Why your boss is a jerk (and what you can do about it)

Complete this sentence: “My boss is a …”

Did you say “role model”? Or “true leader”? No. When you start searching the Internet for “My boss is a…,” the most common completions are “bully,” “idiot,” “jerk,” “liar,” “psycho,” “moron,” and some other words that aren’t very nice.

Every day, millions of people are subjected to work situations that rob them of control and often their dignity. Maybe it’s a boss who mistreats you. Or rules that tell you what to do and when to do it. Or management systems that force you to compete with colleagues, bringing out the worst in human behavior.

Here’s why your boss is a jerk – and how you can fight back.

The perils of obedience

The Milgram control panelIn July, 1961, three months after Adolf Eichmann went on trial for Nazi war crimes, the psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments on obedience to authority figures. Milgram’s famous for a wide range of experiments, but this was surely his most controversial.

There are 3 roles in the experiment: the Teacher, the Learner, and the Experimenter. Volunteer subjects act as the The Teacher. They sit in front of a panel with 30 switches labeled with increasing voltages, from 15 to 450 volts. The Learner (who, unbeknownst to the subject, is a confederate of the Experimenter) is in another room and has to answer questions. When the Learner doesn’t get an answer right, the Teacher is supposed to deliver a higher shock.

There are different variations of the experiment but, in all of them, the Teacher can hear the distress of the Learner as the shocks grow more intense. If a Teacher objects, dismayed at the distress they’re causing, the Experimenter tells them to continue. Actual quotes from these exchanges are chilling.

Teacher: But he’s hollering. He can’t stand it. What’s going to happen to him?

Experimenter (his voice is patient, matter-of-fact): The experiment requires that you continue, Teacher…

Learner (yelling): Let me out of here! My heart’s bothering me! (Teacher looks at Experimenter.)

Experimenter: Continue please.

How many people would continue all the way to the level marked “Danger: Extreme Shock” even in the face of obvious distress they were causing? Milgram polled his colleagues and “psychiatrists predicted that only a pathological fringe of about one in a thousand would administer the highest shock on the board.”

The actual answer was 600 times that. More than 60% of the subjects obeyed the Experimenter till the very end. People refused to believe the results. They pointed out flaws in the experiment. But, 35 years later, a researcher reviewed experiments that tried to replicate Milgram’s work over the prior decades. He found the percentage of participants prepared to inflict the highest voltages was consistently between 61–66 percent. Here was his own conclusion:

“What the experiment shows is that the person whose authority I consider to be legitimate, that he has a right to tell me what to do and therefore I have obligation to follow his orders, that person could make me, make most people, act contrary to their conscience.”

Milgram at work

Shatner as MilgramTo get a feel for what these subjects went through (and for a glimpse back into the 1970s), watch “The Tenth Level,” a dramatization of the experiments starring none other than William Shatner as Milgram. I saw this movie when I was 11 years old and it’s stuck with me till this day.

While Milgram was interested in Nazis, the parallels to modern-day work are clear. Ordinary people, when placed in management, do things to employees they’d never do to friends or family. When I managed large organizations, I did it, too. Drawing up layoff lists. Denying promotions. Reviewing performance by rating people on a curve. Management routinely meant doing things that didn’t seem right.

Wait, what if I don’t know them well? What if they did everything they could but failed due to circumstances beyond their control? What if we didn’t provide the right resources to even make success possible?

The experiment required that I continue, and I did.

What can you do?

It’s not just bosses that are trained. It’s the employees, too. In the Five Monkeys Experiment, for example, we saw how employees can actually aid and abet the experimenter, reinforcing bad behaviors even though they’re harmful for the group and the individuals in it.

What can you do when you’re trapped in a malevolent experiment? Instead of just accepting the work environment you happen to be placed in, you can now change it in two ways.

Individually, you can gain more control over the system by working out loud. By making your work visible and getting public feedback on it, you’ll make it more difficult for your manager to unfairly assess your work. It will also help you expand and deepen your network, enabling you to discover other possibilities as you come into contact with more managers in your own firm and elsewhere.

As a group, you can connect mistreated people and their experiences to show the scale of a problem. Think of it as change.org at work. A private complaint of a single employee can be easy to dismiss. It’s a completely different matter when there are 1000 such complaints and the people making them are online, connected, and able to organize.

You don’t have to take it any more. Milgram’s Experimenter and all the Teachers who volunteered could only do what they did because they were in a closed room. When you work in an open, connected way, it changes everything.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Management, Working out loud and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Why your boss is a jerk (and what you can do about it)

  1. John
    Thus is very good. I would like to reblog it on my post Thoughts on Management. Would that be ok?

    Please let me know.



  2. Reblogged this on Thoughts on management and commented:
    Managers need to exercise some control to deliver the results that are requires and to help their works achieve their potential. However obedience can have a dark side unless it is tempered by judgement. Good managers encourage and train their staff to use their judgement and to act with bounded independence. Bad managers demand rote obedience and suppress judgement to mere rule and procedure following. This article by John Stepper shows the dangers of obedience.

  3. Mike Wise says:

    Good stuff, John. Nothing like a vast and active network to hold a boss, and a company really, accountable. #SocialTech is surely changing things that are long overdue for change.

    The challenge many continuously face is how to deliver this very message to those at the top that can influence change, but who are most culpable. It’s sort of like the story of David, Bathsheba, and Nathan. “You are the man!” Any suggestions on influencing change?

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Mike and thank you. How to influence those at the top? I can’t say I’ve figured that out. Aside from the few executives who come to understand it on their own, the only thing I’ve seen work is social proof. That is, find the one or two “positive deviants” amongst executives and use their example to nudge the others in ever expanding numbers.

      If you can’t find those positive deviants and if they don’t get it on their own, the odds of change are slim. It’s too counter to what they know and to what’s helped them be successful to date.

  4. John says:

    Another very good post John. I recall writing a short paper in college about the experiment and why the obedience shown by the teacher was not all that shocking. Sadly, the control and authority senior managers possess make it very difficult to go against the grain. I saw this first hand. Trying to do the right thing vs the misguided orders from above left me jobless. I understand why employees go along and continue to keep their heads down and accept rather than trying to change and improve the workplace rules. Keep writing. Can’t wait for the book!

  5. Irene Johansen says:

    John, you’re scary, but great.

  6. HJ says:

    ABC re-enacted The Milgram Experiment in 2007 – http://www.jarche.com/2007/04/how-our-structures-shape-us/

    I love Gary Stager’s comment about it:

    “One of the subjects in the television program was a 7th grade teacher who explained that she didn’t stop shocking the learner because as a teacher she had learned when a student’s complaints were phony. I thought to myself, “Has she electrocuted many students?”

    The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.”

  7. Peter says:

    Great post as usual. The five monkeys experiment points out that the fault is not restricted to the boss but is shared with employees aiding and abetting abusive assessments. As most employees may be supervisors or be supervised, what advise do you give to the boss ( supervisor)who may just as well be caught up in the same ‘closed room ‘ ?

  8. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Hi John
    Thank you – This was a really interesting post – and a stark reminder of what many employees experience in less than satisfactory work situations that leaves you questioning the very nature of human behaviour. Why is it that some managers feel licensed to undermine others ?

    The Milgram experiment was terrifying (no other word describes it for me) in telling us what humans are capable of when it comes to inflicting physical pain on a fellow human being – especially (and this is important) when there are no consequences to that behaviour – or context as to why they continued when told to . These points may be irrelevant when it comes to the Milgram experiments as they were testing one thing : the psychology of human behaviour in specific circumstances – with shocking results (excuse the pun)!
    We just need to look at the many civil wars raging around the world to see what humans can do to each other under instruction.

    In the world of work they are vital in telling us about why and how people get mistreated in the work place.
    Economics has to be at the centre. Managers believe that their business will be more profitable if they simply instruct without consequence to the employee and the circumstances of how they should achieve it. Employees will continue to accept poor work situations because of a basic economic need to keep their jobs (As one of your commenters alluded to).
    And the worse the economic situation is, the more prepared people are to continue without complaint and the more likely the abuse is going to be – including from the “aiders and abetters”.

    You are so right to stress the importance of working out loud and it’s ability to help the individual “take more control” – both of their present and their future destiny. But still more important is its ability to leave exposed those responsible for mistreatments. Let’s hope they are left with no where to hide, from whatever level and from whichever dark corner.

    Thank you for such a thought provoking piece.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thank you, Marie-Louise. I love your comment and that it offers me the chance to disagree with you. 🙂

      “Economics has to be at the centre. Managers believe that their business will be more profitable if they simply instruct without consequence to the employee and the circumstances of how they should achieve it.”

      I think this is one of those cases of being “predictably irrational”. My sense is that managers are *not* optimizing based on economic results. Rather, they’re simply doing what they think their bosses want. It’s a kind of emergent behavior that they *know* is bad for the firm but that they don’t know how to change.

      • Marie-Louise Collard says:

        I can only assume you didn’t disagree with the rest of the paragraph 🙂

        I do understand the point of what you are saying about the “predictably irrational” behaviour. But there is always a “context” and when it comes to behaviours in the work place I find it difficult to separate those behaviours from economics (and the drive for profit.) And in that context I think those behaviours are more predictable and less irrational that one would care to believe. But “bad for the firm” they certainly are!
        Transparency and “working out loud” doesn’t change the context – but ensures accountability where it is most needed.- – and a consequent change of behaviour?

        Thanks John – I appreciate your honesty : with discussion comes disagreement too!

  9. Jon Bidwell says:


    Dead on, as usual. Jerk or wrong bosses aside, would argue that this trait is nexus of many corporate failures. Interestingly, the fire service (where I’ve worked for many years) there was a shift in academy curriculum to emphasize, at both officer training and basic FF levels, the doctrine that anyone in the chain of command (CoC) could terminate an operation deemed unsafe by the on the spot observer, at any time. One clear finding from after action reports on fatal accidents was that unquestioning adherence to the CoC was the root cause of many line of duty deaths. Unlike the Milgrim experiment, the authority effect was actually strong enough to cause experienced individuals to pursue courses of action that they clearly knew represented an unwarranted degree of risk.

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