How to Tell If Your Boss is a Psycho or Jerk

by Jennifer Miller on April 19, 2012

in Leadership

psycho Overhead at my favorite coffee shop the other day: “My boss is a total psycho!”

I wanted to turn around and say, “Oh, really? And just how exactly do you know this? Are you clinically trained to diagnose mental illness?” But of course, someone’s medical credentials aren’t the point.  The point is, humans crave linguistic shortcuts—a “code word” for what people do that’s “crazy”.

We love to toss the word “psycho” about when referring to our boss or co-workers, but the reality is, very few people actually exhibit true psychotic (or, alternately, sociopathic) behavior.  It’s estimated that about 1% of the general population fit the standard description of “psychotic” or “sociopath”. Definitions and assessments vary, but typical behaviors include: restlessness, a hugely inflated ego, a sense of invincibility and a near complete lack of empathy and social conscience. Sound like anyone you know at work? According to one researcher it’s possible that up to 4% of major corporate CEOs would score high enough on an often-used standardized psychological assessment to be considered sociopathic.

So is your boss a true psycho or just a jerk? Any behaviors that are completely outlandish—excessive narcissism, refusing to listen to warnings of failure for themselves or the company, or a person who clearly delights in harming other people (and feels absolutely no remorse in doing so)—  those are dangerous behaviors, and ones that won’t change. Find a new job as soon as you can.

If, on the other hand, you have a boss that generally acts like a spoiled willful child but is able to show genuine remorse (“Sorry I tore you up in the meeting, I had a bad day”), then he or she is a jerk, not a psycho. You probably will still want to consider finding a new role in your company, but you probably won’t need to fear for your personal safety, other than the occasional flying whiteboard marker from a tantrum-prone manager.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

John Wenger April 19, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Jennifer, great post, I think there is something in the air about psycho bosses and it’s good to get this topic out there for discussion. I think many folks suffer in silence and sadly, it’s more common than we’d like.

Jennifer Miller April 19, 2012 at 7:14 pm


Thanks for visiting The People Equation! Yes, people do suffer in silence– especially when economic times are tough, as they are now in the United States. I also wrote this post as a way to call out the way we “name” things– tossing around mental illness terms does a disservice to those who are truly afflicted.

Dora April 20, 2012 at 11:53 am

Oh the suffering….Are you reading my mind by chance?? Seems your articles are very timely for what’s happening in my little world. Thanks for posting. It seems sad that we have so many ineffective managers. How did they get to the position they have and be “jerks”? Clearly there is a disconnect somewhere. Also sad is that there seems to be not much recourse when working for a jerk. What to do? For me, I’m puttin’ on the headphones and goin’ to my happy place…(Hershey has been making a lot of money off me lately!)

Jennifer Miller April 20, 2012 at 4:43 pm


Your point is well-taken. Even though I have a degree in psychology, I don’t go around tossing clinical labels onto people. Feel free to post your link in the comments section. I’d love to see it.

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