Dr. George Simon, author of Character Disturbance, In Sheep’s Clothing, and The Judas Syndrome, is a nationally recognized expert on manipulative, cunning, aggressive people.
And he keeps plenty busy, because there are plenty of people who live and work with aggressive folks, and they need answers and solutions.
If you work for an aggressive personality, you probably need answers and solutions, too. Why does your boss do what he does? Why is he so difficult? Is there an effective way to work with someone who can never be wrong, refuses all input from others, and is hypersensitive to even the hint of criticism (while dishing out plenty of criticism of others)?
Well, sort of.
People at War
Dr. Simon says that aggressive personalities are “fundamentally at war with anything that stands in the way of their unrestrained pursuit of their desires.” And unlike the rest of us, aggressive people don’t shy from conflict. More than anything aggressive personalities want to win, at whatever cost. It’s why they seek the dominant position in all interpersonal interactions, no matter how minor.
The Aggressive Boss
There’s a common but unfortunate perception that bosses should be aggressive.
Apparently, the idea is that things just can’t get done unless someone is clobbering someone else to do it. Aggressive people aren’t easily discouraged, are tenacious, and are motivated to meet their goals—or so the thinking goes.
What’s more true is that aggressive bosses are lousy bosses. Aggressive bosses have little regard for others’ rights and boundaries, aren’t concerned about others’ needs, and make decisions based on their own agendas, not what’s best for employees or the company.
If you work for an aggressive boss, you may be confused, frustrated, angry, and anxious. Aggressive bosses have that effect.
Let’s take a closer look at some defining characteristics of these people.
Characteristics of the Aggressive Boss
Aggressive bosses …
Have a ridiculously high regard of themselves (i.e., are narcissistic).
According to Dr. Simon, narcissism is a common trait in developing individuals (particularly adolescents). He writes:
“But most of us eventually grow to develop a healthier balance of perspective with respect to our regard for ourselves versus our regard for and need of others. When a person enters adulthood retaining the narcissistic tendencies they had as a child, there’s bound to be lots of trouble in their relationships.”
And if that’s not bad enough, destructive narcissists (that is, those whose narcissism is pathologic) don’t just view themselves as superior, they view everyone else as worthless, expendable, and justifiably exploitable. Such individuals have no qualms about using lies, manipulation, intimidation, flattery, or anything else to get what they want. Destructive or “malignant” narcissists are personality disordered individuals.
Have a disregard for authority.
Aggressive personalities have a disdain for authority and rules.
Ruthlessly pursue their own interests and agendas.
An aggressive person will always do what’s best for him. Always. Even when appearing to submit to someone else’s wishes or demands, the aggressive personality is employing a strategy to get what she wants.
Don’t care about the truth.
Truth and fact are “bendable” according to the aggressive personality’s desires. One day your boss gives X instruction for doing Y, but when you do X, and the result (through no fault of yours) is unsatisfactory, the boss denies giving that instruction. She may even feign outrage that you would “accuse” her of such a thing.
Don’t know when to back off.
Ironically, aggressive people will own this trait as a virtue and brag about their tenacity. However, this lack of “internal brakes,” as Dr. Simon puts it, is not a positive quality. In extreme cases, this trait can lead to ethical and legal breaches.
Can be very childish.
At times, dealing with an aggressive boss feels like dealing with a child, and that’s because aggressive bosses often exhibit childlike qualities. In the pursuit of their desires, they’re immune to reason, logic, and common sense—just like a willful six-year-old.
Tips for Handling the Aggressive Boss
An aggressive boss can make work a most unpleasant endeavor and even cause psychological and emotional harm. How can you protect yourself?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Read everything you can get your hands on about aggressive personalities. You can’t approach someone with a character disturbance or personality disorder as you would a normal person. It doesn’t work, and you’ll be forever perplexed and frustrated. So read, believe, and act accordingly.
- Do your job well. Doing your job well isn’t an absolute defense. Aggressive personalities make it hard for you to do a good job because they routinely ruin relationships, withhold information, micromanage, and provide conflicting instructions. That said, doing the best job possible will help insulate you from credible accusations of poor performance, provide a sense of self worth (very important when working with someone who loves to tear others down), and give the aggressive personality a good reason to leave you be.
- Set boundaries. Don’t allow the aggressive personality to take over your personality or infringe on your rights. Learn to say “no” firmly, graciously, and repeatedly. (These folks have very hard heads.)
- Don’t compromise your values. If you do, you’ll hate yourself for it, and you won’t win any favors with the aggressive personality either, who’ll simply use you until he tires of you.
- Take notes. Taking notes is particularly important when your boss’ conduct crosses the line from merely unpleasant to unethical or potentially illegal. Keep a daily log if you must; a pad and pencil within arm’s reach at all times is a necessity.
- Complain. If your aggressive boss has been around for a while, most likely your company has gotten complaints and ignored them. That’s most unfortunate, and I want to express my sympathy to you right now. However, your company can’t stop you from pursuing your rights. So go ahead and put your complaint on the record, and don’t hesitate to go outside the organization for help if needed.
- Have a plan B and a plan C. Standing up to an aggressive personality has a cost, and you may find yourself marginalized or even out of a job. But understand that some things can’t be helped. If your organization tolerates abusers and your boss is one, you’re going to feel the effects no matter what. So decide what you’ll accept and won’t accept and don’t look back.
- Know that your aggressive boss isn’t as smart as he thinks. Aggressive personalities, especially narcissistic ones, think they’re smart and everyone else is dumb. Take advantage of that fact. Eventually your boss will make a mistake, and you’ll be there to document it.
- Find a new job. Please.
If you’re an employer hoping to ban these unsavory characters from your workplace, that’s a good and healthy instinct. Unfortunately, however, we’ve all be trained to believe that confident, even brash, individuals who are loud and smooth talking make for the best employees. So, if you don’t want your workplace ensnared by an aggressive employee, you’ll need to pay special attention during the interview phase and set your biases aside. Ask tough behavioral questions designed to elicit how the candidate handles conflict on the job, and listen carefully to the answers.
Also, don’t hesitate to administer a behavioral assessment exam to provide some information about character traits such as agreeableness, assertiveness, cooperativeness, and honesty. Do NOT, however, rely on a behavioral assessment exam to reveal whether an individual has a personality disorder, because behavioral assessments are NOT medical exams.
If you have an aggressive boss (especially one with a character disturbance or a personality disorder) you already know the damage he or she can inflict on organizations and the people within them.
However, there are ways you can protect yourself, so do it. Today.