Some time ago, I wrote a post on the Stanford prison experiment. You can read it here: Office Politics: Prisoners, Prison Guards, and Power Perversion. And the summarised version of the conclusions:
- Power corrupts.
- People are complicit in their own victimisation.
- Even the well-adjusted can become evil overlords.
Now obviously, in our day-to-day, none of us have quite the power that was assumed by the prison guards in the experiment. We’re governed by social contract, and we don’t exist in isolation.
That said, not all power play requires a sexual component, withholding food, and marching subordinates around with paper bags over their heads. Humiliation can come in less obvious forms – just as power can come in lesser degrees. And this makes it all the more insidious: because when it’s less obvious, it’s harder to tell where the line is.
Before I start getting specific, some general observations:
- Most people in middling positions of power (managers, etc) are not bad bosses. They’re just ordinary people getting on with their jobs and looking forward to home time.
- But it’s difficult to manage people.
- So mistakes happen, tempers flare, and it can cause a wealth of resentments, grudges and well-remembered slights.
- That’s totally normal, and everyone just needs to suck it up.
However, that does not mean that all managerial behaviours should just be accepted as “part of the job”. Listing all those behaviours in this post would be…ambitious. But I’m going to start with the one that I see frequently – and it’s one that makes my general simmer of annoyance spike instantly into rage.
Scenario: Mark prepares a spreadsheet of cash flow forecasts. He sends it to Janet, his supervisor. She finds a formula error at the bottom of the second column.
Here is an appropriate email response:
There seems to be a formula error in Column B. Please – won’t you just re-check all the formulas in the worksheet before I look at this again?
Here is an alternative:
Did you even read this before you sent it?!!?! We are using this to BUDGET!! I expected more from you!!!!!!!!
<insert automatic email signature here>
So let me list the ways in which the second email is abusive:
- Mark is dehumanised by being left nameless. One of the first things that Dr Zimbardo did in the Stanford Prison experiment was give the “prisoners” new names: their prisoner identification numbers.
- The excessive punctuation stands in for much unspoken emotion (hurt, disappointment, frustration, irritation).
- The capital letters read like shouting.
- The criticism is personal: rather than “this work is not what I asked for”, Mark gets “you are a failure in my eyes”.
Worst of all, the email allows no defence. Because Mark is reading the mail at his computer screen, he is forcibly mute. You might think that he could come back with a stinging retort, but it doesn’t work that way. In a real fight, the boxer can defend against an incoming upper cut. But if he’s tied to the post during the fight, he just gets knocked out. Maybe he can retaliate after the fight – but by then, it’s too late.
In this moment, Janet is pure evil: she dehumanises, she shames, and then she leaves. Untouched, unconcerned, and convinced that she was justified in her response.
Meanwhile, Mark is left angry and (usually) ashamed. Over a mistyped formula.
If Mark is at all unsettled in his own self-worth (and most of us struggle with this in some form), this type of interaction does two things:
- It makes him feel unworthy; and
- It attaches his sense of self-worth to what Janet thinks.
If the pattern repeats over time, it’s the type of emotional manipulation that allows bosses to develop desperately hard-working employees that live in fear of a negative word in their direction, while simultaneously longing for the slightest nod of approval.
I mean – I totally understand why Janet does what she does. And ultimately, her reputation can precede her, and then she can just be Miranda Priestly.
Mark’s Options At This Point
So unfortunately, sometimes, there are no easy solutions. When faced with this kind of person, the most sensible thing to do is start looking for another job – because no one wants to end up living their lives as a sycophant.
The alternative is that Mark could risk it. He could see a therapist, and work on self-affirmation, and erect the psychological barriers that would protect him from this type of abuse.
Sadly, that’s the kind of attitude that gets right up the noses of the Janets of this world…
And frankly, I think that’s awesome. Someone should stand up to them.