TV and movies are filled with stereotypes of the dictatorial boss. But this is because there are so many of them. Is your boss a dictator? If so, how did he or she get that way?


Editor’s note: Toni is out on a long-overdue vacation this week. In her absence, we are posting repeats of some of her more popular blogs.

In many discussion postings on TechRepublic and in e-mail messages I’ve received from members, I’ve heard a lot about bad bosses. One type of boss that I hear a lot about is the dictator. This is the boss who rules by fear and intimidation and is prone to bursts of cruelty when dealing with his employees.

One question always nags at me: Are bad bosses that way because they’re bad people, or are they basically good people who have been psychologically changed by the addition of authority? In other words, are bad bosses born or are they made? Is it true what Lord Acton said, that “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

I once worked with a guy who was really engaging and easy to talk to. He always had an ambitious streak but nothing that would send up any red flags. But once he’d achieved a position of authority, he seemed to take on a different personality. He became a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. I heard that in meetings he would openly ridicule and humiliate his staff members. And I don’t think he ever admitted he was wrong about anything from the moment he acquired authority. When I spoke to him socially after that, he could still conjure up that engaging guy I used to know, but it became increasingly difficult to ignore his work persona.

In 1971, social scientists at Stanford University conducted an experiment (the Stanford Prison Experiment) in which they wanted to find out why prisons were such awful places. Specifically, they wanted to know if it was because prisons are full of nasty people, or if prisons are so terrible that they make people nasty. The researchers set up a simulated prison where they could note the effects of this institution on the “behavior of all those within its walls.”

Twenty-four college students participated in the study. They were all given diagnostic interviews and personality tests in the beginning. The students were then divided into two groups by a flip of the coin. Half were assigned to be guards, the other half to be prisoners. The guards’ only instruction was to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order in the prison.

The experiment was scheduled to take two weeks but was halted after just six days. Why? The “guards” became so abusive — even those who claimed to be pacifists — that the “prisoners” had become emotionally traumatized.

Now, of course that was an experiment, and the office is not a prison (though on some days it may feel that way), but the results are still chilling. I’m inclined to think that there was a preexisting weakness in the character of those people who become corrupted by authority — something a psychological test couldn’t have detected. I do think leadership changes people, but I really can’t believe that inside all of us is some seed of cruelty that is germinated by power.

I’d like to hear your opinions on this. Do you think dictators are born or made?