Quindicinale n.41, 11 gennaio 2017

Boss Maladies

Withdrawal crises, narcissism and addiction: the main pathologies afflicting bosses
Mal di Capo

Translation by Allen Montrasio @John Peter Sloan La Scuola

Fluoxetin is the active principle of Prozac; is works by inhibiting the absorption of serotonin, meaning that there is more of it circulating in the bloodstream – around 25 percent1 more, they say – and that, in turn2, means you’re happier. A similar, if less intense effect can be had through other means, e.g. with a hefty3 dose of chocolate (+5 percent) or with a night of rampant sex (+10 percent).

In 1995, Prof. McGuire, a Department director at UCLA, and his assistant Dr. Raleigh found that in groups of green vervets4 where the Alpha male showed signs of dominance over the gregarious apes, the Alpha’s level of serotonin was dramatically5 higher. So far, so interesting, but the really significant part is that, on seeing these results, Raleigh found the courage to ask Prof. McGuire: “why don’t we do the test on ourselves?”. The result was that the Professor had 50 percent more serotonin in his bloodstream than his assistant. Compare this to chocolate (+5%), rampant sex (+10%) and Prozac (+25%) and you get the picture.

Actually, if I remember correctly, there is a Sicilian saying which, well before science could prove it, also expresses the results of the UCLA research, albeit in more graphic6 terms.

This, however, only gives us a first glimpse of the pathology that a person in a position of command can suffer from: the actual addiction to power. So much so that Kets de Vries, in his work: “Leaders, Fools and Impostors. The psychology of leadership”, shows the dramatic effect of loss of power, with symptoms similar to those of a withdrawal7 crisis.

Which8 came first, serotonin or narcissism?

The same text also details another boss’s pathology: narcissism. In bosses, narcissism takes the form of two kinds of transferts: that of collaborators towards the boss, defined as idealising, where the collaborator sees totally unrealistic virtue and skills in the boss; and that of the boss towards their collaborators, defined as mirroring.

Basically, seeing their staff idealising their skills, the boss ends up believing they actually have them, and the two mechanisms end up mutually feeding each other in what is defined as double insanity.

Both with serotonin and narcissism, what is unclear is if having high levels of serotonin and a narcissistic pre-disposition helps to become a boss or if being a boss brings on9 these phenomena.

With regards to this, it’s interesting that narcissism is no longer considered a pathology and has been downgraded to a personality disorder in DSM V of 2014, as is the case with double insanity. It’s too easy to infer that even the scholars who wrote the DSM V have bosses to answer to.

At this point it’s also worth noting that the concept of normality is based on statistic and makes sense only when considered in context.

Ronson wrote “The Psychopath Test”, where he suggests that lack of empathy – a trait of psychopaths – is often a characteristic of successful people. It doesn’t seem such a strange idea and, forgetting ethics for a moment, it’s only natural that a boss might at times make decisions which have a negative effect on others, or defend their ideas in the face of internal and external attacks; and this is not to mention the personal sacrifices they have to make in their private life. These are some aspects of a Boss’s life that might make psychopathic traits10 useful.

Also, becoming a boss calls for compromises, requires resilience and confidence even in the face of impending disaster, and requires long term vision in periods of uncertainty.

Finally, I would like to close with my favourite boss’s malady: the Impostor Syndrome. This syndrome may not be found in DSM V, nor was it listed in previous editions, but I can say I’ve met a great deal of people suffering from it. You find it in successful people and in bosses who, in spite of their achievements, feel basically inadequate to their task and are surprised of the credit they are granted.

These bosses haven’t lost contact with their personality as a whole – weaknesses included – and therefore cannot take themselves entirely seriously: this is a sign of maturity, but ironically it can become pathological or dysfunctional in an obsessively competitive context or in a system where the formalities of power are exasperated.

glossario JPS1

glossario JPS2


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Psicologo e attore, Master in Alternative Dispute Resolution. Nel 1997 ha tenuto il primo spettacolo di Teatro d’impresa in Italia. Ha lavorato sulla gestione dei conflitti in diversi paesi tra cui Austria, Bosnia, Brasile, Ungheria, Vietnam, Iraq e Angola. Dal 1979 formatore su tematiche legate alla comunicazione interpersonale, la motivazione e la gestione delle crisi e dei conflitti. Ha affiancato dirigenti ed uomini politici sulle tematiche legate alla comunicazione in pubblico. E' presidente di Spell. Docente a contratto per dieci anni all'Università di Ferrara dove ha avuto anche la responsabilità scientifica del “Master sulla Gestione delle crisi e dei conflitti”. Membro del comitato scientifico del Master in “Teatro e media per la formazione e la comunicazione d'azienda” dell'Università Cattolica di Milano.
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