Last week I was talking with ‘Kimmy’ (not her real name). She was telling me about her intense frustration with work. When I say ‘intense frustrations’ I mean the ‘hair pulling’ type – and it appears many of her work colleagues feel the same!  Surprisingly though, on the whole Kimmy says she likes her job; she’s good at it and she regularly receives positive feedback on her performance. Her intense frustration comes courtesy of her store manager.

Kimmy works for a large, successful retailer. She reports to a line manager who she describes as the ‘perfect human’, and her line manager reports to a store manager who she describes as the ‘perfect nightmare’.  This ‘perfect nightmare’ store manager is the primary source of her frustration. Kimmy’s story intrigued me, and I couldn’t help asking more questions.

Kimmy refers (not so affectionately) to the store manager as ‘David Brent’ due to similarities with the fictitious character from the mockumentary sitcom ‘The Office’ written, directed and starring Ricky Gervais. For those who have seen The Office, you will know that David Brent’s character borders on narcissistic. He thinks he is patient, funny, and popular – the perfect boss- but others see him as annoying, rude and selfish. This makes for great viewing, as Brent eyes the camera, telling unfunny jokes, performing corny impressions. Brent’s preoccupation with himself, his (boss) position and his patronising and at times offensive jokes, invariably gets him into trouble.

The Office is hilarious and cringe-worthy – but the really worrying thing is that many of us can relate to it! Many of us, it seems, have experienced or witnessed a narcissistic boss in action – using their workplace, their position and their colleagues to support their ego. Kimmy confirms that there really are David Brents out there!

Kimmy told me she is just so grateful that she reports directly to her ‘perfect human’ line manager who bears the brunt of interactions with her ‘David Brent’ store manager. I was really interested in this perceived juxtaposition of ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’ leadership styles – it needed further exploration. I wanted to know, from Kimmy’s perspective, what the attributes were of the ‘perfect human’ at work compared to the ‘perfect nightmare’; what were the specific differences? Here’s a snapshot of what Kimmy told me:

Behaviours The ‘perfect human’ boss The ‘perfect nightmare’ boss
Leadership style and people skills ·         Authentic,  real, honest, genuine

·         Calm under pressure, approachable, supportive, understanding and positive (not in a fake or over the top way)

·         Knowledgeable with practical experience of all jobs

·         Achieves goals – big and small

·         Humble – isn’t a know it all

·         Is respected by everyone because of how he treat/interact with people

·         Selfless – for example, he  was offered a free lunch but gifted it to a sales guy who he thought was more deserving (did a $20k day in sales the day before)

·         Advocates for staff and challenges the store manager in an effort to ensure equity and fairness – e.g.  communicates to store manager that ‘staff member X is taking this home because she works hard and gets no extra incentive’ (like the monthly bonus the store manager  receives each month for everyone else’s hard work)

·         People want to work and do a good job for a boss who is ‘human’

·         Builds excellent relationships with every team member

·         Effectively engages staff.  Asks questions and seeks input.  He has been with the company for a very long time but he does not assume to be the font of all wisdom and knowledge.

·         Disingenuous, fake, insincere, shallow

·         Disruptive personality (people are more relaxed when the boss is not there)

·         Demands respect (“I’m the manager”)

·         Selfish – will claim/grab free merchandise for themselves; ‘That’s mine. I’m pulling rank!’

·         Commands all attention when in a room and has to involve themselves in every conversation

Communication ·         Language is ‘ you, yours, us, we, our’ creating a team environment by not putting themselves above anyone else, but including themselves as one of the team

·         Listens and are genuinely interested in what you have to say

·         Doesn’t ‘talk down’ to anyone



·         Language is ‘ I, me, my’ – refers to staff in a possessive way ‘my staff’ , ‘my people’, ‘my store’ as if they owns us

·         Condescendingly – talks down to people – belittling and patronising

·         Always appears disinterested in what you have to say (waiting for you to stop talking so he can speak)

·         Will ask you a question and then get their phone out

Management style ·         Empowering and supportive

·         Takes responsibility and follows through with actions

·         Goes above and beyond and doesn’t expect praise

·         Doesn’t take credit for others’ work – will say ‘yeah X spent a lot of time setting that sale up she did a great job’.

·         Treats all staff with sensitivity

·         Micro manages people

·         Passes the buck-  for example, when asked about the status/progress of something  he was tasked to do he responds  ‘we didn’t get to it’

·         Doesn’t follow through with anything – tasks, daily routine things, calling customers back

·         Double standards (one rule for him and another for everyone else).

It seems that Kimmy’s perceptions of effective and ineffective behaviours align with contemporary management theory which suggests great leaders are authentic, respected and see their role as creating an environment where work is meaningful, and developing others to be the best they can be.

But why is it that many of us know a David Brent style manager? Why are recruitment processes failing to deliver humanistic leaders? I asked Kimmy these questions – how and why do these narcissistic types secure leadership positions over people who are better people managers? According to Kimmy, it is because ‘they are loud, outgoing, and confident and they aren’t afraid to sell themselves. They hoodwink the big bosses who presumably are impressed by confidence and apparent enthusiasm.

Given all her frustrations, I asked Kimmy, what keeps her from leaving? Her response was that she feels understood and supported by her line manager and colleagues who share her view, hope that one day he will be transferred to another location and she likes her job.  Interestingly, The Office is based in the Slough Trading Estate in England. Slough is a town immortalised for its lack of appeal by John Betjeman in his poem “Slough” where he writes … Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough; it isn’t fit for humans now… begging the question, are workplaces fit for humans now?

From a Humans Being At Work perspective I can’t help but ask the question – ‘What will it take for organisations to recruit ‘perfect human’ leaders’?