad boss’s conflated and noxious persona is more likely than not to infect organizational success far beyond those employees and colleagues who take the direct brunt of his or her behaviour. “People just don’t appreciate the viral impact these people have,” says Ray Williams, executive coach and author of Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces and The Leadership Edge. “More and more, with companies going global, their leaders have to develop positive and understanding relationships with people all over the world. And that requires people skills.”

Really good bosses strategically create collaborative and trusting alliances with both employees and clients, he adds. “They’re extremely insightful when acting upon the company’s strategic vision.” But when leaders use this expertise entirely for self-interest, when they see the vision as theirs and only theirs to promote, then things can go awry. “And they usually don’t make this turn on their own,” he says. “They often need allies or followers to execute what might well morph into contrary company strategies.”

With so much potential for turmoil, it’s a wonder that the bad boss survives, let alone thrives. “Well, there’s still some staying power for toxic bosses as long as profit is the measurement,” says Williams, “but it’s not sustainable in the long run.”

“It certainly can be kept hidden, but good C-suite executives are measuring the performance of their organization beyond just the financial statement,” says Koula Vasilopoulos, district president for Office Team, a division of Robert Half Inc. “They’ll be looking at a number of different trends: turnover, retention rates, what succession planning looks like within their own infrastructure. And it can even be identified via the ability to attract people into the organization.”

Robert Half surveys find that integrity is the No. 1 factor that employees look for, she says. “It’s finding the right role with a respected leader; and when they do that, wow, good morale, good productivity, good performance, all good.”


Kevin Judge, founder of the leadership coaching firm Ridgehouse Consulting Inc. and author of How to Fix a Bad Boss, has reported to some 27 bosses over a 20-year corporate career. Good and bad bosses abound. A few, he admits, “leave you shaking at the knees.” Yet, he is unwilling to accept that any single negative attribute is enough to brand a leader as a bad boss. His toxic experiences involved employers displaying typical bad boss behaviour: micromanagement, bullying, abandonment (“where they just let you sit and fester”) and taking credit for his work. “Each one of those occurrences, taken separately, does not make for a bad boss in my view,” he says. “Not a perfect one, surely, but nobody is perfect.” Leaders’ own job pressures, expectations from superiors and expectations from themselves play a part in any real-world work scenario. “So there has to be a reality check as we look at these people. No office or work culture that I know of can tick every leader’s box as excellent or satisfactory.”

For Judge, a problem arises only when one of those negative behaviours becomes constant or is joined by other damaging traits. “Then it’s a cumulative defining thing that speaks to the leader’s true persona and true limitations.” As numerous polls and surveys reveal, it is not the company the disaffected employee leaves; it is his or her boss.

“So what to do?” wonders Skarlicki. He sees effective leadership as both an innate and acquired skill. “You don’t have to look far to see natural abilities in some and not in others,” he says. In his MBA and executive leadership courses, Skarlicki says that business acumen, with its technical, quantitative and number-crunching skill sets, is required of leaders in finance and management. “Yet we have studies that tell us that five or 10 years out into their careers, students (and their firms) say what they most want to be armed with is that ‘soft’ stuff, actual empathic leadership tools.”

Skarlicki explores with his students the concepts embodied in what he calls “symbolic leadership.” “By this, I particularly mean values,” he explains. “Some of the most important values we know in the leadership context are courage, integrity and humility — and that latter factor is highly relevant to performance because when I’m humble, it is easier for me to see and exploit greatness in other people.” And these values can be taught, even if leaders buy into the concept only because they understand that the corporate culture requires these attributes.

In time, says Bot, a dysfunctional leader can discover that embracing these values and developing self-awareness can create actual value at work and at home. “It’s horrible but it can definitely be undone,” she says. “I feel like when I reach somebody who’s organized in these damaging ways, they’re so often terrified at being exposed by their broken self, that they’re an imposter, that people are going to find out that they’re really not all that grandiose and in control, that they’re a house of cards. I’ll lay it out,” she continues, “saying, ‘You’re actually hurting people to protect yourself. What are you doing? You can’t want to have this kind of impact on your world.’”