Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beware of Vampire Bosses

HR practitioner and author ANNA TAN reveals the traits of toxic bosses that suck employee productivity and morale dry. Are you one of them?

ONE MONDAY MORNING, I rode the elevator with a colleague who heads the finance department. Complaining bitterly, Rona told me she was unceremoniously handed another challenging project in addition to her day job. “As if I don’t have enough issues to handle, I am given a project from hell,” she lamented. “The budget is minuscule and with a skeletal team, I am doomed before I even started.” When she tried to push back, her protests fell on deaf ears. Her boss’s reply was, “I don’t care how you do it, but for your own good, you better get it done!”

Let’s face it; we have all seen and experienced bad and dysfunctional bosses at work. In Albert J. Bernstein’s book Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry, emotional vampires are typically people who are “extremely critical, controlling, narcissistic, or generally very negative and manipulative.” According to Bernstein, such “vampires” fall into five types: Antisocial, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Obsessive-Compulsive and Paranoid. While these may sound technical, they are characters and behaviours I am sure you have come across on a daily basis at work.

Rather than do a technical analysis, let me draw on famous villains from Batman who exhibit traits of these emotional vampires and imagine them in a corporate setting where they reign supreme and inflict harm on undeserving victims. So, here are my villain-themed vampire bosses:

The Joker
A vampire boss, Darren is a known comedian-of-sorts in the office. Without fail, he would turn up at the pantry at 3pm—on the dot—every day, regaling eager co-workers with his tall tales and jokes. Possessing the gift of the gab, his stories are delightful, captivating and generally interesting. Many of the employees find him entertaining and charming. Working in a pressure cooker-like environment, they appreciate his light-hearted and easygoing approach. As time passes, spooky vignettes about a darker side of Darren began to emerge. From the grapevine, we heard that morale is slumping and his department is showing signs of diminishing productivity.

Min is having her weekly one-on-one with Darren. As she waits outside, she feels the niggling dread in the pit of her stomach. Darren, as she discovered, loves to hijack meetings by talking about himself relentlessly and complaining about everything under the sun. He just can’t say anything positive or constructive. Instead, he is quick to criticise and find fault with almost everyone.

Woe betide those who are unfortunate enough to cross his path. Having no respect for others’ time, Darren frequently turned their 30-minute touch-base sessions into three-hour marathons. Min is always exhausted after these drawn-out one-way exchanges. Akin to being bitten by a vampire, she is sucked dry and drained of all blood and energy. Darren’s toxic persona in private is far removed from his pleasant and good-humoured public image.

When Min enters the office, she found Darren sipping his morning tea. Out of politeness she asks if he is enjoying his tea. At that, Darren turns around and, with a serious demeanour, leans in and delivers his lethal rejoinder: “No, I am not having tea. I am drinking my own urine!”

Thrown off-guard by what she hears, Min is shell-shocked. Her expression of horror gives Darren such a rush that he bursts into a rapturous laugh which lasts a good minute. What ensues is a blur to Min. When she finally flees the toxic scene, she heads straight for the HR office and lodges a complaint.

Poison Ivy
When questioned by Human Resources (HR), Darren defends his case with aplomb. He promotes himself as a coaching boss, approachable and, at times, friendly to a fault. Using humour to lighten things, he admits that his jokes might not be everyone’s cup of tea. He proceeds to trivialise and water down the complaint by alleging that Min is too sensitive and has misinterpreted a harmless act. To further undermine Min’s credibility, Darren claims that she is prone to exaggeration and has a tendency to overreact.

Character assassination is a low-down practice that vampire bosses use to shed unfavourable light on people who get in the way. Alas, there’s no happy ending or victory for the underdog in this scary movie.

From A-list to Blacklist
On the surface, it appeared that Darren has gotten away with murder. However, as he is a senior leader, the case attracted “paparazzi” attention when it was escalated to senior management at HQ. Words have it that Darren’s superstar status has gone from the A-list to blacklist after the HR investigation.

So, take heart! There are indeed companies which are genuinely committed to shaping a respectful workplace, and they will stop at nothing to ensure that workplace bullies are stopped in their tracks. While the fang-marks are still there, Min has moved on to another department and studiously avoids Darren. Although her garlic strategy is not ideal, it nonetheless gives her peace of mind, knowing that he can no longer harm her.

See the Light!
Toxic bosses cause much unnecessary stress in the workplace. They are a major cause of reduced productivity and employee disengagement. If you exhibit any of the above-mentioned villainous personalities, I urge you to stop before you leave shrivelled hollow shells of people in your wake. As a leader, you want to create a climate of trust where your team members are empowered and engaged to give their best.

The whole point of work is to find purpose and meaning in what we do. When people are treated with respect, they will reciprocate with respect. The vampire treatment achieves exactly the opposite and the malignant culture that results will leave emotional scars and permanent damage to the organisation. See the light and leave the dark side!

ANNA TAN is a bean counter who found her calling in HR. Her journey in corporate HR has led her to write Stretched!: Unleashing your Team’s Potential by Coaching the Rubber Band Way, a book which likens human potential to the flexible and agile rubber band.

Reproduced from the January-March 2014 issue of Quill magazine


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