January 5, 2012

Bad-Boy Bosses and Boyfriends: The Secret of Their Charm


BAD-BOY BOSS OF BOSSES, AL CAPONE/Image: mug shot (Wikipedia)

Most employees forced to deal with a horrible boss will quit if they can afford to or can find a better option. But what about those who, despite the acute horrors and chronic abuse suffered at the hands of a tyrannical, bullying, hostile or otherwise bad boss choose to remain, even though they have the other resources needed to leave?

By “bad” I don’t mean disorganized, incompetent or uninformed; these kinds of traits are merely job performance characteristics, not character traits; the latter—unlike personality and job performance traits—almost always having a moral tinge to them, e.g., being honest, cruel or responsible. “Bad” here refers to personal character traits that border on or cross over into criminal and evil behavior, e.g., sexual harassment, Scrooge callousness or strong-arm tactics.

Some bad boys, like gangsta and gangster Al Capone-wannabe’s revel in being truly bad “bad-asses”; others conceive or justify being “bad” in ways that are disarming, even appealing, e.g., the WikiHow “How to be a Bad Boy” manual, by packaging it as behavior that doesn’t require being villainous, instead merely allowing it.

Since at least some bad-boy bosses (BBB) retain staff the way a bad-boy boyfriend (BBBF) keeps his girlfriend(s) on a leash and in his stable, a comparison with bad-boy boyfriend traits, techniques and tactics should help illuminate the analogous workplace case.

The Case of the Very Bad Boyfriend Boss

In case there is any doubt as to what is meant here by a “bad boy”, the following real-life example of a BBBF who was also a boss of sorts should amply illustrate it: A lovely, personable, otherwise intelligent young Asian woman I met and worked out with in a kung fu class about a decade ago told me she met and knew from the outset the circumstances of her Canadian boyfriend while he was on temporary release from prison, pending review of his case. He was serving a seven-year sentence for kidnapping, attempted murder—including near-drowning in his bathtub, battery and unlawful confinement (for three days, in his apartment) of a second Asian woman he met previously.

Despite his spawn-of-Satan track record, she stuck to him, like road-kill too long on an inferno-hot desert highway.

When I asked her why him, she said that he didn’t treat her that way and that he was an ambitious businessman who was “kind” to her. What business? She said that prior to imprisonment, he was selling T-shirts on a local beach during the summer and that she got to assist him as an unpaid assistant, who was, among other things, storing his inventory for him. That was enough for her to forgive his horrific crime, his spitting at her, kicking her, otherwise demeaning her and sticking her with his $1,500 prison cell phone bill.

His sentence was upheld by the court.

A Former Bad-Boy Boss of Mine

As for other BBBs, again, I can draw upon a personal experience—however brief, since I left the job as soon as the young-Turk bad-boy boss’ true colors were hoisted (3 months). What flaw? Intent to commit fraud. In fact, I was abruptly terminated for suggesting that truth-in-advertising considerations would have required abandoning a product formulation and modifying its marketing campaign. I had also suggested that “testimonials” should not be written by him, after he suggested I check one he wrote. My epiphany arrived with the pink-slip email two days later, the same week in which I had been lauded by the same boss as the company’s advertising “guru”. Who was the bad-boss’ role model?—a highly successful, semi-high-profile uncle, charged with Internet fraud.

Allowance for the long-term retention of staff who are unaware of the BBB’s ways is highly unlikely to account for the loyalty of all staff, since the odds are that at least one other person in the organization has to be a co-conspirator or willing, informed pawn.

Explaining Bad-Boy Boss and Boyfriend (Girlfriend) Charm

Contemplating B-movie scripts about female (or male) employees enthralled and kept that way by their bad-boy boy(girl)friend-cum-bosses; Stockholm-syndrome-like office scenarios, in which a workplace bad-boy(girl) captive audience is tapped for at least one disciple; and more straightforward, general and perverse loyalty of good/bad people to bad eggs, I have been able to craft the following (rather complete and therefore long) list of psychological explanations of the phenomenon of irresistible bad-boy charm—a list much of which I presented on a Vancouver radio talk-show some years ago:

1. Florence Nightingale motives: to “save” the bad boy and show that she (or he), the rescuer, is the only special person to do so, for which the bad boy will be eternally grateful. The formulaic infinite patience, determination, forbearance, solicitude, etc., required to play this role make the woman or man who chooses it a perfect “rescuer” in bad-boy and alcoholic life-scripts.  Understandably, assistant secretaries to bad boys (or bad girls) are likely to be especially vulnerable as rescuers.

2. Self-permission to be bad: Tired of being a goody-two-shoes conformist, some may date or work for a bad boy (or girl) in order to give themselves permission to be bad themselves, without criticism from their significant and managing other. Clearly, fraudulent pyramid and other marketing schemes feed off this.

3. Clichéd rebellion against parents: This is the familiar theme of rebelling against parental control in order to feel more autonomous and have an adult identity. Quite perversely, if a young new staffer complains about a bad-boy boss to her parents, who tend to be too controlling, she may, for that reason, ignore their advice to quit the job.

4. Lion tamer: to be the only one able to control or reform the badness in the bad boy. Clear business example: the dedicated efforts of Mercy for Animals employee infiltrators whose hidden cameras have exposed hideous acts of cruelty in slaughterhouses. This is perhaps the best reason to continue to work for a bad-boy boss, bad-boy policies or with very bad-boy co-workers, even though steps are being made to brand such activists as “terrorists”.

5. Parental attention-seeking: a tactic to test parents and elicit their attention through negative-attention seeking. A cliché in the realm of good-girl bad-boy boyfriend scripts, this could evolve in the workplace, if a daughter (or son) clings to the bad-boy’s bad job in order to elicit parent sympathy—especially if, like so many young workers these days, she (he) is living at home.

6. Beauty and the Beast syndrome: to be the only person King Kong won’t harm—proof of being special. Think of the Fay Wray heroine unharmed, while in the clutches of an otherwise dangerous King Kong boss.

7. Validation as an outsider: Similar to teen rebellion, this involves positioning as much as behavior—namely positioning, both socially and existentially, as an outsider, including alienated outsider. Drug-dealing, otherwise socially-alienated street gangs spring to mind as an example, characterized by to-the-death loyalty of bad-boy gang members to the truly bad-boy gang leader and to each other.

8. Slot-machine syndrome: Intermittent positive reinforcement from the otherwise bad boy is addictive, in the same way that infrequent payoffs from Las Vegas slot machines are. Much harder to extinguish intermittently reinforced behavior (e.g., doting on the bad boy, being submissive to him) than always-reinforced behavior. Bad-boy bosses and boyfriends can be very exciting this way, by being unpredictably “nice” in the midst of predictable badness. This is one reason why unpredictable bad boys almost always have girlfriends, while the predictable always-nice guys wonder why they can’t.

9. A niche for low self-esteem: Instead of overcoming her low self-esteem, the dominated partner’s or employee’s tactic is to capitalize on it, by being involved with a guy or a boss who will simultaneously perpetuate, exploit and accept it.

10. “Face eating”: The Japanese have a phrase–“men kui (pronounced “koo-ee”)–that means eating face or being addicted to good looks, i.e., being literally superficial. This can be expanded in this discussion to include eating face in the sense of being willing to lose face as the price of being involved with a handsome or sexy bad-boy boss or boyfriend, a very common correlation of two traits, as discussed in #11.

11. Unintended consequence: The presumption that a woman is attracted to a bad boy precisely because he is bad needs to be balanced by the hypothesis that she is actually attracted to something else that unfortunately correlates with and more than offsets being a bad boy and that is also independently attractive, e.g., being both handsome and a bad boy, or being endearingly lost, confused, highly emotional and a bad boy. Hence, in the workplace, a brokerage employee who won’t quit may hang in for benefits that correlate with the bad-boy boss’ character flaws, e.g., huge Wall Street bonuses awarded for collusion in the sale of junk bonds and subprime mortgages.

12. Alpha-male image: Bad boys intimidate others and are more likely to use primitive methods, e.g., macho violence, to get what they want. This is the classic appeal of the gangster and bully bosses, who somehow always manage to get what they want and sometimes share it.

13. Outlaw status: A darker version of the Maid Marion and Robin Hood co-dependency, good-girl/bad-boy pairings allow the woman to bask in the drama, romance, glory and dark shadow of the bad boy outlaw. Working as a military-trained Iraq private-sector warrior for what used to be known as Blackwater will be cited by some as a good example of this.

14. Bad-boy “honesty”: Bad boys will never try to fool anyone about being bad–“Get me a beer, b**ch, or I’ll b**ch slap you!”  Yes, the truth–no pretense. Why? Well, fraud is what people resort to when they can’t get away with using intimidation, force or persuasion. Since persuasion is too much like work for someone used to successfully employing force and intimidation, that kind of bad boy can seem “honest”, since he’s neither lying nor “selling”—instead directly demanding. The married boss who tells his secretary he wants only a “no-strings” relationship may keep a grip on her because of “honesty” that eclipses his infidelity.

15. Effectiveness of negativity: Empirical studies show that people who are initially negative, e.g., critical, are trusted more than flatterers—again, because of the perception that they are somehow more “honest”, down-to-earth and not desperate to be liked. Bad boys specialize in this manipulative technique. Hence, a bad-boy boss or boyfriend who knows how to walk the tightrope between being negative and positive may be able to skillfully keep employees or partners on a tight leash.

16. Charm or spell of the strong, silent type: Studies show that women are attracted to moody, silent types, like Clint Eastwood, brooding Marlon Brando, and James Dean. That’s because among primates, the alpha male spends little time trying to elicit responses from others, largely ignoring and disdaining subordinates. The guy who is endlessly trying to communicate and ingratiate himself comes across as a wimp or a clown. My experience with one very taciturn Japanese CEO amply illustrates this. A man of few words, when he spoke it was like thunder that set assembled staff atremble and quivering with fear. Quit? I think they were afraid to.

17. Identification: To the extent that the bad-boy boyfriend/girlfriend or boss seems unique, special, high-status, mysterious, blah-blah, the mesmerized can, through identification with him and the frequent use of “we”, see themselves in the same way. Hitler is the obvious bad-boy boss example to cite.

18. Projection: This is the opposite of identification. In this instance, the guy’s and the girl’s being the same is denied: I’m not the one who is bad; he is. So the bad-boy boyfriend or boss is a foil for an underling’s superego in need of exoneration and exculpation for real, imagined or desired bad behavior, thoughts, yearnings, etc., of her own. Example: otherwise guilt-ridden clerks who worked for Heinrich Himmler or Dr. Josef Mengele.

19. Emotional roller-coaster: Some employees and romantic partners enjoy the rush of alternating, often unpredictable highs and lows that come with the bad-boy relationship. This is a variant of the “intermittent reinforcement” theme, but with a greater emphasis on the intensity of the highs that alternate with equally intense lows.

20. Pleasure as relief of pain: An extreme variation on the “kiss-and-make-up” theme and a cousin of the roller-coaster dynamic, the bad-boy “punch-and-make-up” script can be exciting not only for its slot-machine unpredictable positive payoffs and its exciting alternation between fear and excitement (often blended, see below), but also for intense pleasures of relief. This is like the pleasure that Plato identified as what is experienced by immersing a hand in boiling hot water and then icing it. The monster boss or boyfriend who orchestrates pain and its relief can very effectively keep a grip on those enthralled by this tactic.

21. Need to be punished: Some employees or partners with unconscious or other guilt may choose a bad boy as the instrument of their punishment and perpetuation of low self-expectations as a worthless human being.

22. .Commitment phobia: This involves choosing a partner who will doom the relationship, much like choosing a married guy who clearly will never leave his wife. Great for women who don’t want children, marriage or loving intimacy. A bad boy can play this role perfectly, without ever being aware that he is.

23. Pre-rationalization of expected failure: Women and men who believe that their relationships are all doomed to fail, for whatever reason, can take comfort in having as an excuse the explanation that, if it fails this time too, it will be because he is a bad boy or she is a bad girl–much as choice of a married man or woman as a lover is motivated, the difference being that the married lover has high status in virtue of demonstrably being able to commit to a conventional relationship, without suffocating the adulterous partner in one, in contrast to the bad boy or girl who is proven to be able to commit to mayhem without conventional strings, such as marriage and kids. Likewise, a bad boss can serve as a convenient excuse for anticipated career failure or underperformance

24. Nice guys are boring: Nice guys try too hard, are, like Clark Kent,  too predictably consistent in being nice (no intermittent, variable-interval or variable ratio reinforcement schedules) and are therefore always boringly in-character and unsurprising, e.g., will always hold the door open, always listen patiently,  and never lose their temper. The impression—conscious or not—is that they are omega-males who are trying too hard, are too afraid to be “real” and flawed, and are probably getting someone they don’t really deserve. Hence, the good guy can be a victim of his own success, namely, of convincing a woman that he is “nice”, thereby raising doubts about his suitability, authenticity, etc. If nice bosses are not boring in this way, they are at least targets for exploitation in ways that, in virtue of their intimidating personas, bad-boy bosses are not.

25. Fear-excitement nexus: Julius Fast, author of Body Language, pointed out that the females of many species of animals become sexually and otherwise excited and aroused when in a state of mild fear induced by a dominant, somewhat intimidating and therefore alpha-male male. Bad boys hone this role better than anybody else and skillfully apply edgy tactics—techniques that involve doing something a little scary and therefore exciting, like racing the alpha-male Harley-for-two on an icy road or, like Donald Trump, menacingly presiding over the hiring and firing on “The Apprentice”.

26. Oedipal reaction-formations: It’s a Freudian cliché that the romantic partners we seek or accept often bear uncanny resemblances to one of our parents, or, if that is too obvious and anxiety-provoking a pull, some of us will go into unconscious denial and end up with the diametrical opposite of that parent, in order to put some serious emotional distance between forbidden unconscious desires and eventual choices.

Even a non-Freudian can see the logic in this. One thing that can be said in favor of a bad-boy (girl) parent is that once their children get used to them, the kids can develop stable coping strategies to deal with the familiar patterns (including patterned unpredictability). That’s one reason why children of alcoholics can be attracted to alcoholics as partners—the rules of the game, the outcomes and optimal strategies for playing and coping have all been thoroughly learned and applicable should the game be replayed outside the paternal/maternal family. When compared with dealing with the riskily unfamiliar life script of a non-alcoholic partner, sticking to what is familiar can seem to make good sense.

Hence, to the extent that a bad-boy boss resembles a highly “cathected” (emotionally bonded) parent or that parent’s extreme opposite, there is the possibility of what may seem to be an irrational, self-damaging long-term commitment to that boss and the job.

While the foregoing list is presented as quite comprehensive, the chances are that if you or someone you know is still with a bad boss (or partner), but can’t find the explanation in this list, you’ll have to try harder to find another way to account for it.

Probably, like most of the others given above, it will be a good explanation.

….but a bad reason.

Read more in Performance Appraisal

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).