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The Psychobarbarian Manager

There are managers who have learned to use psychological techniques to confuse, contort, and control members of their staff. You may never encounter one of these characters, if you are lucky. However, if you do run into such an unpleasant character, here are some tips on how to survive.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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He was concluding a presentation to which he had dedicated weeks of preparation. It had gone very well when, in front of everyone, his boss asked him a question that he couldn’t answer. Worse, his boss knew that he didn’t have the answer. He felt completely betrayed. Later, his boss came into his office and said, “Great presentation; you did well!” Talk about mixed messages! The compliment softened the abuse but left him uncertain about his competence and confused about where he actually stood with his boss.

There are managers who have learned to use psychological techniques to confuse, contort, and control members of their staff. I have come to know them as Psychobarbarian managers. You may never encounter one of these characters, if you are lucky. However, I am continually amazed by how many people immediately recognize the “type” and relate their awful personal experiences. It often sounds like “Horror Movie V.”

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Five characteristics

Here are five signs that you have encountered a Psychobarbarian:

1. They instill self-doubt by sending mixed messages. They have a unique ability to focus on your contribution in such a way that you question your values, competence, and decision-making ability. Example: “You did a great job, but it could have been better if …” Don’t confuse this with good-quality coaching. In the Psychobarbarians’ “coaching style,” the areas of improvement may be outside your control.

2. They fire quickly and often. No other trait so clearly identifies Psychobarbarians. They fire with little cause, or they are careful to hide the reason for releasing someone, in order to establish and maintain a climate of uncertainty and fear. No matter that they often are sued or threatened with suits; firing is a feel-good drug for them. Some Psychobarbarians will appear sad and apologetic, indicating that the termination is for the good of the organization. Sometimes they’re right; the people they fire might require a lot of rehabilitation. However, the real reason for firing people is the power high these managers get from the act as well as the impact the action has on the rest of the staff. Such an action serves to keep people off-balance and enhances the Psychobarbarians’ control. Put them in an environment where tenure prevails, and the pattern intensifies—they must get the person to resign, and they are largely protected from being fired themselves.

3. They attempt to control all access to the world outside the department. They want to be an integral part of any subordinate’s involvement with other departments. They demand detailed briefings about meetings, and even chance encounters, with senior management and influential people. They may attend meetings to which they weren’t invited to make sure they are not missing anything that is remotely related to their department, division, or group.

4. Many Psychobarbarians exhibit paranoia. Their management techniques are highly unconventional and might be exposed if examined too closely. They might be seen glancing over their shoulders. They can be almost-secretly gleeful when making others squirm. They seem not to recognize when they have crossed a line in a business relationship with subordinates. And some have egos the size of Montana, which makes them immune to their vulnerability.

5. They seldom are influenced by data. Numbers either frustrate them or are used to support specious arguments. One example that supports their personal belief is important; 25 examples that counter it are meaningless. They tend to be the prime examples of “conformation bias,” the human tendency to disregard information that does not support an opinion we have arrived at. Interestingly, they can also exploit numbers, poring over reports and searching for meaning and relevance in minor deviations or—heaven forbid—an error.

Few Psychobarbarians will exhibit all these characteristics, although some I have known come close. So if you see a pattern of behaviors from this list, you can be pretty sure you are caught in the web of a Psychobarbarian.

If you are there

If you discover that you are in the web of a Psychobarbarian, what are your options? (First, make certain that you are not the problem. Frequently conduct objective assessments of your contribution to the organization and to the problem.)

Five things you can do:

1. First, play it straight. The most effective way to counter a Psychobarbarian’s sarcasm is simply to take the comment literally. Never get into a contest of sarcasm because you can’t win. Should you seem to be winning, the Psychobarbarian will find a way to punish you.

2. Never do anything that can be perceived as disloyal. Psychobarbarians are loyalty fanatics, even though they have zero loyalty to staff. Set and maintain high standards. Take away as many opportunities as possible for finding fault with your work or your attitude.

3. Gain and maintain a high profile. Get outsiders to comment favorably about what your group is doing. Publish and post all positive comments about your group. This will shine a positive spotlight on your group. Protect your people. Do everything you can to protect your staff, particularly those who are vulnerable because of personality traits or position, from ruthlessness and indiscriminate firings. Document anything that will put an impediment in the way of a potential dismissal or will provide support for an unlawful dismissal suit if it is necessary.

4. Sharpen your political skills. Keep your political contacts within the organization to yourself. Psychobarbarians are particularly attuned to powerful people within and without the organization. They see them as a threat to their own power and control and are fearful of important allies their staff members may develop. As with your contacts, keep your perceptions to yourself or be very careful with whom you share them. Psychobarbarians tend to be excellent at organizational politics and are threatened by anyone with similar abilities.

5. Keep a log. This can be a potent resource if the worst happens. Document specific dates and events. Don’t be compulsive about it, but track specific behaviors and situations.

Time to go

“When I told her I had found a new position, her entire demeanor changed.” Right! The relationship has changed; the reason for control no longer exists. You have escaped!

Sometimes nothing works. Staying too long can seriously affect your health, your reputation, and quite possibly your future. Watch for these clear indicators that it’s time to leave: 1. When you have begun to question your values and skills, it is time to take drastic action. A Psychobarbarian will trivialize your values and challenge your skills. Suddenly your strengths are seen as weaknesses, and your ego is being seriously damaged. This happens because a Psychobarbarian goes for every nit, ignoring the overall value of your contribution.

2. Your health is in danger.

3. Your working hours become longer—needlessly—and you’re often fatigued.

4. You find satisfaction only outside your job.

5. A good opportunity comes up. If you are working for a Psychobarbarian and hear about a great job opportunity, go for it. Factor in the cost to your health, job satisfaction, and home life when determining an equivalent salary.

Prepare an exit strategy

Keep a file of your outstanding performance evaluations and kudos. Solicit reference letters and recommendations from customers and vendors. Network, network, network! Insist on a strong reference from your boss. It shouldn’t be difficult to get. This is a time when your manager is vulnerable. Exposure becomes a real concern once his or her access to punitive power is gone.

More—and some psychology

If you would like to pursue this topic from a more psychological reference, see Snakes in Suits, or The Sociopath Next Door. In my opinion, the majority of Psychobarbarian managers are not certifiable. They are simply managers, often with weak or suspect egos, who have learned some techniques for controlling their staff members in ways that not only work but fortify their own personality. How did they get that way? Probably through a wide variety of different paths, and that’s a whole different story.

For further reading:

Babiak, P. & Hare, R. D. (2006). Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: Harper Collins.

Kennedy, M. M. & Pickett, R. B. (March/April 1998), Power and the management of organizational politics. Clinical Laboratory Management Review, 12(2), 181-182.

Kennedy, M. M. & Pickett, R. B. (May/June 1998). Power and politics, Part II. Clinical Laboratory Management Review, 12(3), 114-116.

Stout, M. (2005). The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us. New York: Broadway Books.

I am always interested in adding to my library of stories about the vagaries of these characters. Please contact me at or 760-738-8638 with your observations, especially what has worked for you in surviving such a manager.