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The Ties That Blind

Similar to domestic-abuse scenarios, executives with an abusive boss may be psychologically unable to quit or confront the situation. A look at this condition, called "traumatic bonding."
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Entrepreneurial Ego

For too many managers, it comes down to this: 'Sure, he's an SOB, but he's our SOB'

There are many paradoxes in life; few ever make intuitive sense. For example, entrepreneurs can see why walking away from a six-figure corporate job to launch a start-up for sweat equity alone makes perfect sense, although many folks would think such a move was insane. In contrast, a paradox that seems impossible to comprehend is why people remain anchored in abusive relationships. I'm referring here not to the battered women who resist prosecuting the men who abuse them but rather to some talented top executives who are in abusive relationships with their bosses but reject any efforts that would "free" them from those morale busters.

Traumatic bonding is the name given to the process in which victims of abuse become blindly devoted to their victimizers. While the psychological forces that tie victims to abusers are unconscious and inaccessible to rational intervention, these intense emotional bonds are thought to develop when a victim's emotional life is made to fluctuate between highly positive and highly punishing interactions with one particular victimizer.

Domestic-abuse files are filled with stories of women who endure battering yet during times of tranquillity adore their partners and feel adored by them. Abusers can also make their victims feel extraordinarily "special" when the assaultive behavior stops and is replaced by affection. One major consequence of being subjected to highly intense though intermittent positive and negative reinforcement is that a cycle of dependency is created in which the victim experiences enhanced-- and grossly impaired--self-esteem at the hands of the same person.

Ultimately, abuse victims may fear but tolerate the victimizer's wrath, because the victimizer is often the sole source of whatever psychological strength and sense of uniqueness the victim possesses. Any outsider who tries to destroy the relationship may be a threat to the victim's sole source of self-esteem. Similarly, countless executives who say they feel yoked to tyrannical bosses are unable to break free from their abusive relationship because they too experience the highs and lows of traumatic bonding.

More than a decade ago, I was hired by the head of human resources for a multinational company to help defuse a crisis that was coming to a head. The HR executive had been told by five key division vice-presidents that they would quit if something wasn't done to curb their boss's detestable behavior toward them. Their boss, the division president, was in a good mood when I came on board and was a pleasure to work with. I thought that training the key executives to confront their boss in a constructive manner would both clear the air and help dissipate some of the anger that had been brewing for years--and, in turn, boost their morale. Was I ever wrong.

Before I'd had my fourth meeting with this group, I'd become a pariah, accused of fabricating problems when I raised the patterns of abuse described to me by the HR director. Moreover, my consultancy was to be terminated, I was told, because I was "trying to drive a wedge" between the division president and his closest colleagues. All this from five people who two months earlier had vowed to mutiny unless a consultant was brought in to "tame the beast."

I was shocked. I couldn't have guessed that my efforts to quell the cycles of abuse and reconciliation that this group suffered could in any way evoke fears of diminishing their collective sense of self-esteem. But when I shared my tale with colleagues who were older and wiser, they shocked me further by telling me they had all had similar experiences.

A good consultant needs to know that any intervention, however well-intentioned, will disrupt the "balance" that executive teams achieve over time. The executive team mentioned above spit me out as if I were sour milk because I did, as accused, try to place a wedge between the abusive boss and his key executives.

While I viewed my efforts as salutary, the folks I was trying to "rescue" had a different interpretation. From their perspective I was rocking the boat, and they feared they were at risk of being cast overboard without the ties to the boss who made them feel special. Granted, their ship was in heavy seas, but the swells were familiar and they often enjoyed the ride.

I threatened to radically alter life as they knew it. And the ambiguity and unfamiliarity inherent in change is psychologically disruptive. Hence, they decided to kill the messenger.

Aside from the devil-you-know syndrome, another reason for remaining tied to abusive bosses is the fact that their abusive behavior can be a convenient justification for poor performance. The executive team that I cut my "paradoxical-victim-reaction" teeth on had set themselves up in a no-lose position in case their division's profitability should suddenly head south. Having cried to corporate headquarters that their boss was abusive, they had preemptively warned, "If we screw up, blame the tyrant." Most careerists would rather preserve their sense of self-worth than their financial worth.

In my experience, business builders and the people they attract to their executive ranks are not likely to function like those help-rejecting, victimized vice-presidents. Entrepreneurs are typically risk takers who have little need to strategically cover their behinds. But if you suddenly realize that you are becoming abusive to your closest colleagues or believe that a chief executive you once cared for and felt committed to is becoming abusive, you can do a lot to nip the problem in the bud, before you become entrenched in a pattern of interdependency.

If you discover that change agents of any stripe are threatening to the stability of your executive group, that fear of "unknowns" should be a loud wake-up call. Entrepreneurial companies and the people who work in them are nothing if not mold breakers. When you are loath to break the mold of a relationship fraught with major problems, you're committing a slow suicide. Admitting such anxiety is the boldest move you can make. You'll probably find that others in the company are as scared as you are--if not more so. Address the fear head-on.

If you sense that your executives are suffering your abuse in silence, ask yourself if they're earning their keep. Do you really want yes-men complying with your wishes out of fear of the unknown? If not, shake the group up by using tactics like 360-degree evaluations. Let them know that while you are not advocating a mutiny, you'd like them to be committed to the business and not just be in it for career advancement.

Ask the people close to you--your spouse or best friend--if they believe that you enjoy your job. If they say no or observe that "you're in it for the money," it's long past time to consider your encore career. Granted, there is a natural hesitancy to harvest what you've grown in a successful business, but consider the alternative: the fruits of your labor rotting on the vine. Besides, if you're generating the abuse in a traumatic-bonding relationship, the folks who intermittently adore you for empowering them are going to become ever more dependent on you for their "feeling good" over time. It's doubtful that that's what you envisioned when you traded away security to build a business of your own.

Dr. Steven Berglas is a management consultant and a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.

What do you think?

Ever been in this situation? Talk about it at a special bulletin board.




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