Feel the Pain

Do you feel the need to show others that you’re in charge?


Jack arrived at work one day and on seeing Susan, started yelling at her. It had to do with something that happened a week earlier. He was her boss, and he had put on this show with some of Susan’s colleagues and customers present. She was embarrassed.

Have you ever had a boss who makes you feel you have no value? His goal is to belittle you and put you on the spot; to put you down. He wants you to know who’s in charge. And he wants others to know it too! When he enters the room, your heart skips a beat. His modus operandi is to keep you quaking in your boots.

When you’re a witness to situations such as this, you have to ask:

Why do people behave this way? Why would anyone in their right senses think they would get good engagement from team members that they treat in this manner?

Human psychology experts have pondered these types of questions for a long time. The fact remains that human behavior is one of those things in life that’s very difficult to understand.

“I’m the Boss!”

In some cases, a supervisor will behave in the manner describe above because he just wants to show you and others that he’s your boss, plain and simple. What made my opening story more curious is that a week before, Susan had a discussion with Jack. She told him about her business travel plans and asked him if he was okay with it. He had some hesitation but eventually, he said he was okay with the plan.

Suddenly, a week later, Jack had decided that he was no longer okay with the plan. But instead of calling Susan aside to discuss it, he lashed out in the presence of a group of people. He decided that was the perfect time to appear tough so no one could accuse him of being soft or favoring one person over the others.  At least that’s one of the reasons that he gave her later when she asked him.

This was a discussion Jack could have had with Susan in private, but he needed to show others who was in charge. His ego needed some stroking.

No Apologies Needed

After sleeping over that exchange for a day in order to cool down her emotions, Susan asked to meet with Jack privately. She told him how his comments made her feel, especially when done with many onlookers.

“I felt blindsided by your comments. It looks like you intentionally decided to belittle me for no apparent reason. We had discussed my travel plans last week and you said it was okay. If you now had a different feeling about what we discussed, I thought you would have called me and discussed it in private.  I took the last 24 hours to think about what happened yesterday, and I was not able to come to a good reason why you behaved that way. I had to conclude that you did this just to put me down.”

The curious thing was that during this discussion, Jack did not refute any of Susan’s conclusions. Neither did he apologize for his behavior. He simply explained it away. So, Susan concluded that her assertion was true. Jack behaved that way just to show her and others around that he’s the boss; that he’s tough and an equal opportunity pain-in-the-butt. To Susan, a simple apology would have sufficed. But she didn’t get one.

We all make mistakes from time to time. Good leaders admit it when they make them, apologize and move on. They don’t try to explain them away. As a result of this experience, Susan decided that she couldn’t continue to work with Jack. She changed jobs a few months later. The organization lost a dedicated and valuable employee.

Share the Pain

Another explanation for this type of behavior has to do with how we handle pain and pressure. Some of us make those around us miserable just because we’re miserable. We feel pain, and then dish it out to those we come into contact with.

In the discussion with Susan, Jack admitted that he wanted others to feel the pain he was feeling. He had been stuck on a project that’s fraught with problems; inherited problems. As a result, he’s had to spend long days and weekends away from his family. So if he had to be away from home, others needed to feel it too. He even admitted that this wasn’t fair, but that was as far as he was willing to go. There were no apologies for behaving (or even thinking) this way.

While many of us will be taken aback by Jack’s behavior, we all have a little bit of Jack in us. The issue is whether or not we let him loose; or how far we let him loose. Sometimes, we act on the spur of the moment without giving adequate thought to the impact of our behavior. But knowing how to control our impulses is a behavioral trait that can be learned. It must be learned by anyone who seek to harness the power of their emotions to be a better person. And a better leader.