Once upon a time, there was an organization. This organization welcomed a new head person. This person had come from a similar organization where he had years of experience as the head guy.
Months into the new person’s tenure, a beloved manager was visited by the new boss—she was not doing things as he expected. Even though she was an expert, he wanted to tell her how to do her job. She pushed back a bit. At the next staff meeting, with all of the managers in attendance, he demeaned her in front of her peers.
Appropriately, she went to him privately after the meeting and expressed her distress at being berated in front of her colleagues. He was dismissive of her remarks. She soon resigned.
People in the company took sides. There were those who thought he was well within his rights to have both told her what to do and, when she wasn’t willing to roll over, talk about her to her colleagues. Others were appalled at his behavior. Certainly, they agreed, he could express his desires about how she did her job, but they could not believe he made derogatory remarks about her in front of her peers.
Many in the latter group went to the employee who resigned and asked her to reconsider. She would not. A schism formed within the organization.
What went wrong?
You’ll notice I never referred to the unit head as a “leader.” He was a person who had a titled position in the organization, but he was no leader. Leaders don’t act the way this guy did. He was a leader in title only.
Second, it was certainly appropriate for him to talk with his employee about any concerns he had about her performance. That was never in question. Her pushing back was not an issue, either. Sometimes titular heads don’t exactly know everything about all aspects of the job. In this case, she felt like she had to stand up for her position.
Where the situation got out of hand was when he spoke disparagingly about her in front of her colleagues. The only good thing about this, in one respect, was that she was in the room. She was privy to what was said and knew what she had to do.
She made an appointment to talk with her supervisor privately. This should never have become an organizational issue—he made it so by discussing it in a staff meeting. At the one-on-one meeting, she expressed her distress at what he’d done. He saw no problem as he was the boss.
After considering the situation for several days, she submitted her resignation. This was the correct decision, in my opinion. She later took a job in an organization where she was respected.
As I have talked with people over the years, I have heard far too many similar experiences. Working for a supervisor who does not respect his staff is untenable for the staff. Yet many of them stay, as they feel like they could not find work elsewhere. When they stay, they are tacitly accepting that they will not be respected and are giving the supervisor permission to treat him any way he wants. And that’s no way to live.
I wish I’d been in the meeting where the unit head derided his staff member. I hope I would have stood up to him. Why? If he does this to one staff member and no one speaks up, he’ll do it to others. And the next time, it might not be in front of the staff member, but behind her back. Neither situation is a good one.
And I personally wouldn’t want to work in an organization where this type of behavior goes unquestioned. Would you?
Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.
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