Gorilla Bosses Bring Jungle to the Workplace

For Scott Testa, going to work everyday at his job selling software wasn’t so much like a daily
9-to-5 grind as it was like being thrown inside a cage with a wild animal.

“My boss was a freaking psychopath,” said the 39-year-old, who is now the COO of a software company in Norristown (search), Pa. “When he had meetings, he’d lock the door and physically put himself between the door and the rest of the room so no one could get out. He even had sound-deadening material put in his office so no one could hear him screaming at people. He would follow this one person in his car to make sure she went to her house and wasn’t interviewing for another job.”

Shalimar, Fla., writer Denise Dorman's personal office horror story took place at a Christian ad agency in Illinois, where the vice president got his predecessor’s job through some of the most vicious tactics she’d ever seen.

“He convinced the president that this other guy was gay,” Dorman said. “And [he] was a major control freak who tried to eavesdrop on everyone. My friends and I had to pretend we were talking about feminine cramps to make him go away.”

Everyone knows them, or knows someone who’s had to deal with them: gorilla bosses. The ones who make their way to the top by throwing one elbow too many, scaring colleagues with their violent rages and basking in an often-unearned aura of cockiness.

“A boss like that doesn’t want to accept feedback, doesn’t want to understand other points of view — it’s his or her way or the highway,” said Chicago-based science writer David L. Weiner (search), who wrote about the about the "gorilla boss" phenomenon in this year’s “Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows, But Isn't Telling You."

Weiner said gorilla bosses fill the space of the alpha-male primates who bully their way to the leadership of the tribe and rarely care whom they have to trample on their way to the top.

“They’re rarely courteous, don’t compromise, rarely compliment anyone, rarely apologize and won’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong,” Weiner said.

They’re the ones who replace office etiquette with the law of jungle, and their obnoxious alpha-male or alpha-female attitudes have caused countless co-workers and underlings to change careers, move out of state and seek psychiatric remedies.

But according to many experts, it’s the bosses who need psychiatric help, because Testa’s description of superiors like his as psychopathic is spot-on.

“You see the same characteristics with apes and chimps in the brain,” Weiner said. “But where as humans we grew the frontal cortex (search) to curb our impulses to put someone down, these gorilla bosses have dysfunctional frontal cortexes.

"But they can be great businesspersons and tremendously intelligent. The difference between a psychopath in prison and the one running the company is that the company is smart enough not to do anything wrong enough to put him in prison.”

Weiner is not the only one to make a connection between those on the psychological fringe and those with business success.

University of British Columbia (search) professor and criminal psychologist Robert Hare (search), who invented the influential checklist to determine whether someone’s a psychopath, compared WorldCom and Enron executives to rapists and assassins in a 2002 speech, then repeated similar sentiments in the 2003 documentary “The Corporation.”

And in March, Surrey University psychologists conducted a study in which they matched up the
personality traits of business managers and the criminally insane.

Their findings? Of the 11 personality disorders tested for, three were more likely to be found in the executives than in the institutionalized criminals, including histrionic and compulsive personality disorders and narcissism.

At the same time, the executives lacked many other personality disorders that may be easier to spot and might cut short their careers.

“They will focus on the bottom line,” said David Halstead, an educational psychologist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “There’s a bit of a misconception that these are real great leaders, and they may have successes in the short run.”

Some gorilla bosses even get a primal, physical thrill from putting down others and getting ahead, according to Judith Briles, a workplace expert in Denver, Colo.

“It’s like a drug; it makes them feel hot, feel good,” she said. “It’s debatable whether they're hardwired for that, but they sure pick it up.”

Extreme selfishness and unbounded aggression toward others was the case with Testa’s boss, who was a successful sales manager and made money, even though he humiliated his workers.

“He was anal retentive about time, and he expected other people to be like that,” Testa said. “He’d track what you did from the time you got up to the second you went to bed. He’d ask, ‘What did you do 'til 6?’ And you’d say, ‘I had a kid’s soccer game.’ ‘How long were you there?’ ’Forty-five minutes.’ And he’d blow his stack and scream, ‘Well, was it 45 minutes or an

“But he’d bring in the numbers. His management style was really aggressive and bullying, but from the numbers standpoint, he was relatively effective.”

Rhode Island-based psychologist Alan Weiss, who specializes in organizational development, said that many extreme bosses act that way because that behavior’s earned them success.

“The bullying, throwing tantrums, are what got them where they are,” Weiss said.

Weiss himself had a firsthand gorilla boss experience at a consulting firm in Providence, R.I.

“I had a boss who went through people’s garbage at night to make sure they hadn’t written things about him,” he said. “He read every correspondence that came to the office, too, even addressed to other people, and then keep the original and give you a carbon copy. At Christmas, you even got carbon copies of Christmas cards.”

Weiss and Weiner both say the current, ultra-competitive business climate encourages gorilla
bosses. Americans typically now spend their careers at several companies rather than one or two, and because even traditionally worker-friendly corporations have been forced to cut the fat and focus on their account books rather than employee morale.

“They’re thriving in this kind of culture, and it’s growing worse,” Weiner said. “The bosses like these might not be ethical or moral, but they fit in. If a company’s collegial, promotes teamwork, these people won’t thrive there. But if the culture’s tough and hard, like commercial real estate, these people will thrive.”

But even gorilla bosses can be tamed — somewhat. Weiner offers five bits of advice.

  • First, don’t be confrontational; it’s the quickest way to get fired or get on the boss’ blacklist.
  • Second, work to become indispensable, but do it quietly and without heroics. “Do his job for him, don’t take credit,” Weiner said. “He will take the credit and never thank you, but he won’t see you as a threat and he will know you’re indispensable. Just keep in mind these gorilla bosses are paranoid in that they think the betas are trying to get them.”
  • Third, gain the boss’ trust. Never gossip at the water cooler about him or her, because if the boss finds out, it’s all over. Never go over his or her head because your boss will make you pay for it later, and if you make a mistake, admit it and suffer the tongue lashing.
  • Fourth, communicate with the boss at his or her pace. Figure out how much information he or she wants and work at that level — give them too much and you’re doing your boss’ job; too little and you’re trying to keep him or her out of the loop.
  • Fifth, be proactive without taking credit. Give ideas but don’t push them. If the boss acts on your idea a month later and takes it as his or her own, be grateful.

Eventually, you’ll be let into the boss’ inner circle — a lackey, but a protected one.

And there’s another strategy altogether, for the less ambitious: calculated avoidance. Disappear whenever the gorilla boss is around. But be aware that it can backfire.

“If you bump into them, be polite, but you can’t let them think you’re avoiding them on purpose,” Weiner said.

For Testa, who remained as non-confrontational as possible, there was a happy ending to his story.

“I thought he was so crazy that I knew it wouldn’t go on forever, that his time would come and I could just ride it out,” he said. “And the organization eventually outgrew him and needed someone with a different management style — they’d lost a few good people because of his behavior — and let him loose.

"Of course, they had to change the locks and security codes and get a restraining order, because he’d come back into the office after he was fired. But I outlasted him.”