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What Abuse of Power Does to Those on the Receiving End

Much has been written about the why’s and wherefore’s of leaders who abuse their power. Think banking as a starter. But very little has been discussed about the people who work in organizations with one of these narcissistic and manipulative leaders. Lately I feel like I am watching a film on a continuous feedback loop. I am witnessing the damage left in the wake of these toxic leaders; zombie nervous wrecks who have lost their way.

Here is a classic scenario. On the way up the ladder this person, I’ll call him Adam, is viewed as bright, aggressive, entrepreneurial, clever and self confident. His managers give him high praise and recommend him for new assignments. Mixed in with their kudos are notes in Adam’s performance reviews about not being such a great team player, peers not trusting him entirely, being a bit smarmy with senior management and in need of a bit of coaching to smooth out the rough edges. But none of these dings get much attention because no one can dispute the fact that Adam gets results: consistently, spectacularly. His rise to the top surprises no one; least of all, Adam. He had his eye on the prize all along and successfully navigated the waters.

Initially Adam tries to be the model CEO by balancing business and people issues. He presents himself to the staff as someone who really cares about them. To the board, he charms his way into their good graces to the point of group think. To his team,  they alternate between admiration, gratitude and anxiety.

Over time (5-10 years) Adam glides into the dark side of power. He wants more control, more status, more money, more external accolades, more sycophants. Just more everything. Power feels great but more power will be even better. Lots of money and status is amazing but more is the goal. At some point in this journey, there is never enough for Adam. Behavior that was once deemed clever and aggressive is now viewed as manipulative, self serving, hurtful (even abusive) and ethically questionable. The street is happy with Adam. The board is happy with Adam. His team and the staff….that’s another story entirely.

Let’s look at Adam through the lens of the Chief Marketing Officer, Sarah. She joined the company a few years after Adam and had her own successful path to the executive suite. While they were peers on the way up, Sarah and Adam worked together routinely and shared a mutual admiration. They imagined running the place together with several other talented superstars. When Adam was installed as CEO Sarah could not have been more thrilled. She moved on to the executive team and she expected to continue their successful collaboration.

And they did for awhile. Then Adam began cutting Sarah out of the communication loop. When she protested he claimed that it was unintentional or not important enough to bring her in or he was trying to delegate some stuff to others so she didn’t have so much on her plate. Then Sarah noticed a pattern to Adam’s decision making. He no longer consulted anyone in earnest and made loads of unilateral calls. The entire executive team was feeling impotent and in-fighting ensued. Because of their history, Sarah took it upon herself (with support from her peers) to have a sit-down with Adam.

In their conversation Sarah took a “I just want to offer a bit of feedback” approach. If only he could be more open to team input; good of the team, good of the company and ultimately Adam’s reputation. Adam’s response was positive. “Gee, I hadn’t realized I was doing this. Thanks so much for pointing it out.”

At the next executive team meeting Adam began the conversation this way. “I’ve been told that I’m not receptive enough to everyone’s input. We can all count on Sarah to put the cards on the table, right? I’m not saying this might not be the case but I just am not hearing enough from each of you. So I’m asking everyone to take it upon yourself to speak up today. Don’t be shy.” As all eyes turned to Sarah, all she could think was, “That’s where he went with my remarks?”

For a week or two Adam appeared to be listening better but when it came to making decisions nothing had changed. Far worse, some of the dynamics began to shift. Adam began sidling up to each executive for a tete-a-tete to complain about another team member. Private and personal information was passed along, peers were pitted against each other, the appearance of rotating favorites emerged and mistrust became the new normal. As Adam seized more autocratic control, the more unsettled Sarah and her colleagues felt. In time, Adam’s behavior was so manipulative that executives were drained, distracted, anxious and isolated.

I’ve been talking with the Sarah’s. I’ve come to learn that they feel crazy, trapped, loyal, confused, worried about the staff, fearful that if they left that Adam would black ball them from any potential new job, grateful for the opportunities Adam granted them, unable to detach from work when they are away from the office. In short, they are lost souls who have tamped down their own ambitions and resolve. Crushed by the weight of the power hungry Adam’s.

The therapist in me has diagnosed these people with a mild form of PTSD. Why? Because they exhibit these very pronounced symptoms:

  • Depressive thoughts and mood. Thinking of new options, considering leaving other good people, abandoning the security of this job are unthinkable. The title, the money, the visibility and the parts of the job that are still satisfying weigh more heavily than the gloomy, molasses-like, day-in-day-out feeling of exhaustion and depletion. They go through their days passively making the best of the situation. They can’t acknowledge that something is terribly wrong.
  • Relinquishing power and control to another person. Strong, competent, smart and assertive people have been cowed by the threats and manipulation of the leader. The story they have in their heads is one of disaster if they ever leave. They are certain that what Adam has told them is true: You will never have it as good as you do here, You are nothing without me/our brand, You pledged your loyalty to me so if you leave I will crush you.
  • Hypersensitivity and alertness. It’s not just that the leader could be lurking around any corner. The entire work culture has become a land mine. To protect themselves, these people say less and less, they isolate themselves and trust no one. Of course this makes it very difficult to function productively at work.

For those of you reading this that are thinking, “Come on! No competent professional would succumb to such an asshole. Just grow a set and walk out the door!”, I invite you to take a closer look. Have you ever…

  • Had a promotion, raise or opportunity dangled in front of you repeatedly over an extended period of time that never came to pass? But you were promised that you are “the one” and as soon as things open up it is yours?
  • Felt that if you spoke the truth to the leader that it would be a Career Altering Move?
  • Been told that the leader expressed doubts to your peers about your abilities or future with the company?
  • Observed the leader routinely shut down all discussion in meetings?
  • Kissed the ring to stay in the leader’s good graces?
  • Dissed a colleague to the leader in hopes of more favorable status?
  • Ranted behind closed doors with peers about the outrageous behavior of the leader?
  • Found yourself saying or doing things that go against your own personal code?

These are the insidious and damaging signs of a leader and culture that have gone to the dark side. Lots of companies have a dose of this without horrible consequences. But once this is a steady diet, there is significant suffering for the people and the business.

If you are one of these lost souls, seek external help. PTSD requires outside perspective and support to pull out of. It’s very tough to do on your own. If you are one of these power hungry leaders, I assume you do not see yourself in this description. And even if you do, you don’t give a shit. These are deep psychological flaws, so I say to those who are hurting: Nothing will change unless you make a change for yourself.



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