Stop The Oppressive Manager

by | Dec 28, 2012 | Articles

6 min read

The Future of Everything.

Last year, a dark comedy named Mean Bosses made its way through the theaters, opening to critical reception. It detailed the trials and tribulations of three friends who decide to murder their overbearing bosses due to cruel treatment on the job.

While the film takes the idea of the “bad boss” to an absurd degree, we’ve all at one time or another worked for someone who fits the category to a tee.

I went into the field of organizational development because of my complete rejection of bad behavior by employers. The employment landscape is littered with bad leaders, bosses who pick on employees, or who are just plain mean. Still, some of my stories of bad behavior represent many of the best work experiences I’ve had. They were examples for me of what bad management was, and some of these people still accomplished great things and brought the best out of me.

My first official “manager” role started with a stern statement from my boss Kenny Koza who said, “I’m promoting you to manager, and you’ll work your ass off. I’ll be tough and direct, and will expect a lot. Do you want the job or not?” This sounds rough, but Kenny was a good manager in my eyes because he was respectful. He worked me to the bone, but he also rewarded me in his passive-aggressive way. On the other hand, I also worked for Joseph (not his real name), who seemed nice enough in the office, but made me feel anxious, unaccomplished and worthless. He never really expected much from me other than to make himself look good, and refused to engage me as a valuable contributor. He questioned everything I did, and I went to work feeling very badly most days, until I got up the courage to take him on.

The definition of bullying is “repeated health-harming mistreatment of others, including verbal abuse, offensive conduct, humiliation, intimidation and other threatening behaviors.” We’ve all been in situations where someone may have approached this definition without really crossing the line. What I’m talking about here is the authoritative approach to leading and managing that can be passive in nature, subtle, but powerful in keeping people in their place for the sake of “managing.” For this discussion, let’s not call it bullying, let’s call it “oppressive management.” The difference is that bullying is purposeful while oppressive management is more of a lack of skills and competencies in managing. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and for some managers, the only tool they have is oppression.

The largest survey of workplace bullying done by Zogby had startling results, including: approximately 35% of all workers have experienced it, 72% of bullies are the boss, 62% of employers ignore the issue, 40% of us never tell anyone. If we open up these statistics to include what I call oppressive management, the impact to our bottom line is staggering. When we are victims or witnesses to oppressive management, it can affect job stress, retention and team well-being. It can sap productivity, destabilize our organization and destroy profits.

Joseph didn’t mean to make me feel badly, he just didn’t have the skills to deal with talent. He was likely an insecure person who learned his style from an oppressive authority figure. Kenny, on the other hand, made me feel respected, counted on and valued. After working me hard, he would take me aside and tell me that he appreciated me, give me time off and invite me out for a beer. The point here is that good managers make us feel valued. Kenny’s intentions were to get the job done through me as an extension of himself, and that felt empowering and important. In Joseph’s case, I was somehow the enemy, someone to boss around.

Oppressive management isn’t as visible as you would think. Rather it is a damaged connection between people that is felt and used for control. Signs include good people leaving an organization. Good talent will eventually realize they have choices and will surely find them. Another sign is a boss using oppressive skills in private, never in public, because he or she intuitively knows that this would cause reputation damage. Yet, they are charming with new relationships or in groups. When you sense oppressive management, you rarely see eye contact unless to emphasize a point, interruption of dialogue to assert themselves and a sense that you aren’t there, unless they need to demand something.

Oppressive leaders will be successful for a time, but when they finally slip, they won’t get the support they need. People will work for them for awhile, but when events start to unfold, there will be an uprising. Modern workers have choices and this old style of authoritative management is a deal breaker for most. We know who these people are at work, and they know who they are, too. However, there are ways to help and deal with oppressive managers. Consider the following interventions:

  • First realize that they aren’t so bad, they just need you to accept them for who they are. Try not to be thin skinned around them, and push back a little. They actually respect strength, or they behave better when faced with it. Bullies and oppressive managers back down when they realize they can’t shake you.
  • Demonstrate personal courage – don’t hand over your power, and you only do that when you allow their behavior to have an impact on your reaction. There’s no such thing as authority, unless you give it to someone.
  • Bullies and oppressive managers are really wimps. Test their courage with transparency. Confront them and call them out. Once you do, they will avoid you, so make sure you are ready for that.
  • Talk with someone about your concerns. Don’t keep secrets about how you feel, and this includes with the oppressors themselves. Sometimes awareness is a powerful tool to healing relationships.

As a society, we are transforming toward more civility and good corporate citizenship. Regardless, we all behave badly sometimes, and we all may run into others who are having a bad day. The best thing we can do for each other is respectfully call each other out, forgive and move on. Our problems will be solved a lot faster and in a more comfortable way.

Kenny tested my limits and drove me toward being a very hard worker. Regardless, my memory of him is that of a liberator of my abilities. Direct is good when it is combined with respect. Oppression is bad if left unchallenged.

Under the direction of Bedford, NH-based executive leadership coaching firm Sojourn Partners, The Future of Everything Project brings together panels of thought leaders from diverse backgrounds and interests to brainstorm, collaborate and proactively craft a vision of “what can be.”

Dr. Russ Ouellette is the managing partner of Sojourn Partners, a Bedford-based executive leadership strategy and coaching firm. He can be reached at (603) 472-8103 or He can also be twittered @RussOuellette or Facebooked – Sojourn Partners.

Re-published courtesy of NH Business Review

About Sojourn

Sojourn Partners is a results-driven executive leadership coaching firm that empowers the professional workforce to think differently in order to realize the full return on investment in themselves and their companies. Professional leadership thinking and intervention, based on years of research and experience, place Sojourn Partners at the forefront in executive leadership coaching, organizational development, strategic planning and culture and climate change.

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