Got a rotten boss? You know … the one who keeps you up at night, fearing for your sanity? You stay at the job because you fear you have no choice. In that respect, you join domestic abuse victims everywhere who suffer a paralysis of sorts. You might even believe, on a deeper level, that you deserve the treatment you get. Abusive bosses count on that.
I remember seeing a woman in Key West way back when I was in my twenties, lying poolside, at a resort. She wore a micro-mini bikini and I was stunned to note angry black and blue bruises all over her body.
At first I wondered why she’d wear something so revealing and then I knew: It was her feeble attempt at some sort of retaliation against her mate. I noted, too, that when she answered him, she gave him terse replies. It was obvious to me that she hated him. But there they were, lying together on chaise lounges, just as if they were any normal couple.
In later years, I learned that abuse victims are often unable to leave, for they’re too exhausted, steeped as they are in negativity. Oh, they might initiate some retaliatory behavior (as in her flaunting the bruises), but they’re often unable to pull off sustained action, for that demands forethought and energy. So, they stay and the abuse continues… and even escalates.
It’s no different with an abusive boss.
A bad boss subjects staff to tirades under the guise of “We’re under great pressure and after all, you people screwed up.” They keep employees “on the ropes,” little able to discern what will bring on another attack.
In classic dysfunction, he sometimes chooses one employee on whom he vents his venom just like the abuser in the home who selects one child as object for his wrath.
When the latest attack ceases (or loses its sting), that bad manager may even put out tenders of affection in sort of “Oh, come on … last week was tough and we needed to get the job done … You know how it is.” That signals: “I had every right to ‘lose it’ … we were past deadline.” He suggests his reaction was legitimate.
In the days that follow, he acts chummy again (the “honeymoon period” in domestic abuse), that period of time when he seeks amiable discourse with the very worker he humiliated. Like the batterer, he’ll produce the roses, give the gift … anything to reduce tension.
In the business world, those gifts equate with feigned friendliness, an appearance of respect … but they’re mere veneer, meant to gloss over the real situation, causing the employee to doubt her own reality: “Was I mistaken? Is it really so bad here?” “Maybe he had justification, after all.”
The Bad Boss is a master of duplicity and manipulation—just like the Bad Spouse, for he knows that people who are battered live for the moments when things seem normal. They don’t really want to start up the search engine for another job—not yet. Bruised and bloodied (metaphorically), they lack energy for the new endeavor.
They fear practical concerns, too: they’ll need to request time off (from that boss) for future interviews; they’ll need to lie about their reasons. The Bad Boss might suspect motives and really come down on them.
The Bad Boss doesn’t have to do much but wait. He lets time (and memory) heal, for he knows that his victims will come around and actually contrive the very script that lets him off. They’ve simply got too much invested to do otherwise (they pay mortgages, struggle with child-care, consider spousal concerns).
Finally, employees from dysfunctional homes are even more prone to victimization, for they lack the built-in barometer that tells them when anyone is waayy out of line. The refrain is familiar to the one they heard growing up. It corroborates their own suspicions and low self-esteem, as they try to appease (and please) their abuser.
So Bad Boss? Eerily similar to the abusive spouse on many fronts … and all the more dangerous for those from dysfunctional families. It’s these victims, especially, who need encouragement to seek healthier work situations where they can flourish and grow.