The American View: The Invisible Manager

There are bad bosses. There are weak bosses. Most to be feared, through, are the sadistic bosses. This year’s remake of the classic monster movie The Invisible Man resonates with audiences because of how much its villain resembles the kind of creepy boss that makes the workplace a horror show.

Back at New Years, I resolved to get out more in 2020. See more first-run films, go to more local concerts, that sort of thing. After too many weekends spent recovering from exhausting work-weeks in 2019, I’d hoped that 2020 would be a bit more accommodating. Grant me some time to actually relax on the weekends. Obviously that didn’t happen. Instead of getting out to see all the new films I’d been looking forward to, I’ll have to wait until they show up on Netflix. It’s a minor gripe considering what-all’s happening throughout the world. If I have to trade a few films for my community’s health and safety, that’s so far beyond a ‘fair’ trade as to be ridiculous.

One film that I was looking forward to seeing is Australian writer/director Leigh Whannell’s reinterpretation of the classic The Invisible Man. I was on board before I even saw the trailer; Whannell’s previous project – 2018‘s Upgrade – was a delightfully gritty cyberpunk tale and a good indication that Whannell will be successful in whatever he wrote next. Then the trailer for Invisible Man dropped and removed whatever lingering doubts I might have had. Changing the villain from an eccentric scientist (per Claud Rains’ iconic performance in the 1933 film adaptation) to a control-obsessed abusive ex makes gives us a protagonist we can all root for and a villain we can gleefully and guiltlessly loathe. [1]

So, yeah. The new Invisible Man looks like it’s a darned good film. It seems to be a strong stand-alone horror thriller in its own right and a rehabilitation of a rather weak ‘classic monster.’ There might be more to it than that, though … Something universal, that plays on the audience’s contemporary anxieties. Specifically, the notion of a powerful other who is always lurking, observing, waiting to pounce on any perceived moment of vulnerability to inflict a stinging rebuke or humiliating reprimand … just because they can. Call them the invisible manager.

Seriously. I’m not just making a title pun here. I’ve written about a lot of terrible bosses over the years, so this is a subject near and dear to me. The is a subject that I’m intimately familiar with. Imagine having a supervisor (or, worse, a boss’s boss) who takes a sadistic interest in tormenting you. Someone who silently stalks you in the office, eager to discover the most trivial of excuses to justify administering some sort of punishment. A boss who interviews your co-workers to ‘build a case’ on why you’re underperforming. A boss who invents reasons to find fault with your e-mails, reports, and presentations, inferring slurs and ascribing bias where none exists. A boss who joins your conference calls unannounced just in case you say something unflattering about him.

These people really exist. The lengths they’ll go to so that they can ‘justify’ their persecution is astonishing.  

If you’ve never experienced a sadist like this, congratulations! The rest of us are jealous. I daresay that more than half of the people in any given workplace have experienced this sort of creepy sadist boss at one time or another: a leader who – for whatever reason – takes a special dislike to a subordinate and takes active measures to justify punishing them.

The essential nature of delegated authority in a hierarchal structure (i.e., standard corporate organisational structure) grants poor leaders with great latitude to abuse their charges before internal controls to check their conduct. Put another way, so long as the boss’s antics don’t wind up on the evening news, they can get away with abusing their people for quite a while before HR, Legal, or upper management makes any effort to rein them in.

You might thing that this is aberrant behaviour; according to business school textbooks, the modern company is supposed to be a utopian meritocracy. A place where every worker is judged solely by the quality of their work, where managers are only concerned with productivity and resources, indifferent to race, gender, ethnicity, etc. That’s the world described in sterile HR policies, press releases, recruiting videos, and ‘feel good’ social media posts.

Reality begs to differ.

In the world we actually live it, companies are simply temporary alliances of strangers united by a common desire for survival where one’s presence, obedience, and labour are traded – often at below market rates – for pay, benefits, and some semblance of stability. As in every group of people, some participants are exceptional, some are inadequate, and a few are complete jerks. Unfortunately, the destructive traits that accurately predict a candidate’s likelihood to abuse their power over others tend also to be the most competitive traits that earn that candidate a job offer.

I’ll argue about this until I go blue in the face: interviews are supposed to ascertain the candidate’s character, not just corroborate the candidate’s qualifications. Hiring boards need to look closely for signs that a candidate lacks the ability and/or willingness to function like a decent human being.

In January 2019, Dr. Traci Stein wrote in her Psychology Today article Do Narcissists Make Good Leaders?: ‘… narcissists are often quite good at convincing themselves and others that the narcissist is special. Furthermore, at least in the short term, narcissists who also have significant skill, talent or smarts – including notable interpersonal skills – can often mask the liabilities that come with having narcissistic traits. Sometimes, even when we know better, most of us can’t help but find ourselves so charmed, so swayed by their conviction, that we resolve any cognitive dissonance about narcissists and their behaviors by revising our opinions of them. In short, we … make excuses for inexcusable behavior.’

I’ve seen this manifest up close many times. I’ve worked for malignant narcissists and spite-fuelled bullies who inexplicably managed to charm their hiring boards into believing that they were model executives. There’s something mesmerizing about an outrageously confident character that causes otherwise rational people to lose their common sense. Their lack of integrity and empathy should have been obvious from their work history alone, but … they were so charming.

Regardless of how they get in, these abusive bosses feel empowered by their leadership position to slake their destructive urges on the victims that the company has placed in their care. The worst of them treat their victims the same way a hunter treats game animals. Unlike empathy-bereft bosses that ignore their subordinates’ suffering, these bosses recognize that their subordinates are living creatures that feel pain and revel in it. They savour their prey’s suffering, enjoying the hunt more than the ‘kill’ itself. They ‘run’ their victims, driving their people into frantic flight just so that they can give chase.

This is where horror stories of the invisible manager come from: leaders who relentlessly stalk and harry their chosen targets to amplify the anxiety and raw fear. It entertains them. Feeds their belief in their own power. Titillates and flatters. What more could a malevolent narcissist want?

The snarky answer is ‘more victims.’ Really, though, every abusive boss has their own peculiarities and unique psychopathology. Some are ‘quality-over-quantity’ types. Some demand painful obeisance. Some want gifts or sacrifices. Their victims have to work out what specifically placates or distracts their abuser, which just adds insult to injury.

That, I think, is why Leigh Whannell’s new take on The Invisible Man was (and hopefully still will be) a standout hit at the box office. By reinterpreting the antagonists’ motivations and methods, Whannell has tapped into a universal source of existential dread. Some viewers will resonate with the monstrous idea of a domineering romantic partner. A few people will interpret the villain as a personification of the autocratic surveillance state. Most viewers, though, will be able to map a familiar face onto the faceless monster because they remember all too well the same sorts of predatory, omnipresent, and condescendingly cruel behavior from a hated prior boss. Someone that hounded our steps and made us miserable. The experience is just slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect.

If the trailer is to be believed, this is doubly effective given how Whennell shows the protagonist being sectioned and disbelieved, the exact same way that thousands of harried workers were dismissed by uncaring HR or IG departments. You can have all the evidence in the world, yet the people responsible for protecting workers from abuse chose to look the other way and allow the abuse to continue. That’s about as real as a horror story can get.


[1] If you’ve never seen the 1933 original, I strongly recommend checking out YouTuber Dominic Noble’s Lost In Adaptation video essay that compares the film to the book it was based on.

Pop Culture Allusion: Leigh Whannell, The Invisible Man (2020 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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