I had a little piece published today in the Financial Times called "Revenge Can Be Sweet for Smart Workers." Follow the link if you want to read the article (you need to register, but it is free). I have been doing a lot of interviews and such lately about Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule as both books are related to the new comedy Horrible Bosses, but the Financial Times is the only place where I have done an original piece. I found the editors at the FT to be wonderful, far better than most I work with to be blunt (although no one beats Julia Kirby at Harvard Business Review). Nontheless, given space restrictions, the editors cut several hundred words out of my original piece, so I thought I would put the "uncut" version here. Like most films that are "director's cuts," the shorter version is probably better. But I hope you might like the long one too:
The new hit movie, Horrible Bosses, provides a satisfying if rather shallow dose of guilty pleasure for just about anyone who has endured a nasty and incompetent superior. The three hapless protagonists, played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis, hatch a plot to murder their cruel overseers. Their plans fail miserably, but they (sort of) win in the end anyway. Horrible Bosses, like any decent comedy, is both logically absurd and emotionally truthful. Plotting to murder your boss, let alone trying to do it, is immoral, unlawful, and impractical. And while people may love hearing and telling stories about dramatic acts of revenge short of murder, this approach usually backfires. The audience in my theatre laughed and laughed when the cruel dentist played by Jennifer Aniston, a heartless sexual harasser, was filmed stripping-off an anesthetized patient’s pants by her long-suffering dental assistant – who used the incriminating evidence to force Aniston to pay for his honeymoon.
Unfortunately, real-life victims who live-out their revenge fantasies rarely fare so well. Since publishing The No Asshole Rule in 2007, I have been told and emailed a steady stream of “getting even” stories from victims of lousy bosses. My readers especially like the story I heard from a radio producer whose relentlessly demeaning boss kept stealing food off her desk. She got even by cooking brownies that contained Ex-Lax, the chocolate laxative, and placing them prominently on her desk. Her boss promptly gobbled them down (without asking permission, of course). She waited an hour or so before telling him the ingredients. Like most dramatic and entertaining revenge stories, it did not end well for the victim in real life. The boss stopped eating her food, but he turned even nastier in other ways -- browbeating her and giving her time-consuming, boring, and useless assignments. So the producer quit, even though she did not have another job lined up. The problem with revenge, as this story hints, is that all too often it fuels a vicious circle – and because bosses have more power than their underlings, they typically inflict the greater damage.
Yet the impulse to exact revenge that fuels Horrible Bosses is not only a potent and widely felt emotion, it has helped bring down many managers who have fallen prey to power poisoning. The actions by the three awful bosses in the film were cartoonish, but all suffered symptoms identified by psychologists who study the perils of power: They were self-absorbed, greedy, lacked impulse control, insensitive to subordinates feelings, and acted like the rules applied to everyone but them. When the Kevin Spacey character gave himself a promotion and knocked down walls to reward himself with an even bigger office, it didn’t seem like fiction to me. It reminded me of real bosses who had done similar things and how, just like the Kevin Spacey character, they were oblivious to the resentment it fueled among employees who felt that the boss already had enough money, power, and related goodies.
Yes, it stinks to work for one of these creeps, as millions of victims of bully bosses can tell you. Fortunately, although enacting revenge fantasies is a recipe for self-destruction, smart employees who are unable or unwilling to escape such jerks battle back via less dramatic and more effective steps. They patiently document every cruel word (like the nurse who counted how often a surgeon said she was “chubby”), every hostile move (like the TV producer whose boss flicked a lit cigarette at her during a contentious meeting), and every unethical or incompetent act (like the executive secretary who kept records of every suspect travel expense claimed by her boss). They band together with fellow victims so the documentation comes from multiple sources. That way, when they do go to battle, they have a stronger case and can’t be portrayed as a single nut case. Above all, smart victims are patient. They build an iron-clad case and a large group of allies. And they wait for the right moment to strike back – after stretch of poor job performance by the boss, a widely known ethical lapse, or perhaps best of all, after the boss’s superiors have started asking around because they have their own concerns about that boss. The top management team of one U.S. nonprofit organization did this rather masterfully. As a member of the team explained to me, the board of directors was initially unresponsive to concerns raised by an individual staff member about their two-faced executive director. This boss was apparently unusually adept at kissing-up to the board and kicking-down at those she led. The team members patiently built their case and waited for the right moment – which came after a board member ran into a couple former staff members and was horrified by the stories he heard. When the board brought in the full management team (minus the executive director), the team presented extensive documentation against their boss and, as group, threatened to resign unless the bully was fired – which the board voted to do later that day.
The lesson for victims of nasty and incompetent bosses is that, if you can’t or won’t flee from your vile overseers, and want to get even, having revenge fantasies is probably inevitable. But acting on such fantasies is probably a bad idea for you -- even though doing so (sort of) worked for the three underlings in Horrible Bosses. Your boss has a lot more power than you do. So you’ve got to build your case, develop allies, and wait to fight back when your boss turns vulnerable.
Nonetheless, putting all the silliness and impracticalities aside, Horrible Bosses offers a useful cautionary tale for every manager and executive. If you treat your people like dirt, just because they comply with your absurd requests and smile sweetly through your insults and tantrums does not mean that all is well. Your charges just might be waiting oh-so-patiently for you to slip-up or for your past sins to catch-up with you. Then your followers will pounce and you will be in a world of hurt. Certainly, there are plenty of nasty and incompetent bosses out there who escape unscathed – the world is not perfectly just place. But if you are a horrible boss, and you lead some smart and patient people, the revenge the exact against you may, in the end, be just as sweet for them as any Hollywood fantasy.