Employer Branding

What Horrible Bosses Can Teach HR

We’ve all had at least one. Just the utterance of the words “bad boss” immediately evokes a potent image of that abrasive, passive aggressive, short-tempered, credit-stealer who everyday made you question why you were still working for them.

It is perhaps this – the universal experience of this particular breed of workplace villain – that led to Seth Gordon’s back comedy, Horrible Bosses, becoming one of the most popular and profitable films of 2011. The film was such a hit that it spurred a sequel, Horrible Bosses 2, which is currently in cinemas. Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudekis play Nick, Dale, and Kurt, respectively – three generically-named pals with bosses so bad they’re on a completely different level from that manager who took the credit for that great idea you had or denied your holiday request for no apparent reason.

As bad as your boss was (or is), you can be grateful that at least they didn’t:

  1. Dangle a promotion in front of you for months, only to give it to themselves (Kevin Spacey as David Harken)
  2. Threaten to tell you fiancé that you had sex with them, unless you have sex with them (Jennifer Aniston as Dr. Julia Harris, D.D.S.);
  3. Take drugs at their desk, attempt to fire all the overweight and disabled people, and admit they care nothing for the company (Colin Farrell as Bobby Pellitt)

Well at least I hope not…

Four real-life characters to look out for (and avoid):

What’s particularly alarming is that while these horrible bosses are extreme, exaggerated illustrations of your everyday I-don’t-want-to-go-into-work feeling inducing managers, as many people will know and have experienced, their character traits are rooted firmly in the realities of the modern workplace. In his book, Office Politics, Oliver James identifies a “dark triad” of workplace characters disproportionately represented in office settings:

  • Psychopaths: these guys have no conscience
  • Machiavellians: they’re manipulative and have no qualms with exploiting others for personal gain
  • Narcissists: you can’t miss these ones, they’re grandiose and lack empathy

Sound like anyone you know?

But even more anguishing than having to dodge and compete with this trio of lovable personalities every day at work, is the thought of encountering someone that falls into all three categories – James refers to these particular monsters as “triadic individuals.” You may already have worked with them – they might even be your boss!

Between them, David Harkins, Dr. Julia Harris, and Bobby Pellitt exhibit traits from all of the three dark triad characters, with Harkins and Harris channelling all three personalities, indicating they’re triadic individuals.

In his book, The Psychopath Test, British journalist Jon Ronson worryingly reports that “the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is about 4 percent, four times what it is in the population at large.” This unsettling statistic is supported by research from psychologist and executive coach Paul Babiak, who evaluated 203 American corporate professionals using a standard psychopathy checklist, revealing that “one in 25 bosses may be psychopaths – a rate that’s four times greater than in the general population.”

Leaders, managers, and technicians:

‘Leadership’ and ‘management’ are words and concepts that are often used interchangeably within organisations, and although there is certainly crossover between the two, there is also a marked difference. John P. Kotter, Professor of Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at Harvard University, asserts that “management is a set of processes that keep and organisation functioning. They make it work today – they make it hit this quarter’s numbers… [Leadership] is about aligning people to the vision, that means buy-in and communication, motivation and inspiration.”

The sadistic David Harken (Spacey), President of financial firm Comnidyne Industries and Nick’s boss, is a prime example of a manager in a leadership role. Psychopathic tendencies aside, Harken is clearly an accomplished manager – he knows exactly how to run a profitable business, but as a leader he fails spectacularly because he can’t look past his own self-interest (cue his narcissistic, psychotic, and Machiavellian behaviours).

On the other hand, Dr. Julia Harris (Aniston), the sexual predatory dentist to whom Dale reports, is an example of a highly capable technician misplaced in a leadership role. Technicians often find themselves in leadership positions as their talents and ability to perform their job well is noticed by the company and they begin to rise through the ranks. To a certain point this is absolutely right and deserved, but often these able employees who are brilliant at navigating the particulars of their profession are not necessarily equipped to lead a team of people working towards the same goal. Dr. Julia, for example, may be outstanding at performing root canals, and the customers love her bubbly public demeanour, but she, like Harken, fails as a leader because she so wrapped up in her personal desires that she abuses the power her role bestows upon her.

Despite the monstrous behaviour exhibited by Harkins and Harris, Bobby Pellitt (Farrell) is perhaps the worst type of anti-leader: he is neither a competent manager nor a talented technician – he is a relative. As the son of Kurt’s great boss, Bobby inherits the business after his father dies, and Kurt inherits him as a boss. Alas, he’s incompetent, corrupt, and has no idea what he’s doing – he’s a complete idiot.

While Horrible Bosses consistently delivers 98 minutes of hilariously exaggerated workplace gag after gag grounded in less extravagant situations we can all identify with, Seth Gordon’s film raises some interesting and thoughtful questions about the negative effect a bad boss can have on the workforce and the business. It’s high-time we rethink the way leadership and executive roles are recruited for and stop the assumption that just because someone is an experienced manager or technician, they will thrive as a leader or people manager.

Author: Joseph Supple-Turnham is an experienced writer and blogger, and Marketing Officer at HR software company Cezanne HR.

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