There’s a good chance that you will encounter one at some point: a manager who seems to be targeting you or one of your colleagues. Organizational psychologist Barbara Wisse is researching this behaviour, which can quite literally make you sick, and exploring what you can do about it.
Text: Beau Oldenburg / Photos: Henk Veenstra
‘Have I ever had a manager from hell?’ Barbara Wisse pauses to think. ‘Yes, when I was a PhD student. I had a supervisor who started to threaten me when he didn’t get his own way. One day, he even printed out the conditions for ending my contract and left them in my pigeon hole. He had highlighted particular sentences. Later, when I had another supervisor, he tried to hold up my academic career by blocking publication of my articles.'
Professor Barbara Wisse knows from experience what it is like to have an unpleasant manager. The experience with her PhD supervisor some thirty years ago served to kindle her interest in power and leadership. Wisse is now an authority in the field of destructive leadership. ‘This refers to behaviour in which a manager makes an employee the target of verbal and non-verbal aggression. The aggression comes in many different forms: from cursing to ignoring, and from humiliating to unfounded blaming.’
Having a manager like this can, quite literally, make you sick, explains Wisse. ‘It can be disastrous for the mental health of those targeted. They may have trouble sleeping, feel dreadful, and start drinking too much. Some of them ultimately develop a burn-out or become depressed.’ But the employees concerned are not the only victims; the organization as a whole also suffers. ‘Mistrust and conflict are often rife in the teams of these managers. Favouritism and rivalry have free rein and staff turnover is usually much higher. This isn’t what organizations want.’
It is estimated that 12 to 15% of the working population are faced with a manager like this. ‘That may not seem a lot, but it means that we will probably all encounter a manager from hell at some point in our working life.’ According to the professor, the recent high level of media focus on this behaviour gives the impression that it is even more prevalent, but she is not aware of any studies to support this. ‘The norm, however, does seem to be shifting: we no longer accept behaviour that often used to be considered normal.’
There is no single explanation for why some people turn into psychopathic managers, says Wisse. ‘It’s down to the interaction between three factors: the manager’s character, the organizational context (the prevailing rules, for example), and the staff members. The manager’s own negative traits may lead to unacceptable behaviour, if the organization allows, and if the staff don’t put up a fight, or even join in. You have to see it as a systemic problem.’
Not long ago, the TV programme De Wereld Draait Door came under the spotlight because of the corrosive work environment. What does Wisse think about this? ‘You sometimes see that organizations turn a blind eye because destructive managers are able to get things done. They generate income, for example, or secure good viewing figures. Their bad behaviour is excused as being okay in “elite sport”.’ But Wisse is not impressed by this argument. ‘It’s simple: it’s possible to achieve top scores with good behaviour.’
People who work under a manager who is making their life hell are often told: why don’t you just look for another job? But that is not how it works, according to Wisse. ‘Compare it with domestic violence. It can be just as difficult to end your relationship with a destructive boss as it is to leave an abusive partner. Victims think that the aggression is their fault. Or they think that all managers are like that, so there would no point resigning. Other jobs may not be there for the picking or the manager might try to prevent you from leaving by giving you a bad reference. Another reason for some people staying is that they don’t want to abandon their colleagues.’
This is Wisse’s advice to people who are faced with structurally bad behaviour: don’t bottle it up, talk to someone about it. Talk to your friends or family, and report the matter to someone in the organization. This could be a confidential advisor or someone in the HR department. ‘It's important to deal with any such report sensitively. The immediate response shouldn’t be “I think all three of us need to sit down together and talk about this”. Any such discussion could make the manager concerned even angrier, and ultimately take it out on the “tell-tale.”
In extreme cases, organizations must not be afraid to take drastic measures, says Wisse. ‘People sometimes really cross the line. I once spoke to employees in a Belgian organization, where a small group was up to all kinds of unethical practices. They included bribery, and threatening anyone who dared to speak out. Removing the manager would not have been enough to solve this particular problem. In cases like this, you have to split up the entire team, otherwise the behaviour will just continue under a new manager.’
Wisse claims to have learned a lot from her own experiences during her PhD programme. ‘I thought: that’s something I will avoid at all costs if I ever supervise PhD students.’ She now supervises eight PhD students and has helped another fifteen to across the finishing line. When asked what sort of manager she is, she pauses. ‘I think that’s something you should ask my PhD students!’, she laughs. ‘I always try to respect other people’s input. And I try to communicate clearly about what I expect, and what I don’t want to see. If something goes wrong, I would much rather have an open conversation about it than leave a threatening note in someone’s pigeon hole.’
The UG recently started offering so-called Active Bystander training courses to its staff. These training courses teach you how to intervene safely if you encounter unacceptable behaviour in the workplace.
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