Boss Hypocrisy

In our culture, we are supposed to resent and dislike bosses. Bosses get paid too much, are mad with power, seek profits over people, etc. In fiction, we are mainly willing to see bosses as good when they run a noble work group, like a police, military, medicine, music, or sport group. In such rare cases, it is ok to submit to boss domination to achieve the noble cause. Or a boss can be good if he helps subordinates fight a higher bad boss. Otherwise, a good person resents and resists boss domination. For example:

The [TV trope of the] Benevolent Boss is that rarity in the Work [Sit]Com: a superior who is actually superior, a nice guy who listens to employee problems and really cares about the issues of those beneath him. … A character that is The Captain is likely, but not required, to be a Benevolent Boss.
Contrast with Bad Boss and Stupid Boss. Compare Reasonable Authority Figure. In more fantastic works, this character usually comes in the form of Big Good. On the other hand, an Affably Evil character can be a benevolent boss with his mooks, as well.
In The Army, he is often The Captain, Majorly Awesome, Colonel Badass, The Brigadier, or even the Four Star Badass and may be A Father to His Men.
For some lucky workers, this is Truth in Television. For a lot of other people, this is some sort of malicious fantasy. (more)

But here is a 2010 (& 2011) survey of 1000 workers (30% bosses, half blue collar):

Agree or completely agree with:

  • You respect your boss 91%
  • You think your boss trusts you 91%
  • You think your boss respects you 91%
  • You trust your boss 86%
  • If your job was on the line, your boss would go to bat for you 78%
  • You consider your boss a friend 61%
  • You would not change a thing about your boss 59%
  • Your boss has more education than you 53%
  • You think you are smarter than your boss 37%
  • You aspire to have the bosses job 30%
  • You work harder than your boss 28%
  • You feel pressure to conform to your bosses hobbies/interests in order to get ahead 20% (more; more; more)

In reality most people respect and trust their bosses, see them as a friend, and so on. Quite a different picture than the one from fiction.

Foragers had strong norms against domination, and bosses regularly violate such norms. We retain a weak allegiance to forager norms in fiction and when we talk politics. But we also have deeper more ancient mammalian instincts to submit to powers above us. And also, our competitive economy probably tends to make real bosses be functional and useful, and we spend enough time on our jobs to see that.

Many other of our cultural presumptions are probably similar. We give lip service to them in the far modes of fiction and politics, but we quickly reject them in the near mode of concrete decisions that matter to us.

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  • rrb

    Captains of hero teams are portrayed positively, office bosses portrayed negatively.

    But also, hero teams are portrayed positively, whereas offices are portrayed negatively, as something to escape, right?

    “Bosses are bad” has this huge glaring exception in coaches in spots movies, police chiefs, anybody that leads heroes. “Offices are bad” doesn’t have a huge category of exceptions like that, I think.

    I think the hypocrisy at work is that while we’re all willing to compromise on our jobs, we aren’t supposed to encourage others to do so.

    • Matt

      I think this is the right answer.

      In fiction where bosses are dedicated, strong willed heroes, EVERYONE (or at least most) in the group is also. We like to imagine sports teams and police squads are like this–full of passionate hardworking people (including the bosses). If there is business fiction where the company is full of super dedicated employees dreaming big, the overbearing boss will be a hero there too. The Facebook and Steve Jobs movies come to mind. TV shows of competitive professionals (Drs., Lawyers) also often have impressive bosses who ‘demand excellence’ from their ambitious and dedicated underlings.

      Consider–if there was a hard driving fictional boss on a talentless, rec. softball team would they be considered a hero? No, just a jerk.

  • IMASBA

    “Foragers had strong norms against domination, and bosses regularly violate such norms. We retain a weak allegiance to forager norms in fiction and when we talk politics. But we also have deeper more ancient mammalian instincts to submit to powers above us.”

    I don’t know if you can just assume that. Natural aversion to hierarchy is strong in humans and that seems to be the way things were for hunter-gatherers, so most of human existence, agricultural societies required appeals to angry gods and the use of violent repression to keep people in line, even today it takes years of harsh disciplining to transform a Japanese child into obedient “salarymen”. Being skeptical of bosses is natural and probably rational as well since selection methods for leadership positions are often grossly flawed (and you don’t have to be an academic to notice dirty office politics around you). Of course once a leader has really gained our respect we may bestow celebrity status onto them (maybe we see them as parent figures or as an extension of our own identity), but that is rare. Military leaders enjoy a high status because the military is very meritocratic (even the poorest kid can go to an academy for free and not even the richest kid can buy a position) and even high ranking officers will be present in the combat zone. This is in stark contrast with corporate bosses where meritocracy is nowhere to be found and risk does not exist for bosses except as a word in public statements when they need to invent a justification for their excessive salaries.

    “But here is a 2010 (& 2011) survey of 1000 workers (30% bosses, half blue collar): [...]”

    I find those statistics a bit suspect when it is known that trouble with the boss is the number 1 reason for people to quit their job, and a huge number of people choose not to work for a boss at all (the survey does not take these people into account), or for one of the more respected ones (military, police). Also, the vast majority of people work for low or mid level managers, while the archetypical bad boss sits way higher.

    • Wolf Tivy

      >Natural aversion to hierarchy is strong in humans and that seems to be the way things were for hunter-gatherers,

      I don’t think that’s true. Humans have specific mental hardware for working in hierarchies, and often quite enjoy working under strong leaders.

      I would speculate that boss hate is what happens when the selection process for modern bosses disagrees with the hardware; you perceive that your boss is not a respectable socially dominant alpha, but just some punk with the right background and maneuvering. But that’s probably rarer than our culture likes to portray, as Robin’s statistics say.

      Our society does seem to be quite anti-authoritarian, fetishizing those situations where authority is illegitimate, but this seems to take just as much propaganda to produce as you say the Japanese culture does.

      You seem to be importing the very egalitarian cultural assumptions that Robin is arguing are hypocritical.

      • IMASBA

        “Humans have specific mental hardware for working in hierarchies, and often quite enjoy working under strong leaders.”

        I disagree, a desire for mentorship or a “great leader” to show a way out in difficult times is there but in say your typical workplace people enjoy egalitarian structures.

        “Our society does seem to be quite anti-authoritarian, fetishizing those situations where authority is illegitimate, but this seems to take just as much propaganda to produce as you say the Japanese culture does.”

        Does it? Young people seem to be naturally anti-authoritarian, that’s even considered attractive (and not just in the West). With the dominant cultures all being rooted in deeply authoritarian, religious agrarian societies you can’t just say “well people have been living under strong authorities for centuries, so it’s natural”. There was nothing “natural” about burning villages to the ground to set an example or preaching to the masses that the gods will smite them if they do not listen to their king.

        One thing I agree with Robin on is that modern technology and humanist philosophies allow our hunter-gatherer (Robin uses the word “forager”) ways to reassert themselves over the artificial agrarian (farmer) ways.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Employees become dissatisfied with a boss when he fails to abide by the hierarchical norms. A problem with our hypertrophied work hierarchies (relative to the attenuated hierarchies of foragers) is that such unnatural power induces arrogance, which precipitates departures from the norm.

        (But the hierarchical norm isn’t “alpha male.” Humans expect the role-appropriate reciprocities, and leader arrogance elicits counter-norms favoring equality.)

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Robin, I’m simply amazed that you’re so gullible as to believe this survey. You’ve worked for bosses before, haven’t you; you’ve had friends who work for bosses, I assume.

    The results came from a telephone survey! Do you expect that workers would tell the truth regarding what they feel about their bosses to someone calling on the phone? Think like an economist! They gain nothing from voicing criticisms on the telephone; they believe they could lose their jobs if they diss their boss.

    The hypocrisy doesn’t lie in fiction, here, but in the responses elicited by a telephone survey.

    Believing such nonsense does nothing positive for your general credibility. This “study” is just pro-boss propaganda (the study done on “Boss Day,” yet!)

    • Robin Hanson

      So do your own survey and prove them wrong.

      • IMASBA

        Stephen Diamond has a point: this survey reeks of tabloid science and that invites confirmation bias. Over in the Netherlands a professor of psychology was found out to have falsified dozens of surveys of the type you use here as evidence.

      • Robby Bensinger

        Yes, but how common is this? Fight big studies with big studies, not with small anecdotes.

      • IMASBA

        More common than you think in psychology and sociology. And then there are the surveys that are technically correct but use manipulative questions, and others select a convenient sample (like this survey did by not including the sizeable part of the population that chooses not to work for a boss, because not having a boss is a major reason for people to start their own business).

    • Robert Koslover

      Well, I generally like and respect my boss(es) too. And in the past, if/when I didn’t like them, I eventually changed them (e.g., by changing jobs). From that perspective (which admittedly may not be representative), the survey’s results seem quite reasonable. It also makes sense to me that, in a society with a sufficient variety of job opportunities, people will tend migrate to those employers (and bosses) whom they respect and like. Note: Aren’t you glad that, under our form of government, the government doesn’t assign to you a particular job and boss? Freedom is sweet indeed.

    • Doug

      Oh come on! Employees regularly voice (frequently negative) opinions of their employers on Facebook completely unsolicited. Despite the medium being broadcasted to a huge population and permanently archived. Yet somehow employees would be so paranoid to think their boss is engaging in spy games (of the most pedestrian variety) by contracting a fake survey company.

      There might be a subset of the population that is paranoid enough about deceptive surveillance that they’d change their answers. It’s probably a strict subset though of the far lower paranoia required to cause people to use easily available encryption tools to conduct their communication. In other words well less than 1% of the general population.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        It’s a deeply ingrained feeling, perhaps part of the hierarchy role-regulation system, to suspect your boss will somehow find out when you speak bad about him or her. The pervasive sense is “walls have ears.” It doesn’t require a conspiracy theory to motivate a “vote” for the employer, when you gain nothing by expressing negative views but risk the vague sense you’ll be found out otherwise. Employees are geared (particularly white collar) not to let bosses and coworkers see their dissatisfaction.

        FaceBook is different in that people at least have some incentive to voice their discontent. They’re building coalitions. But I would be surprised if more than a small percentage of FaceBook users publicly express dislike of their boss.

        Look, working for a boss is part of the farming adaptation. It takes hierarchy to a level for which human nature is intrinsically ill prepared. You should expect that people will chafe under such a system.

        Are you perhaps a boss?

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        > Employees regularly voice (frequently negative) opinions of their employers on Facebook completely unsolicited.

        From the survey:

        > about one in 10 are worried about their boss seeing what they post online.

        > One-third of those connected to their boss [on social networks] wish they weren’t and nearly half have taken steps to ensure their boss cannot see certain aspects of their profile. Interestingly, employees fear their opinions or beliefs may be more do more damage than photos/videos.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    The explanation of why you’re supposed to like your boss but other people aren’t supposed to like their bosses is that it makes your boss special, which ingratiates you with your boss and makes you, too, seem special.

    Human’s do have hardwiring for hierarchy, but part of hierarchical role-relationship regulation is showing (hypocritically) respect and loyalty even when disgruntled.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    > You respect your boss 91%
    > You think your boss respects you 91%

    I defy this data.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      The one I found most incredible was:

      You would not change a thing about your boss 59%

      Who would honestly say of anyone “I would not change one thing about” the person?

      • M_1

        Personally I would have answered that within the context of that person’s role as The Boss. I have known plenty of people whom I believe do their job just fine as-is, bosses bossing included…

  • JW Ogden

    If successful bosses were mean and harsh that would be evidence that workers would not be productive with nice bosses.

  • Faze

    People (especially men) respect hierarchy. People outside the hierarchy feel resent being left out. The left-outs assert status by questioning the assumptions of the hierarchy — most importantly, the assumption that bosses are competent to lead. For if the boss is incompetent, the hierarchy is a farce and the left-outs feel less left out.
    Culturally, a lot of anti-bossism is an artifact of crude Depression-era class war tropes whipped up by writers and artists unable or too lazy to master any of the finer points of socialist theory.
    In my experience, 3 out of 5 bosses are competent or more than competent. I have three bosses now. One is a brilliant leader of people. One is a charismatic visionary. And the other is really good at our business. I am in awe of all three.
    I’m reminding of something that a Cardinal in the Vatican told a friend of mine. The Cardinal was asked if, being so close to the seat of power, he ever dreamed of being Pope himself. “Not on your life,” he said. “I see what the Pope does all day. I never want to work that hard.”

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > In fact over 1 out of 3 of employees think they are smarter that their bosses (37%) even (37%), if they think their bosses are more educated (53%).

    So, a third of these people polled believe that they are smarter than their bosses, and something like 20% of employees* believe they are both smarter *and* better educated than their bosses. Yet 91% respect their bosses?

    * assuming independence

    • Robin Hanson

      Sure, I can see respecting someone who isn’t as smart or well educated as I am. I actually respect a lot of such people today.

      • IMASBA

        Which comes back to my point above: you can respect someone as a person but still believe they shouldn’t rank above you, the latter is more relevant in this discussion. When people complain about some system being rotten because it promotes the wrong people and/or is more hierarchical than need be that does not mean they think every boss is a horrible person, perhaps just incompetent, less competent or competent but in a position that should not exist in the first place.

      • DAgain

        I have equal or possibly slightly more education than my boss. I may well be smarter. He’s still better at his job than I would be. Being better educated and more intelligent does not immediately make you better at every job: there can be specific skills involved! I’d guess even more so in blue collar work: someone with experience with building or whatever would be far better than me at leading on a construction site, even if he had no higher education and had a much lower IQ than me.

      • IMASBA

        “I’d guess even more so in blue collar work: someone with experience with building or whatever would be far better than me at leading on a construction site, even if he had no higher education and had a much lower IQ than me.”

        You’d still want the most intelligent builder to be the leader of the bunch in the vast majority of cases. Someone obviously less intelligent than you can be an excellent boss, just not for you: if you are working for him that means you also have the skills relevant to the trade, so your boss can’t claim his trade specific skills as a reason to be the leader, unless you’re socially dysfunctional or your trade is one where experience matters above all, but those aren’t common situations I’d wager.

    • IMASBA

      Nothing to see here, just move along…

      The devil is in the details. There may have been a question along the line of ‘do you think your boss is an OK human being’ that then gets “translated” into ‘do you respect your boss’. You can make a survey say anything you want really.

  • http://priorprobability.com/ F.E. Guerra-Pujol (Enrique)

    I see that “hypocrisy” is one of the tags of this post … although off topic, here is an example of hypocrisy: a leader of a country that used Agent Orange in one war considering going to war with a county using chemical weapons now

  • Marius Catalin

    Bosses represent one of the ugly faces of productivity, is all right not to like them. I think is more like a Stockholm Syndrome relation ship.

  • DAgain

    I think the trope is about ‘the boss’ (as in the big boss in charge of the whole organisation or at least your bit), but I don’t know if that’s what people would mean in the survey.

    Whenever we have staff surveys (and we do a fair bit: I work in a large government department and they do that sort of thing), almost everyone says they like/respect/get support from their line manager, but confidence in the people at the top of the department is far, far lower.

    Mind you, government again, I don’t think the top team are seen as mad for profit, or even really as bullies (maybe occasionally), They’re just seen as a bit useless and making bad decision.

    • M_1

      I’ve seen the same in very large corporations (tens or hundreds of thousands of employees).

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  • Cambias

    The Bad Boss is a useful trope IN FICTION because it’s a handy way to provide adversity for the hero/worker to overcome. After all, if you’re having problems on the job, a sympathetic and understanding boss lowers the tension, which is terrible for fictional drama.

    But life isn’t fiction. A boss who constantly increases the tension and drama in his workers’ lives isn’t doing the thing he’s paid for.

    In the jobs I’ve had, the majority of bosses were intelligent, decent, and encouraging. Life isn’t fiction.

  • MPS17

    I think the dichotomy you describe comes about because the fiction you are referring to is written by writers and writers are not typical people. They see themselves as artists and are rivalrous with business people. The bad boss is one trope reflecting their worldview.

    It’s similar to how in the movies, the woman always goes with the creative / artsy / spontaneous guy, not the rich / business-y guy.