Work should be a source of joy.

Okay, if that’s too strong, it should at least be a source of well-being. Gallup’s research confirms that work is the second most important factor in promoting our life satisfaction. (The first is the quality of our relationships.) We spend half our waking hours working. It is a source of personal identity, growth, and self-efficacy. That’s all great when our work is good. But when our work is not good, it’s our single greatest source of stress. And new research is confirming what we all know.

If our work is stressful, it’s mostly because our boss is bad. 

Here’s why: Business organizations are designed as power hierarchies. This is because the military is run as a power hierarchy, and modern organizations come from the military gene pool. The family tree of business also runs back to royalty, warlords, and a host of archaic organization models. They people at the top of hierarchies hold life-and-death power (or hire-or-fire power) over everyone. They are also expected to be smarter, better informed, and more capable than their employees. Of course, sometimes they are. Often they are not.

But it’s not competency alone that determines whether a leader creates a great place to work. More often, it is his or her personality, values and worldview. 

The emerging research on leaders of large, modern enterprises is that they tend to be more narcissistic and less empathetic than average. I know, this is not surprising. But let’s take a closer look. Narcissists:

  • Tend to act confident, be well-groomed, self-promoting, and extroverted. They make eye contact, offer inflated compliments, and have high energy.
  • Need and may demand the spotlight, recognition, and admiration.
  • Are self-serving, self-focused, and insistent.
  • Constantly search for better deals, better people, better jobs, better spouses.

And their grand ability is to leverage their influence to dominate a social group. That’s why leadership positions in business, politics, and the media appear to be loaded with narcissists. What’s dangerous about this is that the most dominant traits of a narcissist is fake empathy. That is when a person pretends to care about the sufferings and sacrifices of others, but really doesn’t.

It’s what enables business executives to permanently lay off hardworking, creative successful employees to temporarily raise profits. It is what enables leaders to sell and promote bad food and harmful products, or brazenly pollute and poison the environment. Researches have now administered thousands of personality assessments, and found that people with low empathy scores tend to become lawyers, economists, and investment bankers. (I know, I know, no surprise.) So what’s this got to do with our work? Everything.

IBM published research a couple of years ago revealing the person most employees least enjoy spending time with is their boss. They found that our stress hormone levels skyrocket when we talk to our bosses, due to the massive economic and social power bosses have. If that power is wielded by a narcissist or a low-empathy leader, it’s frankly very scary. The cure is simple. Not easy, but simple. And it has two elements.

First, become great at something.

That way, you have a career instead of a job. We all earn money by creating value. Value in a business is primarily created by saving money or making money. Be clear on what you’re great at and get better. Become an expert in a field you’re passionate about. You do this by reading, going to conferences, writing speaking, doing. Do something for at least 30 minutes each day to learn something new in your field of choice. Give yourself three years to get in the top 25% of your field. In five years, you’ll be in the top 10%. Life is short. Be great at your work so you will always be in demand.

Second, don’t work for a jerk.

Remember, business is a magnet for slick narcissists. So if you are going to work for someone rather than yourself, you must target great companies that push self-promoters away. You will discover these humane places to work through networking, reading local lists of good companies, and asking around.

Sometimes transitions take time. Don’t fret about it. Just don’t settle for being stressed, scared, and exploited. I recently finished teaching a career class to about 60 adults at the University of California at San Diego. What was reinforced to me is that we all have gifts to give. We all have a difference we can make. And if you want to, you can put yourself in the right place at the right place with the right people to work the way you are uniquely designed to.

Never give up your dream. 

Never.