Seven Neurotic Styles of Management

A neurotic managerial style has undesirable consequences for individuals, teams, and the organization.

2006 Volume 9 Issue 4

Effective executives strive to manage their firms using sound management practices. They lead by developing strategy and implementing it. They adopt strategic management practices that rely on logic, rational decision making and inductive sense making. Productive work places are planned, orderly, caring, team-based, and learning-and-development-oriented. Collins and Porras[1] and Collins[2] advocate managerial styles that build long lasting endurance through use of rational and thoughtful processes. However, there are managers who may mean well, but whose styles are anxious and idiosyncratic. Their neurotic styles tend to undermine and obliterate the effectiveness of their organizations and people and lead to reckless results.

Often out of fear and opportunism, employees adopt and mimic the neurotic styles of their managers and influential leaders. In such settings, the work culture sooner or later becomes neurotic and toxic. In toxic cultures, people experience a broad range of unproductive feelings of helplessness, distrust, defensiveness, anger, apathy, and even depression. When habitually neurotic employees are advanced to key leadership positions, it is inevitable that people and organizations will suffer. People in such cultures feel trapped and uncertain about their futures and careers. They resort to behaviors that are unproductive for themselves and their organization. Employees subjected to neurotic managerial styles often experience stress and lowered quality of work life. Some eventually leave otherwise acceptable jobs and work environments to be rid of the abuse.

Neurotic Styles

Any manager, especially in the midst of crises, may take actions that might be considered neurotic. Horney has characterized neuroticism as compulsive efforts to gain perfection, power and independence.[3] She views the neurotic to be afflicted by feelings of anxiety, obsessional thoughts and compulsive acts.[4] Sweet, Thomas, and Young refer to Freud’s construct of realistic anxiety when a subject responds to a real external threat.[5] The intention in this article is to address perceived organizational anxiety that provokes managers to demonstrate impulses and habitual patterns of responses of which the managers are unaware or which they are unwilling to change and control.

Serious problems arise when such behavior becomes the norm and develops into a neurotic management style. Shapiro describes neurotic style to be:

…a form or mode of functioning…that is identifiable, in an individual, through a range of his specific acts…. [t]hose modes of functioning that seem characteristic, respectively, of various neurotic conditions…particularly, ways of thinking and perceiving, ways of experiencing emotions, modes of subjective experience in general, and modes of activity associated with various pathologies. It is not aimed to be an exhaustive list nor even systematic. There are many interesting aspects of style…such as body movement styles…[6]

A neurotic style indicates a person’s limitation in learning needed skills to adjust and cope effectively in social and work settings. Such a style often reflects an inability to self reflect, introspect, learn about one’s perception of a situation, respective role, impact on others, and others’ impact on self for developing and engaging in more effective behavior. While managers might exhibit multiple neurotic styles, identifying the dominant style is a prelude to understanding the complexities involved and subsequent needed change. This article identifies seven common work place neurotic styles: Explosive, Implosive, Abrasive, Narcissistic, Apprehensive, Compulsive, and Impulsive, and their detrimental impacts on organizational effectiveness.

Table 1: Selected Attributes of Neurotic Styles

Neurosis Management Style Orientation Toward Others Expect Work Done
Explosive Moody, destabilizing Don’t get in my way. The manager’s way
Implosive Passive-aggressive Don’t let me down. The manager’s way
Abrasive Superior, emasculating No one is good enough. Always better
Narcissistic Self-aggrandizing – What’s in it for me? Are they useful to me? Benefits the manager
Apprehensive Watchful, defending “turf” No one can be trusted. Very cautiously
Compulsive Tunneled, unswerving Get them focused. Repeatedly, precisely
Impulsive Rule “de jour,” flippant Change for change’s sake. Facetiously

The Explosive

Managers with explosive styles are easily dominated by their immediate feelings of frustration. They may appear mild mannered, but they lapse into explosive seizures when they feel blocked. Co-workers tend to describe such managers as moody and emotional. Such leaders’ judgment is influenced by exaggerated perceptions and the loss of control of situations. They become unable to problem solve effectively and instead personalize problems and become aggressive in pushing others for solutions. Explosives are neither effective problem solvers nor strategists. They tend to personalize problems. In a rush to deal with their boiled up frustrations, they lose their sensibility and act out without clear, strategic thinking. When confronting a difficult situation, the explosive may burst into a tirade and suspend strategic assessment of the situation. It takes time to simmer down an explosive manager and to help him/her gain insight into the nature of the problem and its solution. Even when the problem is identified, the explosive may have difficulty generating effective solutions.

The Implosive

Implosives exhibit an obverse style similar to that of the explosive. Explosives outwardly exhibit their short temper, while implosives retreat into themselves and keep their feelings of frustration inside. The style is also known as passive-aggressive. They implode and sulk, wallowing in their anger. They may stop interacting with co-workers, ignore them, or act coldly toward them. Similar to explosives, implosives require time for their feelings of frustration, anger, and hurt to diminish in intensity and to be extinguished. These quiet explosives are hard to predict and work with. Their defenses are deeply rooted and not easy to get at—especially when the person does not own the dysfunctional nature underlying the behavior and is unwilling to learn and change. They keep to themselves and store their resentments, and when a threshold is reached, they take quiet action to get even. The action might involve little confrontation but through indirect means, including third parties’ negative actions toward the target recipient.

Implosives tend not to forget or forgive, both of which would be their salvation. They hold long-term grudges and escalate irrational thinking about what has disappointed them. As a result, an Implosive’s action has an element of surprise for the recipients of his/her behavior. The action might come after a significant time lag, thereby confusing the recipient who might not have any clues regarding why they are subjected to neurotic negative treatment. Indirect talk, avoidance of direct action, conflict avoidance and triangulation of conversations and actions through third parties are some symptoms of the implosive style.

The Abrasive

Abrasive managers often view themselves as high achievers: knowledgeable, analytical, and professionally competent. Dominated by a need for perfection and thoroughness, they push themselves on others and view others as less adequate. Levinson observes that abrasives want to do the job by themselves, finding it difficult to lean on others who they feel will not meet their standards.[7]

When there are errors and mistakes, abrasives are quick to criticize and find an opportunity to undercut others. They are comfortable with red flagging fact-based issues and with uncovering performance shortfalls that others are reluctant to bring up. This zeal for rigor and high standards often manifests itself in a posture of arrogance and insensitivity toward others.

Abrasives’ aspirations of high standards (actual or claimed) combined with their competitive needs give them a perceived license to justify acting abrasively. Their intense drive for performance creates an evaluative environment of measurement and performance. However, abrasives arouse feelings of inadequacy in others. They justify their mistreatment of others by maintaining that targeted persons deserved such action. They shrug off the negative consequences of their actions by attributing them to others’ inadequacies or lack of professionalism. Abrasives tend to withhold rewards unless employee performance is exemplary. Organizations dominated by an abrasive management will experience high people burnout and turnover. Employees will experience lowered feelings of self-efficacy and self-confidence. The abrasive’s victims realize that no matter how hard they work, more is expected. Good is not enough; it can always be better.

The Narcissist

Relaxed and cool-headed, narcissists may choose to pay homage to teamwork, cooperation, and strategic management processes. However, closer observation of their styles reveals that they are preoccupied with an image of self grandiosity as they strive to fulfill their ascendancy needs by emerging from each situation more influential, well-off, and satisfied—although at the expense of the organization and others. It is hard to get to know narcissists. They take cover in superficial pleasantries and self-aggrandizing stories that embellish their image. They tend to view others as means and instruments to be used. They pursue their self interests and compete fiercely to receive approval, visibility, and influence in the pursuit of their goals.

Narcissistic leaders can be charming to others, but they privately have little genuine interest in other people except with regard to how others can be used. They relate to new associates with thoughts of how such people can be useful to them. They portray the image of a winner, but fear being labeled a loser. Narcissists feel comfortable using seductive tactics to make others succumb to their wishes. When self-serving opportunities are scant, a narcissist stays aloof and distant, but as soon as opportunities present themselves, narcissists become engaging and involved.

Narcissists strive to be associated with important, resourceful people—including powerful leaders and important customers—so as to use them as means and devices for their own self-fulfillment. Narcissists make decisions for purposes of personal social and economic benefit, and they interact only if such behavior coincides with the narcissist’s self interest. Narcissists are cool and calculating in their self-centered approach to life, and they avoid encumbering themselves with social or other obligations that do not serve their interests. As executives they influence organization goals and processes to serve their self-interests, even if costly.

The Apprehensive

The apprehensive style is secretive, self protective, and cautious. The apprehensive manager expects the worse and prepares for it by watching for hidden messages and agendas in what people say and do. They are defensive and can be antagonistic. They have low trust in others and believe that even words spoken in confidence may be revealed, thereby compromising themselves and causing trouble. Their paranoid style compels them to watch closely their employees, who typically view such leaders as controlling and watchful.

My manager keeps his cards close to his chest. It is hard to work with a boss who says, “I trust you as long as I can watch you.” I think he is paranoid about losing his job, although he is doing fine. In this kind of high tech business, we need free exchange of information. He holds on to vital information that I need for my job. He wants me to keep things to myself and keep him informed of all things that occur in the department. This lack of trust and fear is frankly tiring. We keep other departments in the dark about our strategy, plans, priorities or activities. We evade their inquiries, but keep track of their failures.

-Anonymous Employee

Apprehensive style is closed. It confines and prevents interactions. Information is managed centrally and communicated carefully and selectively. It is detrimental to the firm’s growth, innovation, and long-term prosperity. The style feeds on itself. As group performance and situations deteriorate, the apprehensive manager’s behavior becomes more controlling, secretive, defensive, and untrusting.

Apprehensive managers tend to distrust the new, creative, and novel. They are comfortable with the familiar and surround themselves with compliant yes-type followers who communicate favorable news, thus assuring the manager that all is well. Apprehensives live in a world of fear and distrust. When market share and profits decline, apprehensives blame and fire other people and establish tighter reins. Missing are their abilities to look for new opportunities and to create and develop new approaches to ignite employee enthusiasm and lift employees’ spirits.

The Compulsive

Compulsive managers have a one-track and rigid mindset. Compulsives are often preoccupied with the details of a given activity and may disregard other important aspects of their job. They tunnel and narrow the scope of their everyday concerns to a limited set of controllable variables, which then become the main focus of their actions. Their pattern of behavior is predictable and repetitive.

Compulsives’ tunneled preoccupation is counter to effective strategic management of the whole enterprise. The style can lead to oversight of vital emerging strategic issues and to over commitment to specific courses of action that often run counter to strategic thinking and management. Excessive concerns and overemphasis of narrow sets of outcomes, such as market share, can be self defeating. This kind of unwavering preoccupation with one set of issues in absence of considering the whole picture is a prescription for failure. Not only are resources misallocated and opportunities bypassed, but this compulsive style is also accompanied by confusion that impedes formation of a rational approach to management.

Once compulsives commit to a task or direction, it becomes difficult to disengage them. With their unwavering management style, compulsives tend to escalate commitment to actions which may even be failing and no longer viable. Voices of reason go unheard. Their intense sense of responsibility and commitment to completing tasks overshadow and obscure the more strategic and value-adding initiatives that lead to greater strategic pay offs.

The Impulsive

Impulsives take abrupt actions that are often unplanned and unanticipated. This arbitrary, impulsive behavior runs counter to strategic management processes. It creates distractions, unpredictability and confusion. Such unplanned change accompanied by impulsive action may seem flippant to others who must make unanticipated adjustments to deal with such behavior. Experience for experience’s sake is the impulsive’s life orientation.

Impulsives view strategic thinking, strategy development and its implementation as time and resource consuming. They reason that in a changing world one should take quick actions. They enjoy the freedom of taking action, which offers them a sense of power and determination. They underestimate the inevitable failures that often follow hasty decisions and uncalculated actions. The integration of impulsive action with organizational agenda, performance, and career goals is conflictive and stressful, if not counter-productive. When change is unplanned and performance criteria change without sufficient reason, organizations’ and employees’ plans are undermined. The unplanned change is haphazard, annoying, and threatening. It leads to disruption in organizations. It is psychologically taxing and creates feelings of powerlessness and resentment among employees.

Neurotic Styles and Strategic Management

Strategic management discipline promotes a rational, integrative and intuitive approach to management and leadership. It supports open sharing of knowledge, transparency, informed decision making, and planned action. It defines the organization’s vision, values, strategy and results. The strategic process includes determining the enterprise’s grand strategy and implementing and evaluating outcomes relative to planning.

Strategic management requires knowledge generation and learning. It is a thoughtful process to generate options and select viable courses of action suitable to the enterprise’s particular situation. Strategic managers rely on the vital data of organizational members and stakeholders to assess external and internal situations. Such management is built on input and feedback from knowledgeable sources, educated assumptions, and intuition regarding how best to pursue the enterprise vision in view of existing circumstances. It is a thought provoking, measured, rational as well as inductive process in which self interests of the organization, its members, and stakeholders are considered and conciliated.

Neurotic styles, their accompanying people orientation and work expectations (Table 1) cut against intricate and complex disciplined managerial processes. Such styles are idiosyncratic to specific dysfunctional leaders and key decision makers’ styles that undermine, distort, and, worse yet, result in inappropriate goals. Neurotic styles tend to derail strategic management processes, distort facts, and compromise the judgment required to reach sound, logical decisions. They overload the decision making process with compulsive biases both in action and thought.

Photo: Constantin Kammerer

Neurotic Styles, Culture, People and Change

Neurotic cultures tend to give rise to neurotic leaders, and neurotic leaders promote dysfunctional cultures consistent with their styles. Dysfunctional situations stifle people’s need for satisfaction and frustrate achievement of their life goals. At significant psychological costs and personal loss, people must cope with the resultant stresses induced by the neurotic styles of their leaders. The outcome is lower morale, affected behavior, job dissatisfaction, and turnover of the most productive people.

Organizations dominated by neurotic managerial styles frequently induce, socialize and enculturate members to accept, to conform to, and to adopt a prevailing neurotic style. Some members assume complementary troubled roles in dealing with the prevailing neurotic style. They may assume such roles as victim co-worker, neglected subordinate, or disgraced supervisor, and so forth. Through implicit mutual consent, a deadly organization game can be played to the point that any attempt to remove the neurotic style creates difficulties for codependents involved in playing and maintaining the game. Through their compliant behavior the codependents manage to accumulate personal gains at the organization’s cost. Whether the behavior is blind obedience, personal loyalty, or manipulation of the neurotic leader’s views, codependents manage to perpetuate the situation while gaining from it. Through manipulation of rewards and punishment, codependents collaborate in establishing and enforcing dysfunctional mind sets and “realities.” In facing organizational problems and performance setbacks, organization members may exhibit an increased intensity in their commitment to troubled neurotic behavior, thus reinforcing the dysfunctional organizational game.

Turnaround, Change, and Organization Development

It is often outsiders who initiate change in neurotic leadership and dysfunctional organization processes when inside codependents vested in dysfunctional processes are perhaps unable and unwilling to disrupt the vicious cycle of troubled behaviors and norms. Motivated by self interests and common purpose, stakeholders, creditors, and concerned parties sometimes intervene to turn such situations around and set the affected organization on the path to recovery.

Standing in the way of a return to prudent leadership and competitiveness are the level and gravity of damage produced by neurotic managerial styles, prevailing codependencies and resistance to change. Turnaround begins with disempowering and removing neurotic style leaders and followers. Rebuilding the strategic advantage of the firm affected by neurotic management requires new competencies and skills. Success in organization turnaround is achieved through renewal of strategic management processes, market competitiveness, and establishment of leadership who keenly rely on informed decision making and action. These changes in turn will determine the depth and breadth and intensity of required strategic change interventions to counteract the effects of neurotic managerial styles.

It is wise to prevent the emergence of neurotic styles within any organization. To this end, it would be helpful to improve organization processes for selection of employees, performance management, management training and development, and culture building. As soon as a neurotic behavior is observed, it needs to be identified and dealt with directly. For example, crisis situations provoke feelings of anxiety among organizational members. The neurotically prone members tend to act out. This neurotic behavior may be viewed as a positive behavior and may take hold as a legitimate behavior. Crisis situations provide opportunities to observe the neurotic behaviors which should be dealt with before taking root post crisis.

Obversely, neurotic leaders tend to create crisis situations in which their neurotic behavioral styles of dealing with situations are viewed positively. In turn, crisis infected organizations often seek and reinforce neurotic styles of management and leadership. The eventual outcome of toxic neurotic pattern is failure. Such self defeating patterns must be detected, arrested and extinguished appropriately—and without creating another round of crises.

Final Note

Diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of problems explored in this article require the judgment of professionals who understand the scope of such problems. Most managers are trained in business functions and are competent in their own knowledge areas, however, they may not have sufficient expertise in dealing with individuals and organizations afflicted with neurotic management styles and their accompanying dysfunctions. It is worthwhile to rely on the advice and counsel of competent professionals in diagnosing the nature of the organization’s managerial issues and in generating solutions. Shapiro identifies a key element of diagnosis and treatment of the neurotic character in the following way:[8]

… introduce the neurotic person to himself, but not merely in the sense of informing him about himself, about the existence of his inner conflict or even about its nature or history…the aim is to enlarge his experience of himself, specifically to enlarge his experience of, and to make possible the articulation of, the feelings and thoughts involved in that conflict, and in this way create the conditions for its resolution.

After all, reading this article may point out that the style you find needs changing may be your own.

[1] Collins, James and Jerry Porras. Built to Last. New York: Harper-Collins, 1997.

[2] Collins, James. Good to Great. New York: Harper Business, 2001.

[3] Horney, Karen. Our Inner Conflicts. New York: W. W. Norton, 1945.

[4] Horney, Karen. Neurosis and Human Growth. New York: W. W. Norton, 1950.

[5] Sweet, Andrew, Thomas Giles, and Renee Young. Three Theoretical Perspectives on Anxiety: A Comparison of Theory and Outcome. In Larry Michelson and L. Michael Ascher (Eds.) Anxiety and Stress Disorders: Cognitive-Behavioral Assessment and Treatment. New York: Guilford Press, 1987, 39.

[6] Shapiro, David. Neurotic Styles. New York: Basic Books, 1965, 1-2.

[7] Levinson, Harry. Harry Levinson on the Psychology of Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2006, 102.

[8] Shapiro, David. Psychotherapy of Neurotic Character. New York: Basic Books, 1989, 10-11.

About the Author(s)

Kurt Motamedi, PhD, is consistently rated as one of the top executive educators and coaches in the world. He is professor of strategy and leadership at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. He teaches fast-track executives and high performing leaders in the Executive MBA program and the Presidential Key Executive program. Dr. Motamedi earned his MBA and Ph.D. degrees from UCLA's Anderson School of Management and his MSEE at UC Santa Barbara's College of Engineering. His work has received national recognition from the Academy of Management and UCLA. Motamedi is a co-founder of Pepperdine's doctoral program in Organizational Development. He has published and presented more than 100 articles.