Stopping the oppressive manager

The employment landscape is littered with bad leaders -- bosses who pick on employees, or who are just plain mean

Last year, a dark comedy, “Horrible Bosses,” made its way through theaters. 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.

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” — 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.

Look for the signs

A recent Zogby survey on workplace bullying had startling results: approximately 35 percent of all workers have experienced it; 72 percent of bullies are the boss; 62 percent of employers ignore the issue; 40 percent of us never tell anyone.

If we open up these statistics to include oppressive management, the impact to our bottom line is staggering.

Oppressive management can affect job stress, retention and team well-being. It can sap productivity, destabilize our organization and destroy profits.

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.

We know who these people are at work, and they know who they are, too. However, there are ways to deal with oppressive managers. Consider the following interventions:

 • Realize 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. 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.

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.

Russ Ouellette is managing partner of Bedford-based Sojourn Partners, which directs The Future of Everything project. He can be reached at 603-472-8103 or

Categories: Workplace Advice