What if your manager goes truly mad?

There is this TV series called Mad Men. It is great television, not in the least because we know Don Draper and his colleagues are anything but ‘mad’. We say ‘our boss is nuts’, while really saying he has wild ideas. When that same boss, your manager, says something outrageous, we say he is ‘crazy’, and sort of admire him for it. All in all it does not seem like such a bad thing to be ‘unhinged’, ‘ready for the nuthouse’ or ‘a fool’. But what if your boss turns out to be mad in a quite literal sense? Here comes a real life story, followed by some lessons. One lesson is this: we all have some madness in us.

A true story about madness

It was a time of high unemployment, so you can imagine my relief when after months of searching, my old professor help me land my first real job. I was to be an assistant to the director of a post-graduate training institute. This small public institute had fallen on hard times and would be privatized. After first spending too much, it now had to do some serious budget trimming. This was in a way my luck. Fresh from university, my financial demands were low indeed. I met the manager and he talked and talked and at the end of his talking I had the job. Wow, that was easy. And I liked his big, big ideas. So two weeks later, on the first of December, I started my new job.

My new boss enjoyed taking me with him for a stroll during lunch break. He told of his vision of the future, but also warned me against the machinations of the people on the board of the institute. I was awed and impressed. So this is how the real world works. Then, just before Christmas, he told me to go to a town halfway across the country, because that would be where we were going to move our offices. I absolutely should see it. But one thing, he told me, keep this to yourself. We do not need any last minute changes in the plan.

Three days before Christmas I went there and had a good meeting with the proprietor. Still, the man was fidgety. ‘Has the agreement been signed yet? Why not? Do you know you have to move in two months?’ I could not answer, I did not know. I told him I would contact my boss. That day I tried to call him, but nothing worked. Still no alarm bells went off. That changed the day before Christmas, when he finally called back. I was already at my parents place. He started ranting about how devious people were. Especially the chairman should not be trusted. The man was a former spy and government agent. He was sent out to destroy our institute. And then he hung up, in mid sentence, leaving me nailed to the ground, staring at the phone.
What to do? I felt I had no option but to call the chairman, but formulated a trick question in order to see if he could be trusted. He could. We compared notes and discussed how to deal with the situation. How difficult, we found out after Christmas, when we learned that my manager was at home with a nervous breakdown. The chairman put me temporary in charge. Later I would learn that the part of being a former spy and agent was true enough, but he was so much more, including able to take a risk with an unproven young man. That phone call was the start of a partnership that would last till his death.

While he was ill there was so much to do. It turned out that my boss had not dared to tell the truth about the change of location to the other employees. Not yet two months in my first job, I had to fire everyone in the old location and start hiring for the new one.

Just three weeks into that process my boss decided that he could and should return. He was not ready. After just a few hours he started becoming confused and incoherent. We tried to coach him home, but he became violent. Fortunately he tired soon. After we had called his family he let them take him home.

In my country, the Netherlands, you are well protected as an employee, especially when you are sick. The company doctor, or the one working for an insurance company, works with and for the patient, not for the employer. Everything is geared at returning someone back to work. This is truly a fine principle, but in practical terms it was a disaster for us. We were very short in cash and the salary of the boss took up most of our funding. So though on the one hand we wanted him back at work and on the other hand dreaded his coming back, we most of all wanted clarity about the situation.

After three months he came back. At the beginning it would be for just a few days a week. It went well for a short time, but then it went wrong, so wrong. I vividly remember a situation where he kept an employee with him in a room, and refused her to leave and us to enter the room. In fact a hostage situation, but I could not get anyone to intervene, as in the Netherlands this is strictly up to the family and not to someone from his office. Somehow we solved it, and this time he went for a time in an asylum.

Again after three months we were told he would return. He had convinced his psychiatrist – and as a very smart man he could be convincing indeed – to try again. This time it went better. We all tried. He and I even went together for walks again and could laugh about it all. Both of us learned to recognise his little signs of stress and every time that happened he just went home. But it could not last. One day he opened the door to my office with a bang and literally threw the law at my unsuspecting head in the form of three heavy law books. Other incidents quickly followed. Back he went to the asylum.

Now what? Will the doctor let him come back again? Another letter from our board telling this was not possible was returned as inappropriate. I knew than that something outside normal channels had to be done, a choice had to be made. I did so by going to the doctor myself. There I presented him with a very factual report of everything that had happened, also including the manifest consequences for our organisation and our chances of survival. If my hunch was correct that the doctor looked at our reality only through his patients eyes that should be changed. I think it helped. After a week or so we heard he would not come back. I never saw him again.


Apart from the very real human tragedy, there are lessons here. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, nor do I consider myself competent to assess the possibility of someone to come back to his or her work after having behaved like my first manager has. But I did have to deal with the consequences, and my guess is there are many people around who have had a similar experience. So here I give some of my lessons, after which I will touch upon something I found in myself: a touch of madness.

Take care with how you react
Give yourself time to realize whether someone is acting out of a delusion or not. Is he really mentally ill, or is it just a temporary depression? There is a true danger in labelling too soon. Sometimes your boss can be rightfully mad at something or someone, sometimes it comes from something that has nothing to do with you or your work. ‘Madness’ is not just a slippery concept, very dependent on character and context; it is a slippery reality as well. Get used to the nature of his or her ailment first and calibrate your reaction to that. Sometimes it can work to react directly and give as good as you get, but I found that in more cases than not, what happened had nothing to do with you and your reaction got lost in the delusion or made matters worse.

Listen and talk
I hope I am wiser now, but in hindsight I did not listen well enough, talked not often enough. I thought it would be best not to provoke and not make matters worse by paying attention to the madness. I was wrong. I was wrong because my manager in his smartness simply exploited my silence by infecting the organization with his own warped ideas, and I was wrong because my colleagues suffered as much as I and I did not acknowledge this enough. You have to talk about the situation, agree on how to deal with your boss, both in spite and because he is your boss. If you are able, try to create moments of catharsis; rituals or moments of comic relief to ease the tension.

Recognise patterns and signals
It is true: there is a method to madness. No person is the same, no character is mad in the same way, but each case of madness has its rules and regularities. Chances are you can talk about this with your boss, the patient. Ask him or her what can happen and what you should do and try to act accordingly. Of course, be careful when having this conversation, but when and if your boss is willing to talk about it the result might be a sort of early warning system for all.

Keep to the facts
We are all amateur psychologists, but you must ask yourself if you help yourself, your organization or your boss if it helps to play that role in order to get your boss out of the office. Ask yourself if a professional psychiatrist will take kindly to this psychologizing when he finds your ‘profound’ insight into the mind of your manager in reports or statement. I will be the judge of that, he of she will rightly say. So stick to the facts of what happened and the impact of it all on you and the organization. Those facts should tell the story.

The madness in me

My manager was a charismatic figure. He was young, intelligent and good-looking. Everything about him said: this man is going somewhere. But the truth is he never dared to pick up a phone, never dared talking with someone else unless he felt absolutely safe. When the façade crumbled, the effect was profound. We gave it a name: madness.
If it is true that we all wear a façade in public, then his crumbling façade threatened mine as well. Having just started my working life, I was wondering; how safe and sane I am, really? I felt the truth of what the late Sir Terry Pratchett wrote: ‘in every sane person there is a madman struggling to get out.” What I did was to return to an old love, poetry. At first I continued to write with lines that rhymed, but soon enough I let myself loose control, leaving rhyme behind me, finding an absurd rhythm of words in me, letting the madman out. As almost all of the poems written in this period are in my native language I cannot show you anything. But after a few months of trying to write poetry, I found I had sort of written the story of myself as a mad man. And found myself to be still rather sane, but better capable of understanding why people can lose their sanity.

So what if your boss goes truly mad? Deal with it, as a good employee must. Take action, prepare for reaction and know that it is an illness driving your boss. One that can inflict us all, but one that can be dealt with, if properly understood.

Peter Noordhoek


My thanks go to Dr. Raouf Oderuth for his comments on my English draft. Any mistake is my own.

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