four warning signs of a workplace tyrant and what to do about it

When we hear the word ‘tyrant’, most of our minds would be cast to the authoritarian dictators of the past century such as Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin or Fidel Castro. Most of our minds would also associate these names with negative thoughts like warfare, genocide, poverty, control, censorship and/or propaganda.

The fact is these tyrants were not collectively perceived this way by their people when they rose to power, meaning the signs of a tyrant might not be immediately recognisable.

Within society, as within our workplaces, tyrannical behaviour is a means to control and direct a group to a certain desired outcome. For many, it is easier than other forms of leadership. The following are four signs of a workplace tyrant.

The ‘do as I say, not as I do’ incongruity

In Stalin’s USSR, where communist rule decreed equality of outcome, Josef Stalin enjoyed around twenty holiday estates where he would reside according to the seasons. Stalin would rule his empire from these estates via detailed letters and telegrams, as well as summoning those he wished to speak with. As his people starved on food rations and coupons, Stalin and his inner circle could be found fishing, gardening, listening to opera and playing games like Russian lawn bowls to pass the time.

In the workplace, the incongruity of do as I say, not as I do can manifest itself in ways that are both easy and not so easy to recognise. As an example, if a leader disciplined their staff for their appearance yet had an unprofessional appearance themselves, this would be overtly hypocritical and easy to spot. Alternatively, a workplace tyrant could set unreasonable task deadlines for employees without appearing as a hypocrite because observers are unlikely to be able to test the tyrant themselves’ ability to complete the work.

In a situation where a leader delegates tasks among their team, essentially dictating actions for others they do not intend to do themselves, the leader is not necessarily exhibiting the workplace tyrant persona. It is important not to confuse this phenomenon with delegation. There are other risks of poor interpretation, including the negotiation of salaries and benefits, time management and lifestyle.

Nothing says 'charismatic dictator' better than a photo *ahem* painting opportunity with a baby!

Nothing says 'charismatic dictator' better than a photo *ahem* painting opportunity with a baby!

Nurturing a messiah-level image of themselves

Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, led the country for almost half a century, including the period of the Korean War. As part of the propaganda to win loyalty from the newly defined North Korean people, Kim Il-sung was portrayed in a super-human manner. The Supreme Leader’s birth is represented as ‘day one’ on the North Korean calendar, and many children grow up believing Kim Il-sung and his descendants are so divine they do not even urinate or defecate.

The need to be perceived as immortal or impenetrable is a character flaw attributed to a fear of being perceived as being vulnerable. The image of the ideal leader is all too often romanticised in pop culture as an imperfect person and has been for millennia through religious and non-religious figures alike, including Christianity’s Jesus Christ, Islam’s Mohammed and Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

More importantly, the messiah complex involves conscious or unconscious attempts to foster others’ dependence on them, which can be achieved in multiple ways, almost all of which at face value appear to be good-natured. Examples include lending money in excess, validating insecurities and victimhood, and persistently standing up for other people in challenging situations.

Encouraging and exploiting tribalism

One of the most straightforward ways a tyrant can build a following is to create an ‘in-group’, which then goes on to identify an opposing ‘out-group’. There is perhaps no more famous example of this in modern history than Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists (Nazis). In the aftermath of the First World War the German people fell into a crippling depression. Sentiment grew that this was a direct result of meddling from out-groups with contrary interests (Jews, Gypsies and Bolshevik communists among others). It was argued that the government of the time was not doing enough to advance their people’s cause which led to the rise of Nazism, not just in Germany but in many other places across the globe.

The reason tribalism is used by workplace tyrants so frequently is because of how effective it is in maintaining loyalty. When an out-group has been defined, the in-group will do their best to avoid the out-group’s identified unfavourable characteristics, driving behaviour in a certain direction and promoting an ideological echo chamber that aligns with the workplace tyrant’s mandate. The power of the ideological echo chamber cannot be understated; once people have made up their minds it is often very difficult to change them, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

In- and out-tribes can be internal, that is, within the organisation, or they can be external, which could be manifested through competitors, special interest groups, ethnicities, nationalities and others, often with distinct ways to be identified.

I wonder if Hitler had an open door policy...

I wonder if Hitler had an open door policy...

Favouring those they can control and undermining critics

In the USSR, the nomenklatura were a select caste of senior bureaucrats who enjoyed government or industry appointments and spoils far greater than those had by the common folk. Their steadfast and unquestioning loyalty to the cause elevated them from abject starvation to the splendour akin to elites of the capitalist west they so sorely despised. In contrast, those who could not be controlled were condemned to the infamous Gulags (the system of labour camps).

One would hope that the threat of persecution is rare in the modern workplace, but social isolation is a powerful tool of punishment for human beings who have evolved as highly social creatures, making it easier to force people to fall into line. Furthering the notion of distinct in-group and out-group characteristics, the workplace tyrant will reward submissive behaviour that feeds their hunger for power. Rewards could be formal, such as promotions and pay increases, and also informal, such as favourable treatment, friendship, approval and public flattery.

Beyond social isolation, punishment for displaying out-group behaviour could be institutionally formalised, as it was for ex-Google employee James Damore, who circulated a ten-page internal memo on implicit bias training that led to his termination and recent fame among free-speech advocates and political conservatives.

This tyrannical behaviour can be identified by determining the workplace tyrant’s willingness to facilitate and internalise opinions that diverge from their own. How dissimilar are the voices within the organisation? It is also helpful to observe the relationship the workplace tyrant has with their inner circle: are they surrounded by ‘yes-men?’ If so, why?

Dealing with the tyrant

As you seek, so shall you find…

It is important to understand that if you do not like somebody, it will be easy to identify the above four traits in their behaviour. This does not make them a tyrant. Nevertheless, there are a plethora of ways to deal with a workplace tyrant. Here are a short few you could try:

1)    Express yourself: rather than printing this article and highlighting their shortcomings, engage them personally and privately. Make your conversation about ways the team could improve, rather than highlighting their undesirable behaviour.

2)    Foster vulnerability: often, tyrannical behaviour is a symptom of feeling powerless. This could be due to the insecurities of the tyrant, their environment, the behaviour of their team mates, or a combination of all three. Show the tyrant that it is okay to be seen as human through your own comfort with vulnerability. There is a fantastic TED talk on this: The Power of Vulnerability.

3)    Lead from the front: controversial Canadian psychology professor, Jordan B. Peterson advises his readers to set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world. We are so enthusiastic about fighting the good fight by finding faults in others that we neglect to resolve our own shortcomings. The most powerful way to influence tyrannical behaviour is to lead in a non-tyrannical way yourself.