Tyranny in the Workplace

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For tomorrow’s class in Complex Human Organizational Behavior, I’m giving a PowerPoint presentation on tyranny in the workplace. The article was written by Robert Bies and Thomas M. Tripp, for the book Power and Influence in Organizations. It was reprinted in the text book we are using for this class, Classic Readings in Organizational Behavior. The article chronicles an empirical study Bies and Tripp  did of tyranny in the workplace. They surveyed 30 men and 17 women with an average of 12 years’ working experience, and asked them to think of a boss they had worked for who they considered “the boss from hell.” Then they asked them for information on how they, and their coworkers, coped with this boss. The responses were coded, and coping mechanisms were described, and then placed in a table. What they found was four coping mechanisms, with two dimensions: the first dimension is the face, or persona, that a person displays publicly; the second is the private face, one that is kept hidden from others. A person who agrees with the boss may disagree with him or her publicly, for example. These people were usually the bosses’ spies. Or they may disagree publicly and privately, and confront the boss openly. A common coping was disagreeing privately and agreeing publicly; and another group surrendered to the boss and agreed both publicly and privately. The disguise that was required of workers in these instances were telling on their private lives and their health.

I can relate to the boss from hell. I had one really bad boss, about 20 years ago, who drove me nearly batty. She was a micromanager who was unable to do the job that I and others did, ourselves; but she breathed down our necks on every project. It was so bad that if I didn’t make any errors she would tear her hair out over it, so I started leaving little errors for her to find; if she didn’t find them, I would silently fix them later. She was also the type of boss who would disappear for hours and then sneak up on us when we didn’t expect it, checking us out. She was a glutton for attention from higher-ups, and hated it when we were too visible; unfortunately, many of the articles I wrote for the newspaper were given my byline, even though I asked them not to do that; she was livid. I finally got them to just put the organization down instead of my name.  I saw her treat others with extreme cruelty; we had a saleswoman come by to pitch a brochure program her company was selling. The boss called us all in to witness the pitch, then she began to tear the presentation and the woman to pieces; at the end, the saleswoman was in tears, the boss triumphant, and all of us silent, afraid to say anything. I worked for this woman for one year, and then quit. I couldn’t take it anymore, and she had gone after my self-confidence with a razor-sharp precision. My health was suffering and I needed to get out of there. Two of my coworkers later left, as well, but one has become a lot like the boss, I notice – he found some of her tactics to be useful. The other one was a quiet dissenter, who was just getting through so he could later go to work with his relatives in another firm. But reading the Bies and Tripp article, I recognized the coping strategies in these and other people  who worked for her. She actually had two spies – both were workers who were not paid as much as I was, and felt honored to do the bosses’ bidding. One was an intern from college; the other was a senior citizen who worked part time and had a specialized job that none of the rest of us did – she also handled the petty cash box.

The Bies and Tripp article was interesting, but I feel more research is needed.

The study is small, and it sounds to me like some people may have embellished the truth, which might be why the “carnival techniques” and party atmosphere of the “underground” were found so interesting. The study did not allow for a fifth possibility: that some people did not find the boss tyrannical even though others though the boss to be a tyrant, and actually disagreed with the dissenters.
I question results that might have been skewed because first, respondents had to profile a bad boss. A better way would be generalized questions that asked about boss behavior in general, and then lead to questions that might give a more balanced portrayal of boss behavior. I have had, for example, one really tyrannical boss in my lifetime, as chronicled above. However, I’m sure I have blown some of this out of proportion as time goes on. Other bosses have had traits that were less than stellar, but none of those were bad all around.
A more comprehensive study would also show consequences of workplace tyranny, such as illnesses, loss of job, affects on private life, and coping behaviors that include substance abuse and acting out with others. In any case, it is an interesting area of study and I enjoyed the article.

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