calling all boss haters

February 14, 2009 — 47 Comments

Do you think that your boss doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Does it seem that the only reason that he’s boss is because he talks a big game and people without any other ideas listen to him with little regard to the facts? And does your boss seem to think he’s great despite his seemingly obvious short-fallings? Well, science says that you’re probably right in your assessment much of the time. As it turns out, being a boss often means that you just have to confidently talk like one and managers tend to hold an overinflated opinion of themselves and their performance.

empty suit

The evidence? A study by social psychologists at the University of California not only confirms the axiom that talking like a leader makes you seem like one in people’s eyes, but proves that the more dominating your personality, the easier it is to get away with incompetence. By taking a group of people and presenting them with challenges, the researchers tried to evaluate what makes someone a leader. The study’s participants generally tended to assign leadership roles and favorable ratings to people who spoke the most and seemed the most confident with little regard for the quality of their answers and suggestions.

When solving math problems from an old GMAT test, the same highly thought of leaders were the ones who gave the most answers, not the ones who gave the right answers. In fact, none of these emergent leaders were good at taking math tests according to their self-reported math scores from the SAT. The disconcerting revelations didn’t stop there. Participants gave any person who spoke up a higher rating than those who were quiet, even if these people said little or nothing of substance. So next time you’re in a meeting, consider speaking up even if you’re just agreeing with what someone else said. It makes you look good to the rest of the group and you don’t even have to make a genuine contribution.

I know it’s hardly shocking to those of us with years in the office under our belt, sitting with the bigwigs at meetings and wondering how they can talk for hours without really saying anything actionable. But this is one of those studies which confirms our darkest suspicions. When we’re choosing our leaders, we focus too much on flash and pay little attention to the substance. It’s also interesting to note that you could be seen as leader material by giving your team a cheery, confident pep talk, putting up a to do list and waiting until it’s all done to shake a few hands and say “oh, I had no doubts we can do it.” To top it all off, most of your co-workers would describe you in very favorable ways after you did nothing but talk.

But being seen as a leader and described in gushingly positive terms based on your confident exterior creates a big problem. A BusinessWeek Poll found that 9 out of 10 bosses think their performance puts them in the top 10% of their peers. Either there’s a new definition of top 10% or an overwhelming majority of managers have overinflated egos. So not only do bosses rise to the top by acting like experts, they also seem to think they belong at the top by virtue of their positions. If my experience is any guide, it’s much more likely that bosses who didn’t think their performance is top 10% material are doing exceptional work that usually gets overshadowed by big talk and confident smiles.

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  • http://twitter.com/wilhelmr WilhelmR

    It sounds pretty obvious, but it’s still sad to see it happening.

    Nice article :)

  • http://ancientindians.wordpress.com satyask

    good one.

  • yoyo

    It’s more about public speaking in general. Same reason why chicks love guys in a band, the band could suck, but they still get laid. Always take jobs that involve public speaking, even if you suck at it. I should say especially if you suck at it.

    1) you will get better, its a skill. Even the greeks knew this. Also, pop quiz, what was the primary factor is someone getting elected in Greece, public speaking skills. Look it up. They wrote the book 3000 years ago and it has NOT changed.

    2) the pay is better. Leverage people’s fear to your advantage. I went from 45k on the help desk to 85k as a systems engineer who spoke in front of customers in 99. That was a huge impact on my life as a 26 year old. No I”m not in SF or another expensive place like that.

    3) the promotions are better / faster. Tell people how hard it is, doesn’t matter if it comes easy to you. They’ll believe you, because they fear it. Practice Practice.

    4) your reputation around your peers will go up, which will lead to 2,3. Write a whitepaper for your company and give a talk at an industry conference. Your salary and job prospects will increase geometrically.

    5) rinse, repeat

    I started out on the help desk for a software provider, the sales guys had the same bullshit swagger, even more so than the managers, they only person who made more than our sales team was the CEO / Founder. Not long after my Systems Engineer job, I made the switch to dumb sales guy who talks too much in the room.

    I love it and the w2 that comes with it

  • Greg Fish

    “Always take jobs that involve public speaking, even if you suck at it. I should say especially if you suck at it.”

    I don’t know. If you can barely string two words together because you’re so nervous, public speaking might not be your best career choice. After all, as the study shows, the whole point is not just to talk and talk a lot, but to look confident when doing it. The talking a lot part certainly helps, but the swagger is just as important.

  • http://miserableswine.com Miserable Swine

    Capitalise on fear! Generate the need for you to be there – become a `Master of the Universe`!

    Be Machiavellian in your outlook!

    Bullshit! Bullshit! And bullshit again!

    Eat, drink, fuck and take advantage of every perk that comes your way!

    Dominate!

    Be a boss! Be all you can be!

    http://www.miserableswine.com

  • neandergal

    Enjoyed the article. My previous assessments of ex-bosses are vindicated! BS wins the day – unfortunately.

  • broval88

    This makes so much sense to me, ive been saying this for awhile.

  • swissknifev

    What about bosses like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs who have built an empire? I’m wondering…

  • Greg Fish

    Swiss,

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that your boss is always just hot air. Your boss could be a great and very competent leader. This article was about the science behind how we perceive whether someone’s a leader or not rather than a condemnation of bosses in general.

  • http://mintranet.wordpress.com ryanchadwick

    I think this may be looking at the job of a manger a little too simplistically. One of the goals of a successful manager is to get the team working together as a team. If he/she has a vision, believes it is a good one (whether it is or not doesn’t really matter), and can convince and motivate others to work towards it passionately, then they can achieve much more than someone who has a better vision but can’t communicate well or inspire.

    Slightly off topic but Henry Ford was once in Court for libel. The lawyers were trying to prove that he was ignorant by asking him various questions. This was his reply:

    If I should really WANT to answer the foolish question you have just asked, or any

    of the other questions you have been asking me, let me remind you that

    I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the

    right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer ANY

    question I desire to ask concerning the business to which I am devoting

    most of my efforts. Now, will you kindly tell me, WHY I should clutter up

    my mind with general knowledge, for the purpose of being able to

    answer questions, when I have men around me who can supply any

    knowledge I require?

    Not all managers have this general approach but I reckon most of the better ones do.

  • swissknifev

    Let’s go to Africa. There is a tribe that kills people who have fear. Why? They infect negativity and put down SPIRITS. General George Patton had excellent motivational powers. He said ” The enemy doesn’t die for his country. We kill the SOB.”

    That’s a leader, a boss and someone who can mobilize his people.

    Bosses maybe crap. But they are also useful to INSTIGATE ACTION> Abraham Lincoln, Winston Curchhill, Mahatma Gandhi, Kennedy, Ford, Honda, Nelson mandela – We need MOBILIZATION. A leader must do it – Or can the masses have the brains to follow?

  • swissknifev

    Bosses have to be ruthless and eliminate bad apples if necessary or how will a company grow? I f ruthlessness is not welcome let’s get into poetry.

  • Greg Fish

    “I think this may be looking at the job of a manger a little too simplistically. One of the goals of a successful manager is to get the team working together as a team.”

    Ryan, this post was actually looking more towards the idea of leadership and how we choose our leaders. In companies, people who talk a lot with a great deal of swagger tend to get promoted as long as the tasks their bosses want are done without major goof-ups.

    One problem with managers just being conduits and supplying a vision they think is good, is that their vision might be based in nothing more that their personal opinions. If like your example of Henry Ford, when I was a manager, I wouldn’t try to “cloud my mind” with general knowledge and relied on the people around me to give me answers, I would be useless.

    My goal was to know what was going on and what needed to be done so I could set a goal that boosts the bottom line. Of course when I was out of ideas, I would just nod and agree with my boss to look like I was doing some really detailed bit of analysis and came to the same conclusion. =)

  • swissknifev

    Followers just don’t understand leaders. that’s why they crib and they will always be cribbers who write about leaders and are not leaders themselves.

    Leaders are leading. No cribbing. Period.

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  • bbrockit

    A good resource to find out about the quality of a company’s management and leadership is http://www.CareerVote.com. The site allows you to rate your employer and research the ratings of companies you may be considering working for.

  • http://mintranet.wordpress.com ryanchadwick

    Hi gfish,

    Part of what I was getting at was that people who can inspire tend to get a momentum behind them and their cause. Others will want to be involved in something and if his/ her something looks like a winner they probably will want to be a part of it. Then it grows as such and succeeds (or has a greater chance of success) not because it was a good idea but because of the weight they were able to put behind it. This generates reputation, which bolsters the persons position.

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  • dcy1959

    Narcissism is one of the most frequent traits in bosses, especially bad ones. That helps to explain the Business Week poll you cite — 9/10 bosses placing themselves in the top 10% — yikes!

    I’ve been studying and writing about workplace bullying and abusive work environments for many years. Most of the bullies are bosses, and their behaviors often can be linked to these narcissistic qualities as well.

    David Yamada

    Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute

    Suffolk University Law School

    Host of “Minding the Workplace” at http://newworkplace.wordpress.com

  • Abso

    I KNEW it. I’m pretty sure my last boss couldn’t even tie his shoes without help. Glad there’s evidence, though.

  • http://hkyson.wordpress.com hkyson

    I remember reading about Kenneth just before the time the electricity market in California was deregulated. He was a great talker and was widely considered to be an economic genius.

    Alan Greenspan also used bullshit artistry to maintain his authority while he led the Federal Reserve Board. People in Congress were afraid they would look stupid if they ever asked him questions like, “Just what the hell do you mean by THAT, Mr. Greenspan?”

    After the economy went belly up, he was called before Congress once again and admitted that he really made some serious mistakes while he was at the helm of the Fed and didn’t feel all that confident about the decisions he had made because economies are complicated things like weather systems and their developments can be very hard to predict. (Despite this circumstance, many charlatans with excellent academic credentials make a very handsome living by trying to predict economic developments, even though these people are often not much better than medieval court astrologers.)

    President Eisenhower was highly liked as a father figure during his presidency. The press loved him even though he displayed consummate bullshit artistry while answering their questions. “Mad” magazine once published a sketch having Gary Cooper interpret Ike as he gave his long-winded answers to reporters’ yes/no questions. Cooper interpreted him by saying “Ike says yep” and “Ike says nope.”

    Right now, at the beginning of his presidency, Obama is riding high because of his excellent oratorical skills. But the problems he is facing are probably intractable, and he could become very unpopular by the time he reaches the end of his presidency, though I am rooting for him and fervently hope that he will be lucky!

    In the case of Enron, of course, the working stiffs there would not dare call Kenneth Lay on his bullshit while he was leading the company. Hinting that your bosses are full of crap is a very quick way of getting fired. Their silence, of course, did not keep them from finally getting royally fucked.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  • mikenale

    Good article and interesting facts.

  • klau7577

    Agree. Very interesting article and posts above.

  • http://hkyson.wordpress.com hkyson

    The “Kenneth” I was talking about above, of course, was “Kenneth Lay.” I am sorry I can’t edit my comments and must make corrections by posting another message.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  • Greg Fish

    Harleigh,

    No worries about making another comment. I like to make it as easy as possible to comment on any article and have no problem with people posting multiple messages.

    Akismet has been pretty aggressive lately so if anyone’s comment is being held for moderation for some bizarre reason, my apologies. It’s not supposed to do that unless you include a lot of links. I’ll approve it as soon as I see it in my queue.

  • http://lifeinperu.com wwelvaert

    Great post.

    Corporate culture often supports the “bad boss”. In business school, we were told it’s not so much what you know, but how you can present your ideas that matters. With the proliferation of MBAs, a ton of people with bad ideas but strong communication / influencing skills became managers.

    Perhaps the current economic mess will lead to some good changes in corporate culture.

  • http://www.hdimages.co.uk hdimages

    Fantastic post.

    I use to work in the corporate culture, but not anymore. Because my boss said one wrong thing to me, “We pay you to work, not to think!!”

    Maybe people will realise the truth about what a JOB really means…

  • antonylawrence

    Sometimes yes….we all are impacted dont we….What do we do with our subordinate …we are BOSS sometime…..

  • swissknifev

    Once upon a time all the organs in the body wanted to be the boss.

    The limbs said: We move and do all the work so want to be the boss

    The stomach said: I digest food and give you strength so I want to be the boss

    Blood said: Without me there’s no life so I want to be the boss

    The lungs said: Without air you guys are dead. So I want to be the boss.

    The liver said: Bullshit! I do most of the de-tox functions in your body and without me you guys are poisoned and dead. So I want to be the boss

    The brain said: I am the the mastermind of your very being. So I want to be the boss.

    The asshole was angered because no paid attention to it. So it shut tight and hell broke loose. Then all the organs panicked and went to asshole and pleaded with the guy to let loose the crap so that they can all work in peace.

    Moral: All you have to be is an asshole to be a boss.

    But some guys are great and they have turned around a company’s fortunes. Well, every rule has exception.

  • http://great-world-music.blogspot.com mike

    I think people get a high level job just because of who they know. Not based on smarts or talent.

  • patriafidelitas

    Statistically I can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an increase in the sales of ice cream leads to an increase in the murder rate in any given metropolitan area.

    The results of the study you cite are very interesting, but the fact that this one study exists does not in any way shape or form indicate that bosses are assholes. If your summary of the facts is correct then the indication is that the rest of us are very sheepish in our behavior. If we can look at an action or a speech and recognize it as bullshit, yet say nothing, who is truly to blame?

    I have been a leader my entire adult life. I have led men in combat, charging to the front when none of my “followers” would do so. I have led an office to achieve the highest growth in one-month policy increases despite being in the newest and slowest growing overall region within the company. I am currently building a customer base for a pizza joint that opened at 46th (because we were the 46th one in the franchise) that is currently ranked 16th after 5 months in business. I have been able to do none of this by myself. In fact, I personally have done nothing but “lead.”

    A leader knows their people. They know their wives, their children, their anniversaries, their birthdays. They know that you only get your children every other weekend and schedules you accordingly. A leader knows that you and your girlfriend are considering marriage and are looking for a house and gives you the time to look.

    I freely admit that I have talked my way through many a situation, but my confidence has never come from my abilities. My confidence comes from having built, trained, and led a team of amazing individuals in every success that has occurred in my life.

    A Leader leads. A Boss tells. There is a difference!

  • http://kyknoord.wordpress.com kyknoord

    Hah! I wonder what the person leading the study team thought of their results?

  • Greg Fish

    Patria,

    I’m sure you’ve done anything and everything. In fact, I probably shouldn’t ask what other feats you’re capable of. However, the point of this post was to use studies and statistics to show how people perceive who’s a leader or not and that often times it’s all swagger and no substance from someone who thinks way too highly of him/herself.

    This doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a competent or humble leader who knows the task at hand and is a manager or a boss based more on merit than swagger. I never wrote that all bosses are incompetent or assholes, just that if you think your boss is all talk and is only a manager because he talks a big game, the herd instincts in those around him indicate that it may very well be the case.

  • patriafidelitas

    gfish -

    The biting sarcasm of your first two sentences aside, I think we are on the same page. The point I was trying to make was that there is a difference between a “leader” and a “boss.” I have generally despised every “boss” for whom I have worked. I have been truly inspired by, and can still clearly remember, the very few leaders I have been blessed with in the course of my life.

    I used the examples of my experience only because they are the only examples that I am familiar with. My apologies if arrogance was the result.

  • antonylawrence

    A boss creates fear, a leader confidence. A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes. A boss knows all, a leader asks questions. A boss makes work drudgery, a leader makes it interesting.

  • swissknifev

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I think this can make a great TV sprogram with all the bosses backing or flaking their like.

    So finally the science of BOSS PERCEPTIONS says that they overshadow others through swagger, confident talking, looking good to the team, selling the big dream, getting the job done, congratulating the job doers and over rating their self -performance.

    In short it’s a fact that speech and personality seem to be the most important qualification to sit in a leader’s chair. In fact personality cult has seeped into all aspects of life,work and career.

    The point is, then who is the expert who chooses the shallow expert? Probably a systems correction is needed in this area, specific to organizations. Point 2: If talk can get a job done then why not consider it as a verbal skill for motivation, action and results? Point 3: Suppose the idea, cause and vision of a person are good isn’t it OK if people rally around such a boss? Usually causes are the smoke clouds behind which lie the fires of aspirations. Point 4: Considering that all employees are not designed for bossy role-plays, can we blame them if they choose to be silent about a boss’ shortcomings? They have a job, they have a family and they’ll have to keep body and soul together. An anti-management stance can prove tricky.

    Finally > Results and objectives, be it a corporation, kingdom or a political state, define the glorious or shameful end a responsible person has. Our reputation is the perfume of deeds. Can a bad boss finally escape the stink? We can only fool some people for sometime.

    An introspective question: Don’t you think women make better bosses? Just a thought. Somehow I’ve always found women ver sincere in there work. They are more responsible and industrious. They usually hate to play foul. They have a motherly care that looks at the human side of employees working under them.

    Strangely, all the organizations with a large women force do well. Check this out.

    I don’t think I’m wrong amigo!

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  • antonylawrence

    Men are natural leaders, and innately less emotional. Its all about command and control. The female bosses I’ve worked with were way too sensitive, insecure, felt intimidated, too emotional, too much drama and internalized everything. They were also way too competitive and always trying to prove that women are better than men. Sometimes women bosses are necessary evils. Sometimes a woman boss behaves like a man, why doesnt she behave like a nice man?

  • http://hkyson.wordpress.com hkyson

    By the way, the same thing that applies to bosses applies to college professors in the humanities and the social sciences, who are often the most outrageous bullshit artists, as I discovered in college in doing my upper-division work studying Spanish literature (I would have been much happier doing computer science, but the major wasn’t available when I was in college). Their students, of course, usually don’t call them on their bullshit, for their grades would suffer.

    In the hard sciences like chemistry and physics and in symbolic sciences like mathematics, there is no room for bullshit, though mathematicians often work in areas that have no useful applications (though some of them do prove to be quite useful in time, such as Boolean algebra as a way of simplifying electronic circuits).

    But the humanities (especially philosophy) are language based. People often forget that just because you can easily coin a new word, you are not necessarily creating a new reality. And many careers in the language-based disciplines are based on little more than constructing complicated structures of vacuous reifications (a latinate phrase that means “making things out of nothing”). This is especially true in theological studies, which have such vacuous creations as, for example, the father, son, and holy ghost of Christianity.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  • antonylawrence
  • swissknifev

    Mediocre thinking blog. A waste of time. What inspid thinking. Horrible.

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  • swissknifev

    OK! We all need bosses to run our organizations. As long as the company runs well, it’s OK. Live, let live.

  • http://www.bulliedacademics.blogspot.com Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

    The bullying of academics follows a pattern of horrendous, Orwellian elimination rituals, often hidden from the public. Despite the anti-bullying policies (often token), bullying is rife across campuses, and the victims (targets) often pay a heavy price. “Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.” Leonardo da Vinci – “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men [or good women] do nothing.” Winston Churchill. – http://bulliedacademics.blogspot.com/

  • http://hkyson.wordpress.com hkyson

    Dear Mr. Proudhon:

    Thank you for your comment about academic bullying. Very occasionally, it can go to the point of assault or even murder. Some years ago a Stanford mathematics student shot and killed the person heading his Ph.D. dissertation committee.

    For many years I regretted that I was not able to pursue a Ph.D degree in linguistics because I did not have the money to do so. I no longer harbor these regrets. Much of the language theorizing done by Noam Chomsky and other language theorists completely lacks what John Dewey would call cash value as systems of ideas. They cannot be used to help design more effective machine-translation systems, for example, and are not very useful for people who would like to design more efficient systems for teaching and learning languages..

    Just as an ordinary working stiff cannot know what he could be up against when he is hired for a new job, a new graduate student only gradually learns who holds deciding power in different departments of a university he is enrolled in and can often find out only too late that he has been placed on the shitty end of the academic stick in the department where he is pursuing his degree.

    This can happen, of course, in the physical sciences and mathematics. But it is far more frequent in the language-based disciplines when a graduate student discovers that he cannot put up with the architectural assemblage of vacuous reifications of a particular branch of the discipline he would like to study.

    One person I know had to change his major after concluding that Jacques Derrida was nothing but an academic con artist after reading “Grammatology.” Noam Chomsky characterized this work as nothing but gibberish. (I don’t know what Derrida would have said about much of Chomsky’s work on transformational grammar.)

    I recently read that Michael Crichton went to Harvard and had to transfer out of the English department there to study anthropology as an undergraduate because his English professors did not think he could write (!!!).

    I invite you and others to take a look at my blog, hkyson.wordpress.com.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

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