Dysfunctional Bosses: Is That Executive Normal?

As I said in my previous post about untreated mental illness, denial is powerful. We as a society have a deeply rooted need to think that the people around us are normal or, to use the new term, neurotypical. After all, we consider ourselves normal so we expect our co-workers to be as well.

Dangerously Dysfunctional Bosses

The problem is that many people fit somewhere on an atypical neural pattern: ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, paranoia, autism, OCD, bipolar, borderline personality, and even sociopathy. Just because they haven’t been diagnosed, or haven’t told you that they have been diagnosed, doesn’t mean they’re neurotypical. When one of these folks does something abnormal, we are thrown for a loop and wonder how that person could have done anything so bizarre or hurtful. Dysfunctional bosses are especially dangerous to everyone around them — not to mention the company.

A Spectrum of Behaviors

Cheetos, office

Overdosing on Cheetos

In my career in the high-tech industry, I have met many such folks. I have worked for some of them, had others as my peers in the organization, and had several report directly to me. After so many years, I have come to believe that they gravitate to high-tech because it’s very forgiving of people who are smart but behave differently.

The problem is that there are many kinds of different—a spectrum of odd behaviors that may fit into one or more of the syndromes listed above. The software developer who wears bedroom slippers to work and sits in his cube pulling at his hair and eating Cheetos all day probably fits somewhere on one spectrum or another but is harmless to his co-workers and to the company.

Too Scary for Words

Dysfunctional bosses such as the CEO, president, VP, or COO who exhibits atypical behavior are far more dangerous, however. I’m not talking about gun-toting homicidal actions but rather the kinds of decisions that have a deleterious effect on the organization, the employees, and the bottom line.

While not exactly a secret, this is something that is seldom talked about except in an off-hand way. People in the cafeteria might say that he (It’s almost always a he in high-tech) did something really crazy yesterday, but they’re only using hyperbole. They are caught in the denial trap of needing to believe that the CEO or their boss is really normal; he just happened to do something weird. It’s too scary to think otherwise.

Think again.

I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV, but in my career I have experienced a lot of behavior that fits into either one of these categories or possibly another one that I have never heard of. I’m not talking about the pretty normal guy who, frustrated by the new telephone system, threw his office phone across the room and dented the far wall. Neither am I talking about oversized egos, self-aggrandizing actions, or vaunting ambition at the expense of others, even though these are all too common.

Dysfunctional Bosses

It’s worse than that. By way of illustration and through direct experience I have:

  • Reported to a VP who would go on walkabout without warning. I would go to get him for a meeting with a major industry analyst only to find his office empty and his cell phone on his desk. I would then scour the office and even send someone into the men’s room to no avail. When he returned and learned that he had missed an important meeting, he would look sheepish but offer neither explanation nor apology. This happened more than once and conversations with someone who knew him at a previous company uncovered the fact that he used to do it there as well.
  • Reported to a man who could only act when his adrenaline was flowing and a deadline was looming. Incapable of planning ahead or getting an early start, he would procrastinate until the last minute, forcing everyone on his team to work in crisis mode until late at night or over a weekend, regardless of our own schedules and deadlines. (Not to mention family obligations.)

Anger, Undermining and Nit Picking

  • Reported to a VP who went into towering, foul-mouthed rages that terrified his own staff as well as many others around him. Had I not taken over managing the people in his organization, he would have lost half of them in the first six months. Once, angry with another member of the team, he stood in the man’s office and crushed an empty soda can in his large fist, saying, “This is your heart.”
  • Reported to a VP who would spend hours focusing on tiny details of a press release that had already been issued and posted on the website. He would come into my office wondering if there should be a space in front of that hyphen in the second paragraph. Meanwhile, I was working on his marketing plan and budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
  • Worked with a woman who spent a great deal of time deviously undermining, undercutting, criticizing and bad-mouthing others in the company. She really believed that she could do everyone else’s job better than they could even though she had absolutely no training or experience in their discipline. Her behavior was so destructive and so vicious that co-workers—including members of the department she managed—were having novenas said so she would get pregnant and stay home.
  • Prepared to make a presentation to a VP who was known for his “impatience.”  When I reviewed the presentation with my boss, he said, “It’s too long. Drop half the slides. You only have five minutes; after that he starts reading The Wall Street Journal.”

Do all these behaviors ring a bell? Sure. These dysfunctional bosses had, and have, a problem that is either un-diagnosed or un-medicated. I know at least one who did not take his medication because he did not like the way it made him feel. Another told me that he would rather die than change. Their behavior is a problem for them and a problem for the people who work with them. It’s often a big—but unrecognized or unacknowledged—problem for the company.

Who Will Bell the Cat?

Mister Burns

Everyone Hates Mister Burns

I have seen organizations demolished by bad managers who often exhibited behaviors associated by one treatable disorder or another. Quantifying the damage is difficult because the people around or below such an executive either suffer in silence or bail out.

There is no benefit for the VP of Human Resources who actually measures how much the company has spent on employee churn created by a toxic executive who was hand-picked by the CEO.

The board or venture capitalists don’t care if a member of the management team exhibits bizarre behavior unless there’s a possibility it could get them sued. It’s vanishingly rare that a CEO, board member or VC would choose to even see abnormal behavior, much less do something about it.

Denial is Powerful

It’s so much easier to deny, deny, deny. 

At times, I have felt that the high tech industry succeeds in spite of itself rather than because of its own accomplishments and this tolerance for destructive decisions and odd actions is a big reason why. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything changing anytime soon.