The Psychotic Boss

Several years ago, I had the idea of dramatizing some of the ideas and characters in The 48 Laws of Power. I sketched out a scenario–based on some of my own experiences working in offices–of some difficult situations, some impossible personalities, and I created a clever protagonist who would navigate this mine field of scheming colleagues. I became particularly interested in the boss character I was creating, a sadistic type who was an amalgam of several bosses I had had over the years, including one particularly awful female boss.

I decided to do some ancillary research on the internet, and discovered a whole sub genre of what is known as the psychotic boss. There were websites devoted to this subject. I frequented the sites and contacted a few members who had particularly gruesome stories to relate. Certain themes began to crystallize and it became clear to me that this character I was creating out of my own experiences was something that was increasingly common in the workplace.

Let me spell it out: with the psychotic boss, nothing you do is ever quite right. They set traps, asking you to do things, and no matter how hard you think of accomplishing it in their way, it is wrong and you are to blame. This tends to instill a lot of fear in you. (The effect of unpredictability I describe in one of the laws of power.) There will be occasional explosions of anger, not too often, but which will stay in your mind for weeks. They start to occupy much of your mental space, as you go home thinking of what you did wrong, what you can do in the future, how to please, or deflect punishment. It starts to consume you. Nothing you do seems to improve the situation.

These types tend to be quite babyish and act real helpless. They are slightly disorganized. You must pay them a lot of attention, get them things that normal people could do for themselves. You must constantly think of their needs. One thing that is particularly maddening about them is that for others they generally present a pleasant façade. You will often be the only one to witness their ugliness, which makes it all the harder to complain to anyone about them.

I have found that a lot of these types can be very liberal; they are the ones supporting the best causes, standing up for women’s rights, or whatever it is that will enhance their appearance. This helps them justify to themselves their private nastiness to you. You are like a sacrificial victim to their power.

Female psychotic bosses can be particularly devilish. They will tend to mix in a lot of passive aggression, making you feel guilty for all kinds of things. The one I mentioned earlier liked to torture me in several ways. There were these meetings every week that were very boring and only really relevant to a few people, but all of us had to attend. We would devise all kinds of ways to be distracted, called away by important phone calls, whatever it took. One time, I noticed a newspaper opened near me, with a crossword puzzle within my field of vision. To make the time go by I was mentally filling it out.

The psychotic boss happened to pass by at that moment and must have seen this and called me out for doing the crossword puzzle, making a really snide joke about me. I showed her that not one square had been filled in but that made the situation worse. You must not try to justify yourself in their presence. Now, anything I did could be read as a sign of slacking off, so I had to be doubly sure to disguise even the thought of goofing off.

I mention this here because in my recent conversations with friends in the film business, I notice that this type is proliferating. A lot of people are coming to me for advice on how to deal with such a boss. This is one of the hardest strategic nuts to crack. I link these people in the WAR book to terrorists. They are using the same kind of strategy–inflicting a form of psychological terror that is larger than any physical or real threat. You find these types in relationships. You also find children now who use this strategy back at their parents, screaming and yelling with great violence. It becomes almost impossible to deal with, and so your only answer is to give in to them, to stop the terrorizing. Of course, this only feeds the process.

I am going back to the story I had started some five years ago. My question to you is this: has this phenomenon crossed your path? Can you share some stories? Do you think it is more frequent than before? And what is your counter-strategy for dealing with this? I have my own answers that I have devised over the years and that I share with people who find themselves in such relationships. I will reveal these somewhere in the thread, but first I want to hear your own experiences.

As a footnote: the greatest psychotic boss in history was Joseph Stalin. I researched him for this story of mine, and there is one book on him I recommend above all others: Stalin, by Edvard Radzinsky. This is one of the most riveting, chilling, brilliant books I have ever read.

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