Bad bosses: The consistent jerk vs. Jekyll & Hyde

Workers of the world, given your druthers, would you rather have a boss who is a jerk all of the time or just part of the time? Believe it or not, it may be easier to deal with the full-time version.

Jena McGregor, writing for the “On Leadership” column of the Washington Post, reports on a research study by Fadel K. Matta, Brent A. ScottJason A. Colquitt, Joel Koopman, and Liana G. Passantino published in the Academy of Management Journal, finding “that employees are less stressed and have more job satisfaction when their bosses are always unfair than when their boss is unpredictable.”

One part of the study involved a lab experiment with college students getting feedback from a boss in simulated work environments:

To no one’s surprise, those who got the consistently nice feedback fared best when it came to the heart rate monitoring. But those who consistently heard how much it sucks to work with them did better than those who sometimes heard compliments and sometimes got burned.

The second part of the study surveyed actual workers in a variety of work settings and found the same thing:

Again, employees who had unpredictable managers were more likely to be stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and emotionally exhausted than those who said they were always treated unfairly.

The Jekyll and Hyde boss

These research findings dovetail with what we’ve heard for years about bad bosses, workplace bullying, and workplace incivility, namely, that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde bosses may cause higher levels of stress and uncertainty than those whose behaviors are predictable and consistent. We tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, perhaps even to the point of opting for a reliably jerky boss over one who offers kudos one day and rants the next. After all, many of us exercise such a preference in other human interactions, ranging from personal relationships to dealing with authority figures such as police officers.

So what lies beneath these Jekyll and Hyde behaviors? In a blog post earlier this year, business school professor Joel Brockner discusses a study by Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson that offers two possible explanations. The first is “moral licensing”:

One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

The second is personal resource depletion:

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether too many employers hire too many bosses who have low levels of ethics and self-control to begin with, leaving a very thin margin of error in terms of everyday treatment of subordinates and peers. As I have mentioned frequently here, research indicates that the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more we find leaders who demonstrate anti-social and psychopathic qualities. Accordingly, the presence of bad bosses probably means that some employers are drawn to the wrong kind of people as potential managers and leaders in the first place. In such instances, they’re more likely to see Dr. Jekyll at the interview, with Mr. Hyde showing up for the first day of work.

“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

Psychopath CEOs, organizational culture, and workplace bullying clusters

“Okay, bosses, count off by fives…”

When talking about abusive work environments, it’s natural to focus on individual aggressors, bullies, and harassers — especially if you’re on the receiving end. However, we also know that bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically enabled by organizational cultures that promote, defend, and/or allow such mistreatment. In attempting to understand these two perspectives, it helps to go straight to the top: Look for a CEO, president, or executive director who embodies the worst of these qualities.

On this note, I’ve been meaning to write about a study conducted by Nathan Brooks (Bond U.), Katarina Fritzon (B0nd U.), and Simon Croom (U. San Diego), suggesting that roughly one in five corporate CEOs demonstrate psychopathic personality traits. As reported last fall by Michael Arria for AlterNet:

According to a new study, one out of every five corporate bosses is a psychopath.

The study surveyed 261 corporate professionals and determined that their “clinically elevated levels of psychopathy” were on par with the prison population. Nathan Brooks, a forensic psychologist at Bond University and researcher on this study, told ABC, “Their personality usually leads them to exploit every avenue open to them, whether it’s in a criminal setting, or within organizations.”

. . . According to Brooks, a certain “successful psychopath” has been allowed to rise in the corporate world, despite the fact that they’re more likely to break the law or engage in unethical activity.

In other words, it starts from the top. Good CEOs hire good mid-level managers and good HR directors. Toxic CEOs hire managers and HR staff who effectuate their abusive leadership practices. It rolls downhill from there, in either good or bad ways.

The bullying cluster hypothesis

For what it’s worth, the 1 in 5 figure makes sense to me. For example, in a 2013 post, I looked at various prevalence studies and assessments and concluded that “between 1 of 6 and 1 of 7 bosses may behave in a manner that causes underlings and other co-workers to think of them as psychopaths.” Close enough, yes?

The figure also may support a hypothesis I floated in 2012, namely, that some workplaces are “bullying clusters.” I suggested that “(b)ullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.” I further asked, “might the old chestnut, the “20/80 rule,” apply here? Could, say, 20 percent of our workplaces host 80 percent of the bullying?”

So…a 20 percent psychopath CEO rate…and a question speculating that 20 percent of our workplaces may account for 80 percent of workplace bullying. Maybe we’ve got something of a match here.

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Related posts

Is the “psychopath boss” theme overhyped? (2013)

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012)

Is our psychologically ill economy fueled by psychologically ill business leaders? (2011)

Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, the best definition that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Dr. Martha Stout describes the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect (2007), offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Intentional, but not necessarily maliciously so

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

However, in a smaller share of situations it may be used to fight back against injustice, mistreatment, or abuse, to basically keep the other side guessing. Why a smaller share? Because gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting”….Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involve serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant) and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When human resources announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

Time wasters from top management

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Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity:

Unproductive routines, corporate bureaucracy, and “administrivia” kill ambition and sap energy for far too many employees. That’s demoralizing for employees, and a waste for companies, which badly need the full energy and commitment of all their workers.

These “practices, procedures, and structures” include “too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.”

Garton may be writing with mostly the corporate sector in mind, but I can readily attest that these same energy-sapping practices are rife in certain academic institutions as well. They appear in the forms of excessive committees, task forces, working groups, and — worst of all — strategic planning initiatives, replete with seemingly endless meetings and online surveys about this and that. Colleges and universities that lard up on administrators and consultants are the worst of all when it comes to this.

In looking for solutions, Garton offers what he calls his “3 R’s”:

  • refocus on strategic priorities
  • reset the budgets
  • redesign the operating model

Hmm, I have to say that the “3 R’s” sound a lot like consultant jargon replacing corporate jargon. Instead, I’d suggest creating workplace cultures in which people are valued, empowered, and treated with fairness and dignity. If you start with that and go from there, then you’re on your way toward building an organization with high morale and productivity. Plug that agenda into your “strategic priorities,” budgets, and “operating model” if you must (and I hope you don’t), but keep your focus on what truly fosters healthy and productive workplaces.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

So here’s my question for today: When you think about accountability for workplace bullying and mobbing, do you think more about individual aggressors or about the organizations that hire and keep them on the payroll?

Of course, the pat response — in fact, the right one, I’d argue — is both. But I’d submit that the calculus is not uniform, and that the perch from where we sit may determine our personal answers. Here are a few of my observations on this question:

  • Bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically targeted and personalized. Sometimes the motivations for the abuse are transparent. But often they are not. Furthermore, they may not be rational, in that the underlying reason(s) for the abuse can be explained in a way that easily makes sense. Figuring out motivations sometimes can be a challenge for a targeted worker, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the experience and sharpening the focus on specific aggressor(s).
  • Nevertheless, as intensely interpersonal as these behaviors may become, they usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference. This applies specially to mobbing, which requires multiple players, often aided by institutional mechanisms.
  • For an individual targeted by bullying or mobbing, the natural focus is on the closest abusers and tormenters. However, the target often recognizes the organizational dynamic when reaching out for help and finding that little or no genuine assistance is available.
  • If we want to prevent and stop bullying and mobbing at work, the first view should be organizational and systems-based, looking especially at top leadership and workplace culture. Bullying and mobbing rarely thrive at organizations committed to treating their employees with a baseline of dignity and to hiring workers who share that commitment.

For those interested in the legal side, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored recognizes both organizational and individual responsibility for creating abusive work environments. Under my template version of the legislation, those who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying may pursue claims against both their employer and the individual tormenters. Furthermore, in recognition of the overall role played by employers, the legislation includes liability-reducing incentives for employers that act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

Organizational authenticity and workplace bullying

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I’d like to offer a proposition: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse are much less likely to occur in organizations that embrace and practice authenticity.

This statement requires some unpacking, but I think the inquiry itself is worthy of our consideration.

First, let’s adopt a definition. Management consultant and scholar C.V. Harquail defines an “authentic organization” this way on her Authentic Organizations website:

An organization is authentic when its actions, its character, and its sense of purpose are aligned with and support each other.

Dr. Harquail further elaborates that an authentic organization “actively supports its members, customers, and constituencies in their own authenticity as they work with the organization to achieve its purpose.”

More informally, I read this definition as saying that an organization is authentic when it is comfortable in its own skin. This quality, of course, must come from and extend to key organizational leaders. 

When organizations and people are not comfortable in their own skins, then they are out of alignment. This can fuel insecurities and conflicts (internal and external) that, in turn, lead to bullying and similar behaviors.

Think about it: If you’ve experienced or observed workplace bullying, mobbing, or abuse, did it occur in an organization that had its act together, or did it occur in one that was dysfunctional and felt, well, kind of shaky? When assessing individual instances of bullying, understandably we often focus on specific tormenters. However, it’s highly unlikely that they could get away with it while working in an authentic organization. In fact, at such an organization, they might not even be on the payroll to begin with, right?

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