How to tell if your boss is a narcissist.
The writer is a business consultant and psychotherapist. She is author of the book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life’
People who come to see me for work therapy are usually troubled by behaviour they know is damaging their career or business, but are unable to stop.
When well-meaning advice from coaches or colleagues fails to help, digging more deeply to understand our underlying motivations can be the most effective solution. Since the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud, psychotherapists have known that our early childhood experiences have a significant effect on our perceptions and character traits, which we then bring into our working lives.
Compulsions such as perfectionism, workaholism, controlling behaviour and even people pleasing, habits which can undermine our careers, can be understood best by examining our past.
Our earliest relationships reside deep in our minds and, consciously or not, create a template for how we relate to others, respond to conflict and deal with authority. These relationships, beginning with our parents or caregivers, set the tone for how we perceive all subsequent relationships, including and especially those in the workplace.
For example, if in our formative years our parents responded to us with nurturing care and interest, we are more likely to believe that authority figures later will treat us with the same regard. However, if we were let down routinely or harmed in any way, we are likely to anticipate that other people we depend on will fail us or even be against us.
While we might grudgingly accept that our unreasonable behaviour in our personal lives is a reaction to early family experiences, we rarely consider how work tensions might originate from the same source. At work we are generally convinced that problems and threats we experience come from others — manipulative colleagues, bullying bosses or demanding clients.
The danger, however, is that we may be misinterpreting matters — overestimating the external threats (from bosses, clients, colleagues or even underlings) and underestimating the internal ones (from unresolved past conflicts). Such confusion can mean we misread situations — for example, believing our manager’s intrusions into our work mean he or she is planning to fire us rather than attempting to help.
One 48-year-old man in advertising nearly had a breakdown because he felt persistently manipulated by a succession of female bosses. He always thought he was on the verge of being sacked or criticised and so became highly conscientious and perfectionistic in his work.
This is how he described his first boss: “She would land me with her outlandish ideas and would then leave me to deal with them. We would have these long conversations which felt very intimate. I wanted her to stop feeding me these stupid ideas that weren’t going to work. It felt like my mother trying to get inside my head and manipulate me.”
While we might grudgingly accept that our unreasonable behaviour in our personal lives is a reaction to early family experiences, we rarely consider how work tensions might originate from the same source
In his youth his mother’s intrusive and persistent questioning about details of his life left him feeling suffocated. “As a teenager I was miserable and wanted my mother to back off, but she always wanted to know who I was friendly with and who said what to whom — she always wanted to drag more out of me.”
Resisting her questioning had consequences for him. “I always feared she would lose her rag. She could get very unpleasant if I crossed her.”
Once his career had begun, he transferred that same confusion and mistrust of women to his female managers. Consequently, he tended to misread their intentions as malicious rather than supportive.
And ironically, rather than avoid criticism, he unknowingly encouraged it. He gave an example: “One boss came up with a bizarre idea and I concluded that this was ridiculously stupid. The first thing I did was panic and put it on the back burner. The end result was that I annoyed her. I later realised that the idea was a good one but at the time I thought that she was dumping this on me to make me look bad.”
As long as such internal threats reside in our unconscious we have little or no control over our reactions. But bringing such processes to conscious awareness gives us the clarity to respond appropriately rather than irrationally.
Another case of the past playing out in the present came from a recently promoted chief executive of a consultancy company.
His fear of offending people meant that he was unable to give his clients the harsh truths they were paying him for. Instead, he was bending over backwards to make them feel good. Not only was he undermining his career, but the company was at risk of losing clients.
Through our discussions, I discovered that the first person he upset seriously was his mother. Initially he was her “golden child”, but when he was bullied at school he lost his spark and humour, and his mother withdrew, wrongly interpreting his low mood as criticism of her rather than a plea for help. This left him feeling depressed and alone.
In his teens he discovered that by pleasing others he could escape loneliness and he later brought this same approach to his professional life to protect him from imagined threats of rejection. That came with consequences, as he now realises: “[People pleasing] is inhibiting because the decisions you make are layered in lots of considerations about how the other person might feel and react, how they might speak against you or recruit others against you. By trying not to offend them and diluting what you say means you’re less efficient, less productive.”
Paradoxically, this made it more likely that his clients would be frustrated and walk away, leaving him with the very feelings he was fleeing from.
Why the past plays out in the present
The most common question I am asked is why would anyone knowingly repeat behaviour that undermines their career?
Simply, the determination to resolve tensions from our early years is often strong enough to sabotage our ambitions. Unconsciously, we repeat past scenarios to try to resolve them, but sadly it often results in repeated failure rather than resolution. Furthermore, returning to the past is compelling and there are few surprises, whereas change is uncomfortable and confusing.
Not only are unresolved conflicts re-enacted in the workplace, attempts to fulfil deeper longings are too. Perhaps you lacked sufficient attention or reassurance from a parent, love was scarce at best and security inconsistent. At work these longings can be ignited so that praise and validation from the boss means much more than simply that you are doing a good job — it becomes your way to try to satisfy needs that were inadequately met in childhood.
What to do next
If we believe that people at work are against us, we need to consider whether our suspicions are based in reality or emanate from our early lives. Separating our personal past from our professional present is crucial to read situations accurately and respond appropriately.
Separating our personal past from our professional present is crucial to read situations accurately and respond appropriately
If your feelings are strong and reactions irrational, you may be responding more to historical than present events. Find someone you trust to help you gain perspective. Get to know who your bosses, colleagues and underlings actually are, rather than who you imagine them to be. You might discover that they are reasonable and not against you at all.
It is no wonder that work relationships touch deep wounds from our past. Issues around dependency, authority and closeness in the workplace can reignite our earliest experiences of them. Furthermore, there is rarely the time or interest to find out who colleagues are, and instead we judge them quickly, putting them into various pigeonholes that we are rarely inclined to reassess. But if our view of them is based on our misguided perceptions, misunderstandings are inevitable.
Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, is acting out their childhood experiences in the workplace and this is what makes office politics such a minefield. If you want to understand your colleagues’ irrational behaviour, begin by understanding your own.
‘The Man who Mistook his Job for his Life’, by Naomi Shragai
Naomi Shragai is a psychotherapist whose practice includes a lot of workplace therapy, both inside companies in an official capacity, and in her private practice. Her name may be familiar to FT readers as she has written many articles about the ways in which our unconscious motivations influence our behaviour and relationships, at work and beyond.
Now she’s bringing all her insights together in a fascinating book. The Man who Mistook his Job for his Life is for anyone who is curious about human behaviour — our own, and that of our colleagues and bosses. By learning how our early experiences may be influencing the way we react to tricky situations — chapters include “In fear of conflict — or why there is no such thing as a perfect childhood” — we can take the right action to solve our workplace problems.
The book is much more than a practical guide, though. It is a guide to all human life and there is a fair amount of personal anecdote from Shragai’s own life. We may all claim rationality, but that is rarely evident in our workplaces.
Shragai is not just telling us why we behave as we do (it is because “the pull towards the familiar is strong and it is often powerful enough to overtake our conscious desires”). She shows us how to get past these patterns and find a different way of reacting.
‘Woke, Inc: Inside the Social Justice Scam’, by Vivek Ramaswamy
“Wokeness”, or the idea of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice, is contentiously sitting at the centre of the so-called “culture wars” that dominate much of public politics.
But when “woke” ideas are sponsored by big corporations, Vivek Ramaswamy argues we risk turning democracies into the autocracy of the elite. In Woke, Inc., the founder and former chief executive of biotech group Roivant Sciences examines the ways in which stakeholder capitalism and woke culture have developed over the past decade, and how this evolution has put the legitimacy of democratic processes on the line.
The book was written following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, when Ramaswamy penned an article arguing against the censorship of individual accounts on Twitter and Facebook. The backlash to the piece was such that the author felt compelled to step down as CEO and focus on defending his political ideas.
Ramaswamy argues that stakeholder capitalism has become a means for top level corporations to increase their profit while dictating moral and social values that should rather be voted on by the electorate.
He presents a clear argument filled with entertaining professional and personal anecdotes and claims that wokeness is used as a “hollow excuse” for companies to assume their place in a “moral pantheon”.
In contrast with other forms of lobbying, “woke” moral principles are, he writes, comparable to a religion that is being imposed without the consent of the majority. However, most policies lobbied by large corporations have an equal impact on voters’ day-to-day lives.
While the author’s criticism of the infiltration of politics in the boardroom is valid, he fails to explain who, exactly, is behind the turn to “woke” capitalism.
But as the political cleavages of American (and to a certain extent, British) society become more entrenched in cultural and identity issues, Woke, Inc. is a reminder of the power of overcoming group think centred around identity labels, and facing challenges with a more equanimous mindset.
‘Friday is the New Saturday: How a Four-day Working Week Will Save the Economy’, by Pedro Gomes
The concept of working four days a week started decades ago and has divided opinions.
But as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, the conversation around the idea is gaining force. Pedro Gomes presents a compelling approach to the topic, rooting his arguments in a range of economic theories, history and data — focused on the improvement of society.
The narrative is constructed around the ideas of influential economists John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek. The book is thoroughly researched, providing substantial analysis of both the benefits and drawbacks of changing the status quo of the five-day week.
The book examines arguments from both the left and right of the political spectrum. The first part explains the historical panorama of the four-day working movement, with statistics, facts and initial thoughts on how the economic activities could be reorganised to influence a healthy societal change.
Moving on, the author blends economic theory, opinions of brilliant minds, stories of successful companies, anecdotal evidence and examples based on data to persuade readers from different ideological preferences. He uses eight economic statements to explore different scenarios of what people would do with their extra day off work.
In one of the statements — “Because it will give people more freedom to choose how to spend their time” — Gomes comments that under the four-day week, workers would have more freedom to decide how much and when to work, leveraging productivity and a better work-life balance.
The final part examines the practical details of implementing the four-day working week, in both the private and public sectors, how it could propel innovation and remodel our idea of freedom. After all, Keynes believes “the biggest problem is not to let people accept new ideas, but to let them forget the old ones”.
‘Power, for All: How It Really Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business’, by Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro
‘Power for All’ is an attempt to reclaim the idea of power as a good thing and explain how to increase it in your life © Little, Brown Book Group
The concept of power is a difficult one. Most people would like more of it in their lives, but we also see the problems caused by those few who have a lot of it. This book is an attempt to reclaim the idea of power as a good thing and explain how to increase the power in your life, while noting that this is only good if society shares power around more. It is a difficult sell but takes the reader through some interesting examples of how to use power and how not to.
The authors — both professors of organisational behaviour — frame their subject in economic terms. Power can manifest itself in various forms: a skill; access to certain people; or an understanding of how to act in certain circumstances. But like other scarce resources, it is only valuable if someone else wants what you have to offer.
Battilana and Casciaro include insightful anecdotes about how power is gained by those we know as powerful. But many of the examples the authors give are purposefully everyday to illustrate both the importance of power for all of us in order to have a good life and how we can all obtain it.
This is a guide to how people can build power over their lives, and those of others. It is also a call to arms. The way to counter the devious enterprises of the powerful is not to turn our back on power, but to understand how we can use our own portion of it to fight unjust hierarchies and to ensure individual rights.
‘Undiversified: The Big Gender Short in Investment Management’, by Ellen Carr and Katrina Dudley
‘Undiversified’ is aimed at those who might be considering a career in investment management or those already in the industry © Columbia University Press
When you think of someone who manages money, do you think of a man or a woman? This is the opening line to Ellen Carr and Katrina Dudley’s deep dive into investment management, its gender problem and how to fix it.
It has a broad appeal in terms of the issues it deals with, but it is aimed at those who might be considering an IM career or those already in the industry. The authors, both successful portfolio managers, highlight the contradiction between the mantra that “diversification is investing 101”, yet why is this not reflected among practitioners?
Split into three parts, the first gives an overview of the industry, the jobs, and the gender imbalance. The second looks at why women are not choosing to go into the industry both at a graduate and MBA level, and identifies the barriers to women’s advancement (80-hour weeks don’t work so well with family life). It also provides insights from other women who have succeeded in developing a successful career and the different paths they have taken.
Part three looks at solutions; how to recruit more women by increasing the visibility of the IM career and how to improve its “image problem”. Less Gordon Gekko and the more troublesome activist investors and more a focus on IMs’ role “as stewards of capital”.
Carr and Dudley also make a case for changing the entry-level recruiting process and improving retention by applying data driven approaches to both promotions and pay. And they ask that readers demand to know who exactly manages their money, as “you will shine a brighter light on our problem”.
Anna’s attempts to seek help from her manager in dealing with an abusive colleague proved futile. “My boss just told me, ‘He’s an idiot — wait until he screws up’”.
Being relatively new in her job, she lacked allies to give her perspective at the marketing company she had joined. Feeling wretched and alone, she contacted me for psychological coaching to try to find a way to deal with her situation.
Like Anna, many people struggle to find the clarity and confidence required to extract oneself from abusive circumstances at work. Instead, they tend to think, “What have I done wrong?”
In a highly volatile situation, it is all too easy to overestimate your part in what has happened when it may well be a product of the dysfunctional organisation, or simply down to individual behaviour: a bullying boss or a toxic colleague. Often the culprit is successful and charismatic and this only adds to the confusion.
Furthermore, if your impressive work is igniting envy, then attempts to right matters by enhancing your performance may only make things worse. Similarly, if attempts to defend yourself are interpreted as questioning the culprit’s competence, then you are unlikely to get your point across. Expressing your feelings to a co-worker who is making your life miserable is only sensible if they can control their emotions.
Anna, who is an American in her early thirties, feared for her job when the aggressive colleague intruded into her work, attacked her character, complained about her and threatened to get her fired. Matters were made worse because the situation triggered traumatic memories of bullying she experienced as a child.
She explains: “I had a view of how one behaves and he began to call that into question, which made me wonder: ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ And because I didn’t have a sense of where the calibration was, it created a huge degree of fear and constant dread.”
I explained how her colleague’s behaviour was almost certainly designed to make Anna feel bad in order not to feel inadequate himself. It also seemed clear the colleague was not going to depart and that the company was unlikely to take any action. Once Anna could face these realities she was able to let herself off the hook and plan her exit.
She says: “What was useful in our conversations was to unpack the organisation’s culture, its psychology, its DNA — it was clear that the organisation didn’t care. There is a CEO who is very controlling and it views everyone else as utterly replaceable and of zero value.”
Transforming her perspective not only lessened her fears, but her confidence also returned. She no longer allowed herself to be a target for her colleague’s unfair projections. With this insight, she could respond to what was actually happening, rather than reliving childhood traumas.
“I don’t like dealing with the yelling and ‘BS’, but I [now] realise that it is just unpleasant in the way that getting caught in the rain is unpleasant. It doesn’t mean anything about me, it just means I get wet.”
At work, there is rarely the time, expertise or motivation to solve entrenched psychological problems. It is often easier to absorb negative projections from others than accept that your organisation is neither interested in you nor protecting you from harm.
Yet the risk of a serious blow to one’s self-esteem, burnout or depression are high. Such states of mind cloud thinking and diminish concentration, causing one’s self-belief and performance to decline. The optimal aim, therefore, should be to protect oneself. Practise damage limitation by not challenging them where possible, moving to another position in the company or looking for another job.
While the prospect of leaving might be daunting to some, especially if their confidence has plummeted, it is far easier to leave a toxic situation than to recover from its damaging long-term effects.
Michael, 35, a communications officer for a manufacturing company, also initially assumed responsibility for a conflict with his manager. But in reality, his boss was envious of Michael’s exuberant personality and imaginative ideas. When he did well, his boss lashed out.
“I felt deeply demoralised,” Michael says. “There’s a certain madness — I began to think there must be a sort of private language or way of doing things that I hadn’t read and for which none of my skills were relevant.
“I now realise it wasn’t down to me. My manager was deeply insecure and projected his own anxieties on to his team.”
Michael’s psychological make-up was such that he was forever striving to accommodate and work harder when things got tough, but this only aggravated matters. The learning curve for him was recognising that regardless of his commitment, drive and integrity, he was never going to thrive in this particular organisation. Eventually, he was able to walk away knowing the failure was not his.
“For years I assumed work was there to validate you, but there I found that no matter how hard I worked that validation didn’t come. That was a sobering experience, it certainly matured me.”
The realisation that not everything is solvable can be frustrating, but equally it is a relief to know that not everything is down to you.
“I had a significantly overinflated sense of my own ability to shape organisations,” Michael says. “Like an abusive relationship, it is difficult to pluck up the courage to leave — in the end it was the best thing I did.”
If you find yourself demoralised, depressed or burnt out at work because of an abusive relationship or toxic culture, find a trusted person — a former mentor, close colleague or coach with psychological experience — to give you perspective. They may be able to interrupt the self-destructive monologue in your mind and offer more realistic explanations and solutions to consider.
Ask yourself also if the circumstances are just difficult and need working through or if they are symptomatic of a difficult individual or a larger cultural issue that is unlikely to change.
Walking away from a poisonous environment is strengthening and almost always a relief. Making sense of the experience allows you to not only leave the bad job behind, but the bad feelings as well. The ultimate aim is to depart with your self-worth intact.
The writer is a business consultant and psychotherapist. She is author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Job for His Life’.
The bitter truth, and one that many people struggle to accept, is that work will never love you back. This can be a harsh blow for those who persistently attempt to meet their emotional needs in the workplace, which I have found to be a recurring theme in my consulting room over the years. The fantasy that you are “special” to your boss because he or she smiles at you or shows appreciation can disguise the reality that work is predominantly a transactional affair.
Once an illusion sets in that the boss cares more for you than he or she actually does, the obsession to retain his/her attention can overtake one’s capacity to think creatively and make sound decisions.
This confusion normally results from people attempting to recreate at work what they experienced from their parents in early life.
Kenneth Eisold, a New York-based psychoanalyst and organisational consultant, says people’s deep longings and fears often surface when faced with authority. Where parents have provided an inadequate sense of security, their offspring may settle into work patterns where they attempt to recreate an alternative relationship that provides, if not actual security, then at least the fleeting feeling of it.
Children need to believe they have good parents to feel safe. They are unlikely to tolerate the truth that their parents are failing them in this regard. “Whatever you’ve done as a child to hold on to the belief that your parents love you gets transferred to other relationships,” he explains. “This often arouses very profound infantile motivations that are still alive. It means you don’t see certain things [about your boss] or you elicit their responsiveness in order to gain the kind of attention and care that you’re craving.”
Focusing on work relationships to the neglect of personal ones may also hamper intimacy with family and friends.
As one former patient said to me: “The risk is that family life disintegrates around you while your professional life heads gracefully forward until you reach a point where it’s too late to recognise what you’ve lost.”
For another ex-patient of mine who worked in education, the obsession to elicit interest and admiration from her headteacher meant that she made herself available 24/7, to the cost of her family. Amid her hard work and dedication, she misconstrued that she was the centre of her boss’s world.
“She had me believe [that] I’m amazingly intelligent and that everyone wants to be with me,” she says. “I had to work so bloody hard to be the golden girl. I even made a separate ringtone so that I would know if she was calling — even at the expense of ruining my children’s bedtime routine because I would leave them with the television when she needed me.”
This patient’s mother had been a single parent whose narcissistic tendencies meant she was often absent, and she gave her boyfriends precedence over her two daughters. When she was home she was often stressed and aggressive.
My patient learned from her mother that the way to connect to a parental figure was to focus on their needs to the exclusion of her own needs, and by extension, those of her children.
To sustain this, she had to ignore the fact that her “special place” was contingent on a certain type of behaviour. When the reality became more apparent in therapy, she reduced her more extreme pleasing behaviour — only for her boss to react aggressively and eventually make her job redundant.
“The end was a disaster because I started to have strong opinions and to see that she wasn’t as great as I thought she was,” my patient says.
For dependent personalities such as this, a demotion or dismissal can feel deeply personal and reignite wounds from the past, making recovery even more difficult.
As her illusions came crashing down she faced the harsh truths of who her boss actually was, and how she herself had colluded in a relationship that harmed her career development and family life.
Narcissistic authority figures can exacerbate this problem.
Mr Eisold says: “With a narcissistic person you can always have some success because, by trying to please them, you capture their attention fleetingly. But that inconsistent responsiveness often establishes the most profound patterns because you keep thinking: ‘If I figure out more accurately what she wants, then she’ll love me.’”
People also turn to colleagues for closeness because they find work an easier emotional terrain to navigate than relationships at home. Work offers prescribed rules and norms about how to behave, and its stream of people, meetings and tasks all limit how close people can be. The emotional intelligence you have learnt in the office, however, may fail you when having to deal with disputes at home. Ultimately work has an “end to the day”, whereas in contrast there is little respite from family life.
Another patient of mine craved emotional security because his mother was often unresponsive and rejecting. He pushed aside thoughts that his chief executive used him for his own gain. As can be the case, a needy boss may wrongly attribute the subordinate’s hard work as evidence of genuine affection.
“Unconsciously I think we had an unholy pact,” he explains. “I know [now] that the reason I wasn’t getting a promotion was that he had me where he needed me to be, and I wasn’t willing to force a difficult conversation and risk the security of knowing that I was not likely to be rejected at work.”
Facing the truth would not have allowed him to sustain the level of hard work his CEO required. Only by separating in his mind his relationship with his mother from that with his boss, as well as learning to rely more on his partner for security, did he have the strength to leave his job after many years and then build his own successful business.
While work can offer satisfaction and rewards, real love and security is best sought from family and close friends. Once you stop seeking these from work relationships, however, you may be left with the bigger challenge of examining your personal life.
In an occasional series, a psychotherapist looks at the best strategies for navigating office politics
We have all worked with — or for — over-achievers. It is very difficult for them to change this trait, precisely because their success is so closely linked with their destructive work habits.
Overachievers have many qualities — not least the drive and energy to succeed — but unrealistically high expectations of themselves and others mean they can lose perspective. Constant striving can come with a high psychological cost, while excessive self-centred determination can damage organisations or the teams they lead.
This obsession to achieve is often the result of an underlying desire for admiration, as well as attempts to control events. They worry that if they give up these habits, they will fail. And when overachievers relax, they feel guilty.
One executive came to me for therapy in a bid to understand his obsession with winning. He says: “I like to be better than other people. Ideally, I’d like to be better than everyone, but I have to be realistic. It’s the pursuit more than the destination.”
His compulsion to achieve was triggered in adolescence when he joined a rowing crew and discovered that winning seemed to solve many of his problems.
“I didn’t have many friends, and I didn’t do that well in school,” he says. “I knew that my parents were disappointed in me. Then I found something that changed everything — rowing. I had a team and they all became my friends, and my parents were proud of me.”
One overachiever admitted to pushing his staff too hard by extending his unreasonably high expectations of himself on to them
Gaining his parents’ admiration was crucial. “I felt I needed to win their love,” he says. But in adulthood he slipped into a cycle of relying on anxiety-fuelled adrenalin to propel him to succeed in business, while simultaneously depending on his achievements to alleviate his fear of failing. Winning became a zero-sum game learnt from rowing for his national team.
If his team won a silver or bronze they would sometimes throw those medals into the water: “Why would you be given a medal for a race you didn’t win?”
As long as he continued to achieve in his career, he could keep unwanted feelings and unresolved internal conflicts at bay. “Part of the reason [to win] is because there are deep dark things I don’t want to face up to — like a Band-Aid on a wound. In my mind I think, ‘why would I try to heal the wound now, it’s not bleeding that badly?’”
Reflecting on retirement only confirmed his narrow vision of the world — he fears that when he stops working he will need to re-learn how to gain gratification from life in other ways. He found it difficult to work with people who did not share his drive, often judging them harshly. “It’s very tough to build a team because not every team member will share your aspirations.”
Another overachiever I saw professionally admitted to pushing his staff too hard, which came at a cost, by extending his unreasonably high expectations of himself on to them. “I can see at times I’m demanding, and that’s going to cut across that culture of collegiality [that I want to create].”
Overachievers resent colleagues they perceive as not “pulling their weight”. They also believe that pressure on employees comes from external forces, rather than from their own unrealistic expectations.
Victoria Wall, who specialises in executive coaching, says such individuals often lead their team in a way that may not be aligned with the company’s expectations and strategies. Such leaders can push a business in the wrong direction. For example, if they lead by relying on skills that have made them personally successful in the past, there can be damaging consequences to the overall business performance.
Ms Wall says that overachievers’ early successes often do not translate into good team management. “Their [early] success came from ‘I am going to do better than everyone else out there doing what I do for a living’, and that has worked,” she says. “But as soon as they are in a leadership role, that level of competitive drive is perceived by the team as a huge [self-promoting] agenda. People do not follow leaders if that’s their remit.”
A further danger, she suggests, is that staff will view such a boss as uncaring about their career progression and someone who will not nurture their talents because they are focused on themselves.
Driven by anxiety
Another former client, a 52-year-old trader, defined himself almost entirely by his accomplishments. His drive to achieve was fuelled by an obsessive-compulsive pattern that left him in a state of constant anxiety — needing to succeed so as not to wipe out his previous successes.
A straight-A student throughout school, a first-class degree from Oxbridge, and finishing top of his class in law school left him determined to continue being on top of his game. He says: “With an exam there’s a result. In business those accolades are less tangible; you judge success through the financial result.”
He inherited his mother’s anxious nature, believing that unless he worried, bad things would happen. This turned into a belief that he needed to worry in order for good things to happen.
“Having achieved results to a high degree, it’s almost perpetuated itself,” he says. “I can see I’m getting results because I’m worrying, therefore I need to worry about the next thing to make sure that happens.”
The more he raised his game, however, the more anxious he became. He relied on the “rush of a win” to boost his mood and relieve his anxiety, but then afterwards came the inevitable low.
Such people tend to change only once they experience the harm inflicted on their careers or family life.
Recognising yourself as an overachiever is the first step. Then comes the hard work of facing the consequences, and understanding the origins of one’s strong feelings. A more difficult challenge is learning to tolerate uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings while attempting to lower expectations of yourself and others.
Taking on an executive leadership role for the first time often means discovering the skills that led to your promotion do little to help you meet the challenges of taking charge.
As a business consultant and psychotherapist, I see many people who, while expert in their business, discover they fall short on the emotional skills necessary to lead. Here are my suggestions to help new managers navigate office dynamics:
1 Loosen up
Some of the personality traits that helped your career previously can now work against you. Perfectionism, for example, may have been useful in doing your job well and protecting you from criticism. Now you are a leader, it becomes time consuming.
Similarly, that narcissism that may have helped your promotion should be reined in. Replace grandiosity with empathy.
Micromanaging staff is a common fallback for inexperienced managers, because it alleviates fears that your subordinates’ performance may not be up to scratch — and will reflect badly on you. New challenges and targets may lead to anxiety, that in turn leads you to look for simple solutions. Your need for control must be replaced with a tolerance for uncertainty and complexity.
2 Let go of the credit
With a higher salary and more status come sacrifices. You will lose the pleasure of having close colleagues, for example. And the credit and praise for a job well done now belong to your staff.
Greg Hodder, a former chief executive of Charles Tyrwhitt, the menswear company, says: “What you’re doing a lot is telling the people working for you how well they’re doing, but of course there’s no one doing that for the CEO.”
A 36-year-old newly appointed managing director of a sales company came to me for help in making sense of the tensions in his team. His optimistic nature meant he brushed problems aside, leaving some staff feeling frustrated.
Spending too much time with people he worked closely with created the perception that he had favourites. This divided staff between those for and against him. His determination to keep everyone happy had backfired. The strong feelings directed towards him, both positive and negative, were stronger than he anticipated.
“I underestimated the extent to which comments and actions that I took would be scrutinised and interpreted far more than I would have imagined,” he says. “What I learnt is that you need to be more deliberate and not be too hasty, and that you need to take time to hear all sides of an argument.”
3 Avoid surrounding yourself with yes-people
Those in authority should remember that the people close to them are likely to tell them what they want to hear, says Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development and organisational change at Insead business school.
“That means you have to listen extremely carefully to what’s said and what’s not being said,” he explains. “I’ve seen too many executives fall into the trap of living in an echo chamber. For example, you’re in a meeting, and people flatter you and say that was a fantastic meeting. And you like it. [While] people who disagree, subtly or not so subtly, [eventually] can be removed.”
4 Adopt the ‘Columbo approach’
Leaders often avoid conflict for fear that matters may worsen. But disputes do not disappear when they are brushed aside: they re-emerge, become more destructive and are difficult to manage.
Investigate your own response to conflict. Are you an avoider, or do you see disputes as a zero-sum game? Reflecting back on how your family dealt with conflicts when you were a child will provide clues to your current behaviour. Learn to tolerate the strong feelings that arise from division without reacting.
This requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Remember that feelings can be unreliable. If you react strongly to some situations, use a trusted colleague as a sounding-board to gain perspective.
I often suggest the “Columbo approach” — the US television detective who listened carefully and weighed all the clues and characters, and only identified the murderer once the evidence mounted to an inescapable conclusion.
Being too aggressive or disciplinarian can easily destroy trust, Mr Hodder says. “[If] you’ve given someone responsibility you’ve got to be careful not to attack them for failing,” he explains. “It’s as much your fault if you’ve given them responsibility and they haven’t achieved it. It will spread like absolute wildfire if you develop a reputation for attacking people who haven’t performed correctly.”
5 Show you care
Many leaders fail to appreciate that everyone has lives and families outside work.
Prof Kets de Vries says: “For many executives their ideal employee is someone who is just divorced, lives in an empty apartment, takes a sleeping bag and moves into the office to work 24 hours a day.”
Mr Hodder believes that if you demonstrate that you care about people, you will receive loyalty and trust in return. Get to know your staff, and remember they have personal and professional histories that influence their characters.
Beware, though, of becoming too close. A good rule is to be as close as enables you also to be distant. Otherwise the difficult conversations, which are bound to emerge, will feel too personal.
6 Seek advice
Support inside and outside the business is crucial, from a mentor, for example. If you find that you persist with harmful behaviour, then you might need to dig more deeply. A psychotherapist, or a coach with psychological training may be the best option.
Mr Hodder says: “I never do anything without using a sounding board — and almost never did they not improve what I was going to do.”
Have you dealt with a control freak at work? Tell us how you managed the situation in the comment field below.
Control freaks make everyone’s life a misery. They often set the agenda in meetings, control discussions, interrupt others and can become aggressive when challenged. They might remember every detail of a conversation with colleagues, then use it against them in a later disagreement.
It is not unusual, and even understandable, for people to be more controlling when they are newly promoted or start a business.
Those situations can lead to the fear of not being regarded as capable of the new job, or of the company failing. Handing over work to subordinates or employees leaves those in charge with the risks — and consequences — should things go wrong.
If the urge to control events cannot be reined in, however, it may be symptomatic of a deep-rooted anxiety of being let down by others and an inability to cope with unpredictability.
If it is not addressed it can damage staff morale, harm the company and inhibit growth. Entrepreneurs can find it particularly difficult to relinquish control as their business grows and they take on increasing numbers of staff.
A recipe for disappointment
During our early sessions he admitted that if he could not curb his urge to micromanage, then the business would never grow and he could see himself becoming a bully.
“One of the things [I found out about] growing a team was seeing just how few steps there were from going about my business to being a tyrant,” he says. “You’re constantly feeling that people are letting you down because they can’t possibly meet the expectations that you’ve set, so you are constantly angry.”
His need for control stemmed from the unpredictability that characterised his childhood and upbringing, where decisions were made and changed without consideration for his feelings.
In his early years his mother’s illness meant she was frequently hospitalised. His father was indecisive — decisions would be made and changed on a daily basis. My client learnt that the people who were meant to look after him were unreliable.
The next time he found himself depending on people for his livelihood would be in his business, where his repressed rage towards his parents and fear of being let down returned to haunt him.
“One of the reasons I want to keep tight control of things is to prevent the opportunities for the chaos and confusion that feel so problematic to me,” he explains.
Through our conversations he came to understand that expecting others to anticipate his every thought was a recipe for disappointment. “There’s no possible way I can download all of my thinking,” he says. “If I don’t accept that to be true then I’m always going to be let down.
“If you expect everyone to let you down all the time, you’re not going to trust them to succeed. That’s the cycle.”
Making these links with the past has enabled this entrepreneur to respond better to the immediate needs of his company and delegate more work to his team.
Tips for dealing with control-freakery at work
David Archer, who co-founded the Socia consultancy, which helps organisations to collaborate on projects, says that working with a controlling colleague often results in less efficiency. Because the controlling person is often picking holes in colleagues’ work, they become anxious and as a result are more likely to make mistakes.
He adds: “[When] working for a controlling person you get extra levels of checking, which is just duplicating the same effort.”
To solve the problem, it is necessary to make the controlling person see they will gain just as good an outcome from trusting others to perform in their way, even if that is different from how they would do the job themselves.
His advice for those working for a control freak is not to be confrontational. “If you start the conversation by saying ‘you’re over-controlling’, you are likely to get into a conflict straight away,” he explains. “Start by saying: ‘I would like to improve the way I work, but in order to do that we need to work differently. You are constraining me or checking my work too much.’”
Mr Archer adds the next move would be to suggest tackling a project that is not crucial to the business in a more collaborative way, to show that the outcome can be just as good. “You build up trust by delivering small results,” he says.
A barrier to innovation
Control freaks are often highly conscientious, disciplined and organised and this may lead to them reaching top positions. As they climb the career ladder, however, their obsessive-compulsive traits create even more difficulties because they are unable to let go of work, believing that for a job to be done well they have to do it themselves.
This strict adherence to regulations and procedures leaves them lacking a creative side, and often hinders innovative input from their team.
In a desperate attempt to exert control these managers frequently slip into workaholism or perfectionism, which are defensive reactions to the fear of making mistakes, something that they believe will leave them feeling humiliated. For such people, imagined mistakes can feel as devastating, or worse, than actual ones.
As managers, control freaks expect subordinates to perform to their level, and are as critical of others as they are of themselves. Because they often overlook their own achievements they also tend to withhold praise from staff. Focusing on what has not been achieved as opposed to what has been done, they can make people close to them so anxious that they often under-perform as a result.
Case study: ‘The pleasure in achieving is fleeting’
A woman who ran a small sales team came to see me when her perfectionism and over-work robbed her of a sense of achievement and enjoyment. “I just feel like nothing is ever at the point it should be,” she says. “I probably perceive criticism where there isn’t any. I feel haunted by the idea that I’m going to mess something up.
“The focus is always on what’s missing. The pleasure in achieving is very fleeting. I feel good for 30 seconds, then I’m back on the not achieving.”
The result is that she often misreads situations, for example, over-delivering for fear she has not done enough. This only puts an additional and unnecessary strain on the business.
Her fear of underperforming stems from her relationship with her father. Any positive attention he gave was contingent on her performing exceptionally well. In our conversations she came to understand how perfectionism was her attempt to gain approval from her father, and her fear of making mistakes was a dread of his condemnation.
“I got 11 A*s and one A for my GCSEs [public exams] and his response was, ‘What happened with the A?’ The thing that he’ll notice is when I mess something up.”
Unconsciously, fear of her father’s judgment became displaced on to clients and even her employees. The only solution she used to reduce her anxiety was working harder, creating a vicious cycle: nothing was ever good enough.
“I could just about keep up with my own drive before I had kids, but now I feel I’m massively under-performing all the time,” she says.
The writer is a psychotherapist, family therapist and business consultant
When Julio Harari’s son was suffering from cancer and became upset about his hair falling out after chemotherapy, the banker from Buenos Aires shaved his own head. He went to work the next day shorn of hair, to the puzzled reaction of colleagues.
Mr Harari describes his experience: “They tell you that your son is sick and you freeze. Then you get results from the next test, and you freeze again. You start thinking about what life is going to be like without your son, and you freeze. But you have to carry on, there are others in the family and other responsibilities as well.”
Although Mr Harari was traumatised by his son’s cancer, he was also able to put his feelings aside in this show of support for his son, who died in 2015 at the age of 24.
Trauma is an emotional and physical response to an unbearable event, such as bereavement, war, physical attack or abuse. The mind often rushes to protect the person, by numbing them from overwhelmingly painful feelings of grief, helplessness, rage and collapse.
People who have suffered trauma carry it with them, often unknowingly, wherever they go, including the office. Work can either help recovery or be the place where trauma is reignited. Much depends on the person’s early experiences, as well as their organisation’s culture.
Deprivation, neglect or abuse can affect the nervous system, making subsequent setbacks harder to bear
For Mr Harari, who is an associate director of an international private bank and in charge of a team of five specialists, work was a helpful distraction. “If you’re only thinking about the chemo, life is very miserable,” he says. “But if you also have [work] you can carry on breathing.”
During his son’s illness, it was important for Mr Harari to acknowledge that he would not be able to keep up the usual pace at work. This helped him to be realistic about what he could achieve. He also came to realise that he could only help his son by being by his side.
“I knew I would always run behind the curve. And I learnt that I could hug my son, but I could not cure him.”
Returning to work
After his son’s death, work provided a form of respite from his pain and grief. “He passed away on a Sunday night, and Thursday I was back working,” says Mr Harari. “Some people asked how could I do that and I said, ‘It keeps me alive’. I had to compartmentalise [my feelings] otherwise the pain would freeze me.”
“Compartmentalisation” — splitting off conflicting feelings — is a common reaction, and one of many defences the mind employs to protect individuals from extreme feelings. Such defences are normal, and only become harmful if they distort reality too far.
Mr Harari was fortunate to have the emotional stability not to be overcome by feelings of helplessness and despair during his son’s illness. That stemmed from a healthy and supportive early family life.
For others, however, experiences in early family life such as deprivation, neglect or abuse can affect the nervous system, making subsequent setbacks harder to bear.
For such people, even ordinary work disappointments, such as missing a promotion or being treated unfairly, can reactivate early traumas, leaving the person with incomprehensible and overwhelming feelings. The process is described in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk.
For these individuals, an anticipation of danger persists — frequently where none exists — putting them in a hyper-vigilant state and often reacting irrationally.
I would think I’m going to get fired …It would bring up a painful anxiety
Such employees avoid close relationships at work because intimacy often provokes strong feelings, which give rise to traumatic memories, says Julia Vaughan Smith, a psychotherapist and executive coach specialising in trauma. Instead they may become needy, compliant or even narcissistic.
Ms Vaughan Smith explains: “They can be close in a superficial or detached way in which they have a pseudo independence: ‘I don’t need any help I’m quite all right on my own’.”
Such people fear being out of control and helpless. They control themselves, their work and others in an attempt to keep the parameters of their lives held firmly, so they are not taken by surprise. Their energy is consumed with strategies to avoid the traumatic memory, and vitality is lost. Exhaustion sets in because they are constantly under stress.
Traumatised employees: how managers can help
• Acknowledge what employees are going through
• Ask how you can help and let them know you are available to talk
• Accept that those who are traumatised will not be able to perform to their usual standard, and make contingency plans
• Explain your decisions regarding changes in the workplace
• Acknowledge endings: leaving parties, speeches of farewell and thanks are symbolic and important
Excessive and compulsive work can be a distraction from unconscious traumatic memories, where neglect or harm has been inflicted by parental figures. “Even if you don’t love me, I’ll make sure you need me,” is the reasoning behind this response, Ms Vaughan Smith explains.
Fear of mistakes
A 55-year-old man who works in finance told me how stress in his job reignited traumatic feelings from childhood. He explains how his controlling behaviour at work kept at bay excruciating feelings associated with his mother’s death when he was 14. But it also cost him career opportunities.
“When my mother died there was some guilt, totally irrational, that I could have done something to have prevented [her illness],” he says. As a consequence he became focused on being a diligent student and later a good employee to avoid feeling further guilt.
At work, the thought that he might make a mistake made him panic. “I would think I’m going to get fired, I would go to these dark places. It would bring up a painful anxiety, feelings which are very similar to when my mother died.”
Work can either help recovery or be the place where trauma is reignited
This dread of mistakes meant he shied away from risks that would have enabled him to move up the corporate ladder. Like others who exhaust themselves trying to keep early, painful memories at bay, he lost the liveliness and sense of personal achievement that career success can bring.
A risk for both business and political leaders is when they unconsciously allow hidden traumatic memories to influence their decisions. A need to avoid painful memories could result in a distortion of reality, such that past events are confused with the present.
Decisions and consequences
Professor Mark Stein of the School of Business, University of Leicester, who has studied the effect of trauma on political and economic decisions, explains how past trauma can lead to decisions that are poorly thought out.
If you work for a team …and suddenly you are [sent] to another office overnight, it can be an enormous wrench
He gives an example in his 2016 paper, ‘Fantasy of Fusion’ as a Response to Trauma: European Leaders and the Origins of the Eurozone Crisis. He argues that the European leaders who introduced the single currency had been traumatised by the second world war. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reactivated their anxieties and gave rise to the fear that a unified Germany would cause another war.
“When they realised it was impossible to stop the reunification of Germany the only way they could deal with that was to dissolve Germany into a wider Europe,” he says. “You have this terrible history of war and this fantasy that something quite concrete [the single currency] could cure the problem.”
Denying reality, says Prof Stein, is one of the dangers of defending against traumatic feelings.
He believes executives often underestimate how organisational change may upset employees who have experienced trauma in their past.
For example: “When people are literally shown the door, you have to think what it does to colleagues who have been working with them.” Similarly, “if you work for a team for five years and suddenly you are [sent] to another office overnight, it can be an enormous wrench. Many organisations do not acknowledge the significance of these changes and the pain involved.”
The author is a psychotherapist and business consultant
Sarah, a 36-year-old solicitor, was shocked when her three-year-old daughter called out her nanny’s name during the night. “You think: ‘My child loves the nanny more than me.’”
On the other hand, the overwhelming anxiety Sarah felt when her daughter was ill left her relieved to hand over responsibility. She soon realised that she was never going to love caring for her children round the clock. She explains: “I wouldn’t say that I looked forward to going back to work, but I looked forward to having an activity that involved being away from them.”
Sarah hoped that by providing her with affection and a routine, her daughter would not suffer the sense of “I don’t matter” that she says her own mother had instilled in her.
According to psychotherapists, Sarah was right to be concerned about unintentionally repeating a pattern of neglectful parenting. Infants and young children need sensitive care from adults — a process called “attachment”.
This accepted theory in psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry explains how early interaction between a parent and infant has lasting consequences for a child’s emotional wellbeing.
The first few years of a life are crucial in shaping and developing a child’s “social brain”, where emotional resources are established. Having adults around who can attune to an infant’s feelings and experiences provides the basis for regulating feelings, relating to others and coping with stress.
Children can become aggressive, shy or clingy if their early attachment needs are not met. In extreme cases, inadequate early care can lead to antisocial behaviour, addictions and personality disorders.
Employers could do more to support working parents. Sarah, the solicitor, believes many managers pay only lip service to flexible working policies. “They’ll let you go to the school play, but secretly they’ll always remember that you missed that meeting,” she says.
Leena Kothari-Seward, a psychotherapist and founder of Mosaic Executive Coaching, believes technology and the need to retain good staff have led to employers offering greater flexibility than in the past. But she suggests employers go further by measuring employees’ performance against goals, rather than time spent in the office.
Listen to Work & Careers
Ms Kothari-Seward recommends employers offer coaching to parents during pregnancy and on returning to work. Managers and parents need to have the difficult conversations about what the company can realistically offer.
Good attachment depends on the quality of attention rather than the quantity, he says. Although parents and extended family members are likely to be more motivated, other carers can provide the attachment experiences babies require and this need not disrupt bonds with parents.
Research shows that the best bonding occurs at night, between the baby and the person who is present when the child awakes.
Prof Fonagy says that “even if there is an exchange of persons, as long as they know the infant well enough to respond sensitively . . . it is the quality that counts”.
He believes one person cannot be expected to provide everything a baby’s brain needs. An understanding social network is also required. “It’s not the quality of the bond, it’s the quality of the environment that actually promotes the infant’s development.”
Attachment requires much more than physical care and protection, he says. “It becomes about supporting the development of the human mind — to be able to describe one’s inner experience, to be able to anticipate what others feel and think, and to have social collaboration — these things are dependent on attachment relationships.”
Whereas in the past there may have been four adults to care for one infant, these days the opposite is expected. He says: “Biologically we’re not designed to take time off to look after children. [Historically] you are expecting a whole village to look after children.”
When a baby is born, it can often trigger feelings from the parents’ own infancy. If parents suffered attachment disorders, they are more at risk of misinterpreting their baby’s cries to mean the infant is upset with them. If the response from the parent is negative, the infant can be left feeling distressed and insecure — and so the cycle is repeated down a generation.
A man who came to me for psychotherapy described feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection as a result of his mother returning to work when he was six weeks old, leaving him with inadequate care from a succession of nannies.
As a consequence, throughout his life he fought hard for the affection of others, frequently choosing personal and professional relationships that were easy, but ultimately unsatisfying, because he feared being rejected.
He says: “I worked very hard — not to do with career success — but through fears that I might be rejected by the organisation in the same way I unconsciously felt rejected by my mother.”
When his daughter was born, his buried feelings towards his mother resurfaced. He then understood how work could be a way for parents to flee from difficult feelings that a child’s arrival might provoke.
“When I go to work in the morning and ask for a hug [and] she goes to my wife and not to me I can still feel hurt, and I need to be careful not to feel rejected. Otherwise you’re making an 18-month-old baby responsible for adult emotions.”
Prof Fonagy believes work and family life should be much less binary, and that remote working and technology can play a part. “Generating wealth is not the only thing that will take care of the next generation,” he says.
Naomi Shragai is a practising psychotherapist