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Don’t Be a Leader Who Makes People Powerless

If you manage others, you may find it hard to believe that your subordinates aren’t comfortable engaging with you about the work and the workplace. But don’t assume it’s because they’re apathetic or weak.

Leading — real leading — requires helping others find their power instead of squelching it. Suppression comes in many forms and in every work environment: industrial, administrative, or creative. It has become all too common for employees to have experienced managerial interactions that left them feeling steamrolled, stirred up, and torn down. Are there ways in which you yourself might be creating powerlessness among your subordinates?

Here are some very negative, unsubtle examples of actual workplace scenarios — with names eliminated to protect the guilty — to help you check whether you’ve been acting like a leader-in-name-only:

Boss X

Boss X uses negativity, insults, and threats as a form of dramatic exercise whenever he wants to make a point about why something is a subordinate’s fault or just how badly they’re doing their job. Then he makes the rest of the team his tacit supporters against their co-worker.

Boss X starts by reaming someone out. Publically.

Then, with agitation and intensity, Boss X turns to the rest of the staff and says: “I want you all to tell me the truth, the same as you would tell your colleagues. We need to improve and we need to be able to help each other, so you need to tell me the truth if you think something we’re doing isn’t right.”

Everyone agrees to tell the truth — but then every single staff member becomes very, very quiet. This silence is greatly soothing to Boss X, who feels vindicated that he is doing a good job — or else people would be telling him he’s not.

Boss X then critiques another individual, also in front of the group, and asks one of the subordinate’s coworkers: “Don’t you agree [with my critique]?”

No one responds. Boss X presses: “You can tell me if you don’t agree.”

Of course no one speaks up, and the cycle continues, sometimes in the same meeting.

Boss Q

Boss Q is absolutely convinced that her judgments are accurate and that she is right to find fault. She doesn’t realize that her ongoing stream of demeaning, insulting criticism produces two dysfunctional results:

  1. Her staff becomes completely defensive, eliminating the potential for real listening as well as the possibility of changing to deliver the results she says she wants; and
  2. Because there is no listening and no change, Boss Q becomes even more convinced that her staff is useless and treats them even less respectfully, creating an intensely negative downward spiral of disengagement and covert resistance.

Boss Z

Boss Z compliments one worker as a way of denigrating another — and creating divisions between them. He doesn’t like the way J is completing an assignment, so he goes behind J’s back to D.

“D,” says Boss Z, “I want you to learn this activity because I don’t like the way J is doing it. We need something better, and I know you can do it right.”

D, afraid to become the target of Boss Z’s animus, learns the activity. When J does it the next time in the normal course as part of his job, Boss Z directs D to do it, to show how it ought to be done. When D does it well, Boss Z insults J: “See, J, I told you that you weren’t any good at it. Look how much better D can do it.”

Boss W

Boss W doesn’t explain how he wants things to be done, and everyone is afraid to ask, because whenever someone asks him, he explodes in impatience and frustration. But when things aren’t done the way he wants them, he also explodes. So after the latest explosion, one brave employee probes for information.

Brave Employee: “Boss W, is this how you want it?”

Boss W: “This is no good — you’ve got to fix it.”

Brave Employee: “Yes, we’re still working on it because we know it’s not quite ready yet.”

Boss W, exploding again: “Yeah, I told you it was no good.”

Of course, since Boss W still hasn’t explained what he wants, the team still doesn’t know how to proceed — and Boss W has reinforced the perception that it’s dangerous to interact with him at all.

Does X Mark the Spot?

Do you ever behave like Bosses X, Q, Z, or W? Why? What makes you feel it’s appropriate or useful to act that way toward anyone?

And have you ever worked for someone like any of these bosses? If so, how did you stand it? What kept you going?

Get in touch and we can address your situation (anonymously, of course). And good luck out there!

Onward and upward,


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