Toxic bosses Part 3

Over the last two weeks, we’ve considered how to recognise and survive working for control freaks, hollow superstars, wily politicians and narcissists. This week it’s how to survive working for dictators and bullies. They all prove boss is a four-letter word.

Dictators take being the boss into the stratosphere. They take no questions and give no explanations. They issue orders and tell you what to do – even when they don’t need to. They play their cards close to their chests, they solve your problems and everyone else’s problems, too, and they make all the decision themselves – even those you’d like to be involved in and could help with.

Some dictators simply love the sound of their own voice. Some can’t bring themselves to trust their followers – any of them – even though their poor followers probably are trustworthy. In the minds of dictators, their only option is to continually drive people and push them hard to do an honest day’s work.

Here are the two secrets to working for dictators:

  1. Remember that their ‘don’t trust anyone’ view of the world is their problem, not yours.
  2. Don’t give into the temptation to become as lazy and irresponsible as they seem to believe you are and just sit back and let the dictator do all your thinking for you.

The best thing to do, I think, is to keep your head down, do your work, and look for a new leader who doesn’t turn ‘boss’ into a four-letter word.

I’ve saved the most toxic boss of all until last – the bully. Bullies pick on one or two of their weaker followers and entertain themselves by abusing, belittling and berating them, assigning them impossible tasks with ridiculous time constraints and generally setting them up to fail.

And here’s the rub – to everyone else, bullies are often charming, and clever enough to hide their bullying ways from everyone but their victims. In fact, people usually find it hard to believe that a bully boss really does intimidate, terrorise and persecute anyone. That’s what makes them so dangerous.

If anyone out there is the victim of a bully boss, do not be conned into believing that you’re the failure your boss is making you out to be. Keep a record of the bullying treatment you receive (dates, times, locations, what was said, anyone else who was present). These records can help you see, clearly and objectively, that you’re not to blame and you may be able to use these records as proof of your boss’s toxic behaviour towards you.

My suggestion is that you find another leader as fast as you can, someone who inspires you and helps you achieve feats you never knew you could achieve. Look for someone who is talented and has high, but realistic, standards, who will give you constructive feedback, set challenging targets and expect a lot of good work from you. Above all, look for a leader who makes you feel energised and confident.

(I trust you didn’t recognise any of the characteristics of toxic leaders we’ve discussed over the last three posts in yourself. If you did, you know what to do. Change your ways and learn to be a real leader-manager.)

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Emotional labour

Here we are in the service and knowledge economy. On the upside, it means less dangerous, demeaning and dirty labour than work in the agricultural and industrial economies. On the downside, it means more emotional labour (Arlie Hochschild’s term, in The Managed Heart). One can hurt your back; the other can hurt your psyche.

Two thirds of Australians are at risk of psychic hurt due to emotional labour. This is work that requires employees to hide emotions seen as unwanted and manufacture wanted emotions.

  • Retail and hospitality workers need to be cheerful to gain repeat business.
  • Health care professionals need to remain empathic yet neutral to ensure objectivity.
  • Police officers often need to seem angry to gain a confession.
  • Judges need to appear emotionally neutral so as not to influence the jury.
  • Office workers may be having a bad day but still need to be cordial and pleasant to their colleagues to grease the wheels of teamwork.
  • Customer service people need to be patient and helpful even to the biggest pains in the neck.

The difficulty is all this emotional dishonesty can be bad for employees and bad for organisations. For employees it can mean burnout, loss of job satisfaction and even damaged family relationships (when you’ve been pleasant to people all day, it can be tempting to drop your mask of sweetness when you walk through your front door). For organisations it can mean high staff turnover and disengaged employees.

Before moving on to possible remedies, or at least ameliorations, we need to distinguish between two possible ways of putting on the organisationally required ‘face’: surface acting and deep acting.

Surface acting is when you only disguise your feelings. It’s superficial. You paste on a smile and say ‘Yes, certainly, M’am’ through gritted teeth. But you still want to put your fingers snugly around M’am’s throat.

Deep acting is where you consciously control your feelings. You might recall a happy experience to put you in a cheerful mood. You might see the difficult person you’re dealing with as a frightened child to boost your empathy (reframing). The desired emotions follow naturally.

With surface acting, you don’t kid yourself about how you really feel and most of the time, you don’t kid other people, either. It demands more energy and effort and leads to more health problems, too–greater emotional exhaustion, feeling like a non-person, depression and anxiety, to name a few.

With deep acting, you actually feel the emotion you’re portraying and because it’s more genuine, it’s more believable, both to yourself and to others.

So, given that you’re likely to carry out emotional labour yourself and to be leading and managing people carrying out emotional labour, how can you lessen its negative effects while still displaying the behaviours and attitudes demanded by the organisation? Here are five steps you can take.

  • Recruit the right people. Look for people who share your organisation’s values and whose temperaments and attitudes lead them to naturally display the desired behaviours. Look for people who don’t ‘wear their hearts on their sleeve’ and who have a track record of successfully regulating their emotions.
  • Train people in deep acting. Trained imagination, role play and reframing are three techniques that work.
  • Let people de-brief after a hard day or a hard encounter. Recovery short-circuits burnout, leading to increased performance. People can also learn from each other this way, too.
  • Encourage healthy off-the-job activities (exercise, sport etc.) and a healthy life style (healthy eating, work-life balance etc.) to further replenish depleted resources.
  • Recognise the value of emotional labour.

Get my what out?!!

It seems a supervisor at IBM in Australia thinks a good way to increase sales is for women sales reps to ‘get their boobies out’ and a good way to motivate female sales reps is to sexually harass and bully them. The details are far too tacky to go into here and make for pretty distasteful reading (but if you really want to read the dirt, check it out here and here). When the victim spoke to management about it, she claims she was told to get back to work and never mention the allegations again.

Where are corporate dignity policies when employees need them? Not to mention management support.

The victim successfully sued IBM for $1.1m. Her manager-with-the-bad-taste eventually left IBM and is now employed elsewhere as a sales manager.

Discussion questions

Can you state your organisation’s procedure and the steps to take should an employee make an allegation of harassment?