Is Your Boss Incompetent? This is Why

A study found that our criteria for selecting leaders is biased not only towards men, but the incompetent and overconfident ones -- resulting in the

Renowned psychologist and author Dr. Tomas Chamorro Premuzic found that our current criteria for selecting leaders is biased not only towards men, but the incompetent, overconfident and narcissistic ones — hence the term “bad boss.”

We’ve all been there. Working for a bad boss who brings everyone’s morale down, or seeing someone whom everyone knows is just full of hot air, constantly get the promotion. Why does it seem like it’s the awful people who reach the peak?  Someone finally has an explanation.  

Psychologist, author, and professor Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who wrote the book “Why Do So Many Bad Bosses Still Rise to the Top?” says it’s because we have culturally been conditioned to look at the wrong leadership qualities all along.  

“There is a lot of, kind of anti-meritocratic, and basically if you like, implicit positive discrimination going on that favors not just men, but overconfident, narcissistic, and incompetent men when it comes to leadership roles.”

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

“We’ve digressed to this notion that leaders have to be entertaining and charismatic,” the Psychologist explains, in McKinsey & Company’s podcast, “McKinsey Talks Talent”. His research revealed that society has associated leadership with masculine qualities. Gender has become the strongest predictor of who climbs the corporate ladder, instead of talent, merit, or potential.

This has led to two unfortunate outcomes: A bias for men in leadership roles and the propensity for narcissists to rise to the top. “There is a lot of, kind of anti-meritocratic, and basically if you like, implicit positive discrimination going on that favors not just men, but overconfident, narcissistic, and incompetent men when it comes to leadership roles,” laments Chamorro-Premuzic.

Even the few women who do ascend to higher corporate roles, are not chosen for their high emotional quotient (EQ) or people skills, but for their alpha male qualities. The bias continues when it comes to recalling bad bosses, as most people (both men &women), tend to associate poor leadership performance more with women. “We’re more likely to remember failures in leadership with women than men,” he says.

The research was not even focused on gender. But the bias was so strong, that it naturally surfaced in the course of the study. The irony, he says, is that women actually make better leaders. Aside from both genders having the same IQ level overall, women tend to have a higher EQ level than men.

The gender bias not only puts women at a disadvantage, but also other men who possess gentler, more positive traits such as empathy, integrity, and self-awareness.

Style Over Substance

But if such is the case, then why do we fail to choose the right leaders? Simply put, it’s because they’re boring.

“You’re probably quite bland,” admits Chamorro-Premuzic. “You’re predictable. Mostly it’s someone who makes rational decisions, doesn’t want to be the center of attention, unglamorous, listens to others, and puts the team first.” Yet it is these same “boring” qualities that make teams thrive.

On the other hand, narcissists appear more impressive and exhilarating. “If we have somebody who promises us the world and tells us that we are amazing and we should follow them because they know all the answers to all the questions, and they are invincible, and they seduce us with these megalomaniac visuals. It’s like a very populist and seductive strategy,” he admits. Chamorro-Premuzic has described it in previous interviews as similar to the “Trump Effect.”

Ynah, not her real name, was a senior executive for more than two decades. Now retired, she shares that she once experienced working under someone who wiggled his way into his position. “He was buddies with the CEO,” she recalls. “He would visit his house every weekend and bring food and gifts for his wife.” Charming and articulate, he publicly appeared in charge, even doing media interviews from time to time, while she did the actual work behind the scenes.

Ynah’s case is an example of what Chamorro-Premuzic sees in today’s corporate work environment, as a growing discrepancy between personal career success and the value added to the organization. “[When you ask employees] are the people who are earning the most, with the fanciest title, contributing the most to the organization? Most often they will laugh at you,” he says.

This discrepancy highlights the need for several changes, including focusing on how to elevate the right quality of leaders and exerting a more conscious effort to make leadership selection gender blind. “The best gender diversity intervention, is to focus on talent, not gender,” emphasizes Chamorro-Premuzic.

Artificial Intelligence and the Selection Process

In the already complicated relationships among humans, what role will artificial intelligence (AI) play? The doctor believes AI will change the employment selection process. Less importance will now be placed on technical skills, with AI able to fulfill some of these tasks, and more importance will be given to personal skills, such as the ability to motivate and inspire others, as well as connect with people at a humane level.

Even the level of expertise will be measured differently. Instead of selecting people based on what they know, employees will now be chosen based on their ability to vet the information they gather, or make smarter decisions based on the insights given to them by AI.

AI can also help uncover biases in the overall selection process and aid in determining EQ levels among candidates.

“I am explicitly and vehemently and passionately arguing that we should discriminate against incompetent men who want to become leaders.”

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Bad Bosses: Two Types of Narcissists

Chamorro-Premuzic has identified two types of narcissists: The deluded narcissist, who believes his own hype; and the neurotic narcissist, who desperately seeks approval from others. Of the two, he says, the deluded kind is more convincing and successful in getting others to follow. The neurotic one on the other hand, wants to believe he is as great as his parents told him, but feels he falls short.

Either way, both make toxic leaders. ”When they have somebody who is bombastic, excitable, low EQ boss, it creates a lot of stress,” he explains.

To avoid falling prey to a bad leader’s deceptive appearance, Chamorro-Premuzic advises to ignore everything and anything that is style and not substance, and to put less focus on hard skills and more on the right soft skills “that make other people better,” as this is fundamentally what good leadership is all about.

In an earlier interview with the Huffington Post, the doctor could not have put it more clearly: “I am explicitly and vehemently and passionately arguing that we should discriminate against incompetent men who want to become leaders,” he said.