Cruel Bosses: The Gods of Workplace Punishment

Overworked employee

While some folks have fulfilling jobs, many find their work to be torturous. You don’t have to look hard to find examples portraying jobs as boring and/or painful to endure. Here is a short list of movies or TV shows.

  • Office Space
  • Horrible Bosses
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • 9-to-5
  • American Beauty
  • The Apartment
  • The Office

Even if you don’t currently relate to these examples, there’s a good chance you have been in a toxic work environment. At the very least, someone you know is struggling with a negative job experience. You as a leader may also have blind spots that put your people through unnecessary suffering.

This view of work and bosses is nothing new. Long before any of the shows above were created, Charles Dickens literally gave us a Scrooge as an example of a hard-nosed business leader apathetic to the plight of his employee Bob Crachit. If we look even further back in literature, Greek mythology gives us many examples of individuals being oppressed by their authorities. Even though these are punishments doled out by the gods, they are expressions of the human condition common in ancient times as it is today. Let’s take a look at four stories and see what modern leaders can learn from ancient Greeks.

Tantalus: Dangling Carrots

Ever wonder where we got the word “tantalize?” It comes from the punishment given to Tantalus. He was condemned to stand eternally in a pool of water under a fruit tree. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, when Tantalus got thirsty, he would bend down to drink from the pool at his feet. The water would recede, not allowing him to drink from it. Then, when Tantalus became hungry, he would reach for the fruit over his head. As you can guess, the branches moved up so he could not grab the fruit. Tantalus was eternally hungry and thirsty while being tantalized by water and fruit barely out of his reach.

Leadership Lessons from Tantalus

Some leaders offer future promotions or benefits that never materialize. When employees ask for specifics (dates, milestones, etc.), these offers recede like the water at Tantalus’ feet. That next pay raise is the fruit of their labors, but it moves out of reach when they attempt to grab hold of it. Leaders who don’t keep promises, or keep them vague to avoid accountability, soon lose the respect of their workers. Instead, any incentives promised to employees should be detailed in writing with specific criteria, like milestones that must be achieved or dates when the incentives will be enacted. Don’t back out or future incentives will have no credibility and will be unlikely to motivate anyone.

Sisyphus: Hard Work Without Purpose

Talk about back-breaking labor! Sisyphus was sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill all day. As he reached the top, it would roll back down and he would have to start all over. It’s reminiscent of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but with a giant boulder instead of a groundhog. Wonder if he had to listen to Sonny and Cher sing I’ve Got You Babe the whole time.

Leadership Moral from Sisyphus

If leaders want disillusioned and disengaged workers, then they should make work purposeless. When employees don’t understand why their work matters, then it may feel like rolling a boulder up a hill, just to watch it roll back down. Day after day after day. That could be enough to make you want to punch Ned Ryerson in the face.

Dan Ariely has a great TED Talk on the important role purpose plays in our work.

The good news is that if we added all of those components and thought about them — how do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace, and for the employees — I think we could get people to be both more productive and happier.
~Dan Ariely

Employees need to see a purpose to their work. Some workers only see the small part they do themselves, but leaders can show how each person’s contributions fit into the final product. They should see how what they do impacts the customer. Employees seeing this in person is great, but a video may do the job. This is a reason customer testimonials aren’t just good for marketing, they are good for influencing your internal culture as well.

Prometheus: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The gods of Olympia were withholding fire from mortals. The Titan Prometheus stole fire and brought it to man. This angered the gods, so they punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle. His liver would grow back each day, so the process could repeat (and perhaps so the eagle could avoid anemia).

Leadership Moral from Prometheus

Ever wonder why people don’t step up to do the right thing? In some workplace cultures, it may be because of a history of good deeds being punished. Shortsighted leaders see someone who goes beyond the call of duty as overreaching. And they feel it is their job to put that person back in their place. They may figuratively tie the employee down with new rules or threats. They also could rip the guts out of that employee by chastising them harshly in front of their peers, making an example of them and leaving workers feeling unsupported.

This calls for a certain amount of emotional intelligence from leaders. Instead of feeling threatened by what feels like an upstart employee, leaders should view this as an opportunity to coach a high potential. Encouraging the leadership skills of employees is part of what sets apart great leaders from competent managers. Jim Collins identifies this kind of humility as an essential characteristic of what he calls a Level 5 Leader.

(Note: I originally wrote that Prometheus brought light to mortals. Melissa pointed out it was fire, not light. Fire is an even better metaphor as it not only helps us see, but it warms us as well. Let’s not punish those who bring insight and comfort to others.)

Atlas: Taking on the Weight of the World

Atlas didn’t fair much better than his brother Prometheus. The Titan fought a battle against the gods of Olympus. As punishment, Atlas had to hold the sky on his shoulders for eternity (the common misperception is he had to hold the Earth).

Leadership Moral from Atlas

How do some bosses reward hard work by capable employees? By giving them more work. They eventually burn out productive workers by piling additional work onto them. To make things worse, when mistakes are made or work isn’t accomplished, they attack the employee’s competency even though the workload is unrealistic. Exceptional employees can be given more work, but it should be incremental. Also, at some point, they should be able to delegate some of the more basic tasks as they take on additional and more complex work.

In general, leaders can’t view themselves as gods of the workplace. We’re all mere mortals, doing the best we can. Maybe these ancient stories can shed some light on cruel consequences that shouldn’t be inflicted on us or our people. The good thing is today’s punishments aren’t eternal. We can make changes starting now.

Bonus: Play Ancient Greek Punishment, a Flash game, to add a fun, interactive element.

 

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “Cruel Bosses: The Gods of Workplace Punishment

  1. Melissa,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, it seems our nature never changes. With knowledge of this nature, however, we can take steps to change our actions.