The American View: Don’t Breathe (While the Boss is Ranting)

Working for an emotion-driven boss can be an excruciating, nerve-wracking ordeal. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger argues that it’s inappropriate to blame the victims of a raging tyrant for the unwarranted abuse they receive. No one should have to work for a creature of pure, unrestrained id.

If I had to choose only one lesson for the world to take away from 2018, it would probably be that our problems need to be addressed rationally rather than emotionally. We’ve seen – in graphic detail – how emotion-driven decisions are easily manipulated by pundits, politicians, and psychological operators. The more that passion drives a decision-making process, the more likely it is that any decision made will be self-destructive. Right now, the world needs rational, thoughtful, and dispassionate leadership. Also, since I’m stating bloody obvious things, the sky is blue, water is wet, and it rains occasionally in London.

The thing is, we (in a global sense) don’t seem to be grasping this concept. At the highest levels of power, major policy decisions are still being made based on sudden passions rather than expert analysis. Take, for example, Robert Burns’ 2nd January article from the AP Newswire Trump gives new Pentagon chief a taste of his world view:

‘WASHINGTON (AP) — On his first working day in charge of the Pentagon, [Acting Defense Secretary] Pat Shanahan got a taste of President Donald Trump’s scattershot way of looking at the world.

‘As Shanahan sat to Trump’s left at a Cabinet meeting at the White House, the president denounced U.S. allies as freeloaders, expressed disgust with U.S. warfighting strategy in Afghanistan, mused about his own potential to be a great general, dismissed Syria as “sand and death,” spoke encouragingly of a second North Korea summit, and falsely claimed he had fired former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.’

‘Lots of people are saying that he also stole the Pink Panther diamond out from under the nose of Inspector Clouseau.'

God help the poor fellow; Mr. Shanahan seems to be facing an impossible task. How does anyone provide expert guidance and policy direction to someone demonstrably indifferent to facts, prone to making impulsive decisions, sees no value in consulting their experts, and overreacts to the slightest hint of criticism or disagreement? Trying to guide a leader who makes spontaneous decisions based on feelings is a fool’s errand.

Mr. Shanahan knows this already; he saw what happened to his boss. Moreover, I’d wager that he’s probably endured this exact same situation a time or two before in his career. Most of us have. Impulsive, ego-driven, feeling-driven leaders are everywhere. This isn’t to suggest that all harsh bosses are feeling-driven; at some point in every leader’s career, they’ll find themselves working under a boss with the disposition of a rabid wildcat and the empathy of a roadside bomb. No, a boss can be destructive and punitive while still being logical, consistent, and thoroughly rational. To be clear, I’m talking about volatile types: the people who find no reason to be consistent, ignore others’ advice, and ‘find their way’ to an outcome based on their instincts. Those folks.

I empathize with Mr. Shanahan’s position. Admittedly, I haven’t been an Acting SecDef myself, but I have endured my share of rampaging volatile egomaniacs. I have enough bad boss horror stories to fill two books on this subject: 2015’s In Bob We Trust and 2016’s Office Cowboys. In both of those collections, I suggested a number of different tactics for blunting, redirecting, and/or evading a bad boss’s tantrums. What I didn’t say was that the victims of an ego-storm boss in any way deserve what they get.

I used to think that idea was obvious, and didn’t need to be said. In listening to the recent media commentary directed at the US government (and, to a lesser extent, the UK, French, and German governments) I wonder if the public and news media aren’t applying a ‘blame the victim’ game to help rationalize the exhaustion of their empathy.

2018 seemed to be a global experiment to determine just how much awful news a person can endure before they abandon all hope.

Put another way: we’re all naturally horrified to see an unpredictable and mercurial leader inflict emotional and occupational trauma on his or her subordinates. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about political or business spheres. People have empathy. Seeing a fellow human get crushed inspires a reaction. Specifically, that we wouldn’t want that fate to befall ourselves. On the other hand, if people can rationalize the victim’s situation by focusing on some personal failing from the victim’s past, well then! Maybe we don’t have to care about their suffering quite as much. Maybe they deserved some sort of cosmic justice for that thing they did.

This technique works in fiction; it softens the impact of the awful things that happen to sympathetic characters. If the author or director casts the traumatized character as somehow ‘deserving’ what happens to them, then the audience’s natural revulsion is blunted. Maybe not eliminated, but certainly softened. Our cultural drive to see the ‘guilty’ get ‘punished’ for their sins, crimes, or transgressions interferes with our tendency to project ourselves onto a story’s characters. Serves ‘em right, yeah?

Writer-director Fede Álvarez did a smashing job of applying this technique in his 2016 home invasion thriller Don’t Breathe. Álvarez crafted a story where every main character was simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive based on choices they’d each made in their respective backstories. Without entering spoiler territory, the plot centres around a band of burglars who target the home of a traumatized disabled veteran. No one in the story is a classic hero; no one is truly undeserving of what happens to them in the film’s main conflict. There are no ‘good’ guys; just different flavours of villains.

The film is tremendous and I highly recommend it as a piece of fiction. While brilliantly written, though, the premise that it’s built on isn’t transferable to real-world situations. Especially not when it comes to considering workplace abuse. Yes, people make mistakes. People make terrible decisions that may warrant painful consequences. Sometimes, those choices seep into in the workplace. We’re the sum of our experiences; it’s unrealistic to think that past goofs wouldn’t stalk us like our own shadow.

‘Mistake the shredder for the fax machine just one time in a thirty-year career …'

Abuse from an authority figure, is another thing entirely. Blaming the victims of an abusive boss for the abuse that they’re required to endure in order to stay employed is reprehensible. No one ‘deserves’ to be publicly emasculated by a vengeful, tyrannical supervisor. No one ‘deserves’ to have their professional reputation ruined or their livelihood scuttled for speaking truth to power. No one deserves to be bullied by a superior. The motivations behind it are irrelevant; it’s purely unacceptable behaviour.

Further, being forced to serve in a role where your work is rendered meaningless by the fickle passions of an emotion-dominated boss is indisputably a form of abuse for professionals. Unless you’re a court jester, the role you were hired to perform serves a company interest. It wouldn’t exist without a legitimate business need. Therefore, performing your job well is a duty; you trade your good faith, hard labour, and fidelity to the organisation in return for a wage. Your leader is supposed to take the output of your function – which includes your expert advice – and turn it into sound decisions. When a leader impugns your good faith, invalidates your labour, and betrays your fidelity, he or she is abusing your trust, your loyalty, and your role in the organisation.

To be clear, I’m not saying that actual criminal deeds should go unpunished. Former campaign chairman Paul Manifort’s convictions for bank and tax fraud, for example, have been addressed with appropriate legal scrutiny. He’s being punished with jail time for his crimes proportional to the offenses that he committed. That’s not abuse.

No, I’m talking about the people whose only crime was to be elevated – like it or not – to a role or function directly beneath an abusive tyrant. No matter what mistakes the victim may have done previously their career, the way that their leader treats them is not based on their own failings – it’s based exclusively on the superior’s whims and a lack of compensating controls that would normally keep those whims in-check. The victims are people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and thereby found themselves thrust into a stressful life-or-career-death situation that they didn’t choose, facing down abuse that they don’t ‘deserve’ in any cosmic or administrative sense, and struggling to maintain a calm façade in the face of random unwarranted negative attention.

‘We can no longer afford a thirty-day break-in period, so let’s skip ahead. You – on the end – you’re now to blame for last quarter's poor performance in derivatives.’ 

For them, Fede Álvarez’s story does have one good piece of advice: when you find yourself trapped in role where a dangerous bully might turn his or her wrath on you at any moment for no reason at all, stay silent and try to avoid catching the boss’s attention. If the boss is busy chasing someone else, that at least means they’re not chasing you. Use that brief respite to find and execute an escape plan … before your antagonist remembers that you’re there. There’s no way to ‘succeed’ in such an environment; only a faint hope of getting out with some of your career prospects intact.

Maybe, if you’re very lucky, you might get to start over someplace where the leadership is rational, thoughtful, and dispassionate. Someplace where your contributions are valued, and you won’t randomly be fired for having faithfully done your job to the best of your ability. Good luck …


Title Allusions: Fede Álvarez, Don’t Breathe (2016 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

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