Psychologist and career consultant Jürgen Hesse has heard many crazy boss stories. Here he explains why so many psychopaths become bosses, what makes them tick – and how to deal with them as a subordinate.
Mr. Hesse, for your book “My boss is crazy – is yours too?” you have compiled a lot of bad boss stories that have been reported to you by employees in your work as a career counselor. With some you can just about smile, with others it horrifies you. Which case shocked you the most personally?
I was particularly impressed by the story of a senior pastor who had a hidden evil side of his personality. His employees had always experienced him as very empathetic and appreciative. But he also had an affair with his secretary. That wasn’t a problem until this secretary was criticized by a colleague for making mistakes at work. As a result, the friendly churchman completely freaked out and finished off and fired the colleague who had been critical. Ultimately, the woman won after two lawsuits in the labor court and the theologian lost his leadership position.
But often the subordinate gets the short end of the stick when a crazy boss takes his neuroses out on the employees, right?
Unfortunately yes. For example, there was the woman who worked successfully for a company for 15 years. Then a new boss came along who wanted to get rid of her and banished her from the office on the second floor to a kind of solitary dungeon in the archive basement. After three months she attempted suicide, luckily unsuccessfully. The boss, however, remained at his post.
Your book is about “crazy bosses” in the literal sense. Are there really that many psychopaths in the boss’s chair?
Approximately one third of bosses are very alright, one third needs improvement and one third is unfortunately unsuitable as human beings to lead employees. Of those, only a small proportion actually have a massive personality disorder. But the percentage of psychopaths on the executive floor is far higher than in the general population – six times as high, according to a well-known study. In this respect, one can say that a comparatively large number of bosses are psychopaths.
Why is that?
Because psychopaths like to be bosses. The psychological explanation is that people who are highly intelligent but lacked love in childhood and develop personality disorders are particularly keen to push into leadership positions. They want to show everyone, they want to exercise power to compensate for feelings of inferiority. And when they are in the right position, they in turn promote people who think in a similar way.
In more than 50 of the 60 examples in the book, the crazy bosses are men: is that just because there are more male bosses – or also more male psychopaths?
That there are more male bosses is an obvious reason. However, studies also say that there are far more psychopaths than female psychopaths in the general population. The relationship in our book therefore seems to us to be quite representative. Of course, there are still famous exceptions, as seen in the film “The Devil Wears Prada”, which has a real background.
They classify the psychopath bosses into a typology of ten different characters – from narcissists to paranoids to phobics. Which type is most common in the wild?
The most common are self-absorbed narcissists, ruthless egomaniacs, and malicious bullies. Donald Trump is the prime example here, with a clear emphasis on narcissism. There is also something narcissistic about Putin, but I would classify him more in the category of tyrants. A rather rare type is the schizoid boss: cool, controlled, keeps others at a distance because he just doesn’t like people very much. From what you hear about him, Wirecard founder Markus Braun may well fit into this category.
You also list depressive bosses as a separate type.
Yes, they are often nice people, but because of their illness they take away the energy and desire to work from all employees. You rarely meet them in the private sector, but very often in the public sector.
How should I behave when I’m suffering from a crazy boss?
First of all, you can try to improve the situation. Depending on the type of boss, it can make sense to seek dialogue, address problems and give constructive feedback. If you are unsure what to do, you can talk to colleagues or get help from the works council. Depending on the boss, that can help.
And if the boss doesn’t let himself be changed?
If there’s no chance of improvement, I have to protect myself. I can develop a thick skin, not let things get to me, maybe you can avoid the boss a bit. But of course this is not ideal. It would be better to look for another job.
If you can work from home, you could also avoid the boss in this way.
Hiding away in the home office is not necessarily the solution. On the one hand, I then see less of the colleagues with whom I get on well and where the personal exchange is good for me. On the other hand, the supervisor can find other points of attack. A paranoid or compulsive boss might become even more suspicious and try to control when I work and when I take breaks. This can then easily go into the private sector.
Have you ever suffered from a boss yourself in your professional life?
Yes, I suffered under two of my former bosses, slept badly at times and was reluctant to go to work at times. But that was all still okay and not as bad as it can be with a psychopathic boss. I also had three other bosses who supported me significantly and with whom I later remained very good friends.