A bad boss may trap you

The ancient lore of an Indonesian tribe reveals that when the great tree of life shakes it is the time for them to retreat to the hills for a tsunami is on its way. They recognize that the sea and the land will then battle for control of the shoreline. When the battle is done and the forces of nature once again agree on a new boundary between the water and the land, life can continue as before.

Your survival in the workplace may very well hinge upon your ability to recognize the signs that danger is at hand. Bosses in Antagonistic and Contentious Environments often employ techniques to trip up the unwary employee. Techniques? Let us call them what they are, traps. Your boss may use traps with the intention of ensnaring you in an embarrassing situation. You are vulnerable to such tactics if you are unable to recognize the telltale signs of the traps a cunning boss may unleash on you.

Recognise the signs

The key to not falling victim to a trap or manipulation is recognizing the signs. Here are some clues to help you avoid running into trouble. Answer yes to any of the following questions and your caution flag should be flapping vigorously at the top of the mast:

  • Does it seem too good to be true?
  • Will it delay what really needs to happen?
  • Is it in the best interests of the organization?
  • Does it require you to take the first step?
  • Does it unrealistically redirect blame?
  • Does it promote confusion or distort the facts?

Your best defence

Your best defence is to learn to recognize the traps and how they can be used to set you up for failure, so when you encounter any of them in the workplace you will be less apt to become a victim. Be aware that new techniques are being developed every day while old ones are often dusted off and revised. Sadly pessimistic? Yes. Realistic? Absolutely!

The guiding principle to remember in regard to traps and manipulation techniques is: The less supportive the environment, the more cautious and prepared I need to be to deal with a full range of traps and manipulation techniques.

1. Deliver a Gift Before Dropping the Bomb

Watch out for a boss who will soften up his prey with a nice gesture, comment or gift before letting loose with a bomb.

It is frequently assumed that bosses in Antagonistic or Contentious Environments are not aware of the environment that they have created. Not true. While this is sometimes the case, just as frequently, they are not only aware of the environment they created but actually are quite proud of it.

One particularly cantankerous boss, with whom I am familiar on both a personal and professional level, has a philosophy of control that includes never being predictable. As a consequence, when he senses that his staff is about at the end of its rope, he is quite capable of doing some very decent things for them. This is always, of course, followed by the bomb intended to knock them off balance once again.

Avoid falling victim to this technique by recognizing that a boss in a non-supportive environment will rarely offer a nice gesture, comment or gift without strings attached. When she does, make certain you have your survival gear tested and ready for service.

2. Divide and Conquer

Some bosses who feel threatened by your skills or willingness to excel will try to separate you from your co-workers or coerce you to segregate yourself by pitting you against your peers. She may try to embarrass you in front of co-workers by hinting that you may not have been straightforward with them. She may also try to elicit some comment or action from you that would be viewed by your co-workers as condescending toward them. She may try the silent treatment in an effort to isolate you from information vital to your ability to perform. She will do anything to drive a wedge between you and your co-workers.

Don’t fall for this ploy. It is simply a technique to weaken your voice in the organization by separating you from a source of support. Alone, you are less capable, more susceptible to manipulation, and much more vulnerable. Always be on the watch for efforts by bosses in non-supportive environments to destroy a sense of teamwork.

Your willingness to continue to collaborate with co-workers can help you avoid being isolated by your boss. Plus, your co-workers offer you a source of feedback, in regard to your performance, that may counteract whatever your boss might suggest in an effort to shake your self-confidence.

 3. Create Internal Competition

The internal competition tactic is closely related to divide and conquer in that its purpose is to pit employees against each other.

The movie Glengarry Glenross offers a raw vignette of internal competition. In one memorable scene, sobering to those of us who have been there and seen it firsthand, the “Big Gun” comes down from corporate to explain the plan: a monthly contest for the sales staff.

“The winner gets a new car,” the Big Gun explains. “Second place takes home a set of steak knives.”

A long dramatic pause lets his words soak in.

“Third place? What does third place get?” one of the salesmen asks.

“There is no third place. Everyone finishing below second will be terminated!”

The Big Gun slaps his portfolio closed and walks out.

Several years ago, a good number of major corporations fell in love with this system, only they skipped the contest. As part of the performance review, they implemented the “Rank and Yank” system. All employees ranked above a certain percentile received a raise and bonus. Those who ranked below that percentile were terminated.

Such systems work well to cull the dead wood in the first couple of years. After that, they foster the development of a cut-throat environment. Teamwork is non-existent while setting co-workers up for failure is viewed by some as the best means to ensure their own survival. Workers quickly tire of this high-stress environment.

Unfortunately, if your boss, or the entire company, opt for such a pernicious system, there is little you can do but continue to perform at your best without sinking to the practice of tarnishing someone else’s efforts to make yourself look shiny.

4. Fake Urgency

It is two o’clock in the afternoon and the boss rushes into your office. She slaps a folder down on your desk.

“Drop what you’re doing. This report has to be done by C.O.B., today!” she exclaims.

So, you drop what you are doing and spend the rest of the day working on the report knowing you will have to spend several extra hours of your time finishing up your regular work. On your way out, you drop by the boss’s office to deliver the report only to find that she has already gone for the day. So, you leave it with her secretary.

“Here’s the urgent report the boss wanted done today.”

The secretary responds with a puzzled look. “Oh, you didn’t need to rush. This report isn’t due till next month.”

You suddenly realize that your boss fabricated an arbitrary sense of urgency to get you to interrupt your regular work.

Most professionals have a pretty good grasp of the priorities necessary to reach organizational goals. If your boss asks you to focus your attention elsewhere, you might ask, when do you need to submit this report? She may not have a satisfactory answer to that question. If, however, she creates a sense of urgency, either real or arbitrary, around her request then you may get caught up in that urgency. You might not think to involve her in reprioritizing your work by asking how this fits with your other priorities. Even if you maintain the presence of mind to ask, she might let it suffice with I need it done right away. The result is she has successfully enticed you to alter your focus to suit her agenda which may have nothing to do with organizational priorities and everything to do with disrupting your work.

The catchphrase you will hear the boss use is, drop what you are doing; I need you to do this right away! Old-timers recognize the boss’s accelerated gate as she approaches with another “urgent” assignment and quickly slip out for a break or bury themselves in their work just in time to keep the footsteps from stopping at their desks. It is the new guy, eager to help, who is ripe for the picking. It is not till the next day that he sees the fruits of his labor gathering dust on the boss’s desk that he begins to realize what the old timers know; that report is not due until next month. It was simply time for the boss to remind the troops who runs the ship.

Once you become familiar with how these traps and manipulation techniques are generally used to snare you, you will, in all likelihood, learn to spot the trap a mile away.

This article presents 4 of the 28 traps and manipulation techniques explained in Don’t Run Naked Through The Office which is available on Amazon and other major book distributors throughout the world.

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Image by Robin Higgins from Pixabay

Helping businesses create effective solutions by shaping a culture that engages employees in safe, productive, and sustainably profitable operations. Created and managed technical training programs for US Space Shuttle Program, Shell/Bechtel energy venture, and large pipeline operations that maximize safety and productivity while ensuring regulatory compliance. International speaker on human factors in the workplace and disruptive, emergent digital technologies. Featured on CNN Headline News, a PBS special, and quoted in a Special Congressional Quarterly Report. Recipient of several prestigious awards including the Leadership 500 LEAD Award. Author of several highly praised and award-winning books. Successful publisher guiding writers through the process of creating marketable books with global distribution.