Good Boss or Scary Boss? (Part 1 of 2)

I had the strangest thing happen yesterday. I was introduced to this very jovial fellow named Rob, who told me how much he loved his job. Seems that Rob supervises the construction of strip malls from A to Z, from the property purchase all the way to cutting the red ribbon at the grand opening.

Rob has a job that carries lots of responsibility, tons of liability, and just the teeniest bit of stress. When I asked Rob why he was obviously so excited about a job that carries that much pressure, Rob’s response was that his job was made easy because of how well his boss treated him. In fact, Rob said he loved his boss! (how rare is that, especially coming from a guy). When I asked him to explain that further, he said that his boss allows him the flexibility and authority to just “get ‘er done” which is a pretty unusual thing for an Uber-Boss to do considering that Rob is responsible for projects that can run upwards of $100 million dollars (and he may be running two or three projects simultaneously). What was more of a rarity, was that Rob has worked for this same boss for thirty-five years.

Rob has a “good boss” but before we get off track, we're not going to examine what makes for a “good boss” until the second part of this two-part series. For this first article, we’re going to look at the bosses who don’t extend flexibility or grant authority to their employees. Rather than empowering people to do what they’re good at (which is why they were hired, right?) we’re talking about the bosses who micromanage, shoulder check, stymie, stonewall and pretty much just make it difficult for their employees to get through the day, forget about “get ‘er done”. These are the kind of behavioral traits that would disqualify someone as being a good boss” but bear in mind, these traits don’t necessarily make them a “bad boss” either if for no other reason that many bosses seem to exemplify these traits. The focus of this article is, what supervisory character traits should one be on the look out for that would qualify as behavior fitting a “scary boss”?

A scary boss is anyone who communicates that their subordinates are of questionable value. Typically, this is accomplished by one of three methodologies: verbal abuse, power plays and/or environmental control. Verbal abuse is the easiest tactic to recognize. It is important to note that criticism is not a diagnostic parameter for “Scary Boss Syndrome” <SBS> in of itself, because part of being a manager is to point out things that are wrong, need to be corrected, or need to be improved. A bona fide “scary boss” however, will consistently take criticism beyond the objective to the subjective, whereby criticism transcends the problem to the person creating a psychological climate whereby the person being criticized becomes invalidated. Good bosses focus on the problem and try to motivate their people to resolve the problem. Scary bosses focus on the person to the point that the person becomes intimidated and often, psychologically paralyzed to the point that they can’t accomplish the very things they have the talents and gifts to achieve on the boss’s behalf.

Power plays are another trademark of a scary boss. Regrettably, power plays are much harder to recognize than something as obvious as verbal abuse, so the victim of a power playing boss is often left second guessing themselves. The result, however, is the same; the employee questions their self-worth and feels invalidated in their attempts to contribute value to the company’s goals and purpose. Any employee who is second guessing whether or not their on-the-job activity is going to result in a “power play” on the boss’s part, is going to suffer from doubt about their own abilities in the realms of problem-solving, conflict resolution and personal performance. With a power playing boss, employees most often feel that they’re “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t” because no matter which direction they take to address a problem, the boss uses their “power” to critique the decision, override it and in many cases, publicize the supposed “flaw” in the employee’s efforts. Unlike Rob, whose boss gives him the flexibility (as well as the authority) to fix problems however Rob might think is best, employees of a power playing boss don’t have that kind of flexibility, nor are they empowered with much (if any) personal authority.

The way to avoid being the victim of a power playing boss is to pass every single decision by him first, at which point the boss will usually agree with your approach but will then take the credit for whatever the employee “fixes” even though the creative solution was the employee’s, and the employee did all the work to bring a resolution to the problem. Not exactly the kind of environment whereby one goes home at the end of the week and gets to feel good about their performance. These employees don’t feel any sense of positive engagement at work. What’s worse, because of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma, many employees who work for a power playing boss tend to default to the path of least resistance (read: least amount of criticism) by choosing not to engage in any decisions that can come back and bite them in the butt. This lack of engagement translates to loss in productivity, loss in employee fulfillment, and unlike Rob (who has stayed loyal to the same boss for thirty-five years) a roving eye that is on the look-out for a new job where hopefully the employee will feel less violated and more valued.

Power playing bosses who insist on taking all the credit are glory hogs. The easiest way to diagnose this dysfunctional character flaw is to ask yourself how often the boss makes a point of publicly acknowledging the good work of others. The answer will be — virtually never.

Environmental control is the third criteria whereby one can diagnose the SBS. If recognizing a power playing boss is harder than recognizing a verbally abusive boss, then being able to correctly discern if you have a scary boss who rules by virtue of environmental control is even harder. Verbal abuse is overt, power plays are subtle, but environmental control is a covert operation that military special ops teams could learn a thing or two from.

A boss who utilizes environment control engages in a psychological game whereby the players are never exactly sure what the boss' agenda is because the boss is the ultimate actor. She will often congratulate an employee (we’ll call this employee Peter) for coming up with a problem solving solution on a project-based assignment, but then she’ll reassign roles a couple of weeks later whereby Peter the problem solver finds their role has less authority. Another example would be if an employee (we’ll call this one Susan) is doing a great job with front line customer service by smoothing out the ruffled feathers of irate customers. Susan's job at soothing is so spectacular that customers are making a point of giving kudos to management about this employee’s efforts. You can suspect you work for a scary boss who wants to control the workplace environmental when, in response to Susan’s stellar performance, the boss takes Susan away from the position where she was getting accolades and repositions her to some place where Susan has less direct contact with the public. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But that’s what makes both of these examples of a “scary boss”.

In both of these scenarios, the scary boss exerts control over the environment in such a way that people find themselves in a state of mental and emotional confusion. They ask themselves and each other “Hey, what gives? Peter helped the project team overcome a barrier that was holding us all back, but now he’s been relegated to a role with less responsibility. I’m confused!”. Some of the bolder employees might ask the boss why Peter was reassigned, but the answer they get is going to be just as confusing. The boss will typically respond by saying “Peter’s doing a wonderful job! I just wanted to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to explore their abilities and bring a variety of talents to the table”. This usually sounds good on paper, because after all, the boss did compliment Peter when asked for her rationale for the shape-up. The litmus test for an environmental control freak, however, is in the aftermath of how the environment changes after someone, like Peter, does something extraordinary. The boss exerted her authority to take Peter away from any team leading role when he was clearly demonstrating team leading ability. This creates confusion, not just with Peter, but with the rest of the team.

In the situation where Susan was getting compliments and kudos, the actions of her boss are just as quizzical. Why take her away from the very environment where Susan was using her strongest gifts to the best of her ability? Like with Peter, if anyone was to ask Susan’s boss why she’s no longer on the front line, the answer will be something which on the surface seems palatable, but on closer examination is patently crazy. The boss will typically say “Susan can do the company a lot more good in the back end because she is so good at inventory control”. Again, this sounds great on paper because the boss is complimenting Susan’s logistical talents, but the fact remains that Susan is no longer resolving problems for irate customers. Typically, whomever the boss decides is to replace Susan has less skills in conflict resolution than Susan had. Further, that person may have been awesome at doing the back-end duties that Susan has now been reassigned to, so there will be no net gain to the company by the shift in back end responsibilities but rather, there is a net loss to the company because Susan’s replacement is ill-equipped to deal with irate customers.

Confusion is the hallmark of a boss who utilizes environmental control. If this type of management behavior appears crazy on the surface, it’s because it’s methodology is completely under the surface. It’s covert, or what you might called “under the radar” whereby the radar is everyone else's gut feeling that something is happening, but they can’t see it, can’t point to it, and therefore, can’t prove it. This is exactly where scary bosses who use environmental control like to be, which only begs the question.

What’s their motive?

Control freaks work best in an environment where people are confident that they know what the boss's next move is. The biggest threat to an environmental control freak boss is when their behavior can be predicted by the other employees. Once that happens, the boss sees themselves as being replaceable. If an employee (or worse, many employees) can predict what the boss would do for most situations, then in the boss’s dysfunctional mindset, the boss believes that any such employee can replace them. So the boss defends their turf by acting unpredictably. If any employee was to go over the boss's head and attempt to defend their co-worker, the beauty of being an environmental control freak is that the boss can easily justify their decisions and protect themselves by (and here’s the paradox) acting confused. The boss will say to her upper manager “Gee, I don’t know why I’m being accused of some sort of ill-intent, and to be quite honest, I’m really confused and even hurt!”. At this point, the controlling boss will look at the employee who went over her head and ask very gently “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t I compliment Peter (or Susan or whomever) for their performance?”. This leaves the employee who lodged a beef looking like a moron at best and a trouble-maker at worst. It’s a classic reverse-psychology ploy that makes the control freak look like a victim, while the person who actually has the wisdom and discernment to see past the actor’s façade looks like an abuser. I say abuser, because the employee abused the company chain of command by going past one boss, to appeal to a higher boss.

But the reverse psychology isn’t over. Once the complaining employee stumbles and stutters an acknowledgement that, yes, the scary boss “did” compliment Peter, the scary boss will then look to her superior and say “Didn’t my last quarter performance review make a point of complimenting Peter on his work?” This is when the dagger, which was just thrust into the complaining employee’s back, gets painfully twisted. Not by the controlling boss, mind you, but by the higher authority who quickly says “Yes, that’s exactly what your report said about Peter’s performance”. Now the complaining employee is looking “uber-bad” in front of the big boss. One of two things will happen: either the Uber-Boss will cut strips out of the complaining authority while the control freak boss looks like a wounded fawn, or else there will be a very awkward silence while the Uber-Boss is expecting some sort of justification from the complainer. Trouble is, the plantiff is suffering from the knife that’s just been twisted in their back, so psychologically, that person will see themselves in a no-win situation and will be speechless.

Which is precisely what the control freak boss is waiting for. After an extended period of awkward silence, the control freak will look sympathetically and even compassionately at the complainer and say something like: Gee Connie-Complainer, you know if you had some concerns about the decisions I was making, rather than bother Ulysses the Uber-Boss, all you had to do was come to directly to me. You know my office door is always open.”

And then the control freak shuts up, because as the saying goes “Enough said”. The complainer looks like a sabotaging sycophant, the Uber-Boss feels embarrassed for his supervisor, and no one identifies how the subordinate supervisor (scary boss) is exerting environmental control because to the casual observer, she had done nothing wrong yet she is being accused of wrong-doing. The capstone to the reverse psychology occurs when the Connie Complainer reports back to her co-workers, who are anxious to hear “How did it go with Ulysses the Uber-Boss?” to which Connie will report that she all but nailed the lid on her own coffin. Result? No one is going to attempt this kind of tactic against the control freak any time soon. In other words, the rest of the employees in the workplace environment have just learned that they need to keep their mouth shut, because even if their control freak boss appears to be making crazy decisions, the even crazier decision would be to call her behavior into question.

The motive of a boss who attempts to control the workplace environment is a fear-based behavior motivated by someone who’s self-image is one of insecurity, to the point that they fear that sooner or later someone up the ladder is going to recognize that they made a mistake making this person someone else’s boss. In a place of such insecurity and fear, a scary boss will prevent anyone else from looking good, because they fear that if someone was to make a good impression with the higher-ups because of their work performance, that stellar performer might get a promotion — and the promotion they might get could very well be the control freak’s job.

By reassigning stellar performers to places where they are less likely to shine, the scary boss is more secure. Furthermore, when the scary boss exerts control on the environment and reassigns a less-stellar employee, this also serves the scary boss’s agenda. In the event that status reports show a decrease in productivity, customer satisfaction or one of many other performance factors, all the scary boss has to do is point to the replacement and say “He’s just not measuring up. I’ve been working with him, but he just doesn’t get it. But I’m not prepared to give up on him just yet, so if it’s OK with you Uber-Boss, just give me another six months to see if I can get him to perform as well as Peter did (or Susan did, or whomever the scary boss shunted off to some dark, dim corner of the basement).”

In the process, the scary boss looks like the most compassionate, nurturing, team-player the Uber-Boss could imagine and seeing as Uber-Boss isn’t on the front lines, they can’t see what’s really going on. Otherwise, like everyone, Uber-Boss would be confused. Because that sense of confusion doesn’t get dealt with, people working under a boss who uses covert measures to keep their employees confused, on edge, and second guessing themselves are going to be miserable, just like the employees working under a power-player. The predictable result is that miserable people will leave for greener pastures. Ironically, this also plays well into the scary boss’s plans, because it allows them to bemoan to the Uber-Boss how “nobody stays loyal to their employer anymore” which is when the Uber-Boss says:

Now, that’s not true. Look at you! YOU have stayed loyal to ME, and don’t think I haven’t recognized that!”

And Scary Boss has won, because she has achieved one more measure of job security at the expense of the job security of everyone else she has successfully manipulated and controlled.

Thankfully, the “scary” boss is not the norm. Regrettably, neither is the “good” boss. Because it’s important to be impartial, you can read about the character traits of what studies show employees report as being the “good” boss in Part II of this series

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