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.

A Bear on a Unicycle


Creative Commons Image courtesy Burk’s Falls, Armour & Ryerson Union Public Library

Putting a bear on a unicycle doesn’t do anyone any good. It humiliates the bear and wears out the unicycle. I’m all for servant leadership, but be careful about putting your most capable people on the most menial tasks.

The Collateral Damage of Toxic Teammates

You walk slowly up to the door of your business. Carefully opening the door, you try to quietly make your way to your office. Your bag gently settles onto your desk and you smoothly pull out your laptop. As you sit, your office chair makes a loud creaking noise and you wince; knowing you should have applied some WD40 the other day. You wishfully think maybe he didn’t hear it. But then you hear footsteps drawing closer and a shadow darkens the hallway just outside your office door. The acid in your stomach starts to churn.

He steps into the doorframe and you resign yourself to the inevitable. You’re going to have to talk to him.

Man vs. Machine

Image from

Image via

Pulleys, wheels and levers are all considered simple machines. For centuries, people have used these to ensure whatever effort they applied translated into the biggest impact. The Egyptians used simple machines to help build the pyramids – a feat they could not have accomplished otherwise. The concept of simple machines in classical times was so strong Archimedes is attributed as saying, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth.”

The measure of a machine is how it translates input into output. It is simple ROI: “When I give this, what do I get back?” A transactional exercise in which we try to minimize what we give while maximizing what we get back. This is very logical when dealing with an inanimate object like a machine. The issue is when this mentality spreads to our interactions with people.

Landscapers and Clockmakers

I was thinking today of leaders with very different approaches, both effective in their own way.

The first approached leadership like a landscaper approaches his work. He would try and plant people in the area they could best grow. The right environment of grounding (soil) and inspiration (light) was integral to good growth. He didn’t stop with the front-end of the process, he continued as a caretaker with routine check-ins which were incredibly personable. If someone was burning out, he watered their soil with compassion and encouragement. The focus of his work was to take his environment, marry it with his resources and reveal their potential for beauty. He was a master at this.

The second individual I considered approached leadership like a clockmaker. He analyzed what was needed for a particular role and made sure candidates fit the proper specifications. There was a precision and polish which often translated into impressive performance. His teams were calibrated to meet high expectations and create a fantastic product. Not everyone would make the cut, but this attracted amazing talent. If he sensed the timing within his team was off, he would hone in on the issue and recalibrate the components. This may be an adjustment to someone’s role or a change of personnel. The focus of his work was to maximize his opportunity for impact. He was a master at this.

Neither of these approaches is “right” or “wrong” but they are not interchangeable. These two individuals recognized their leadership style and leaned into it. Do one of these resemble your style of leadership, or is your approach different? We all have a leadership style whether or not we’re aware. Do you know what yours is?

Discouraging Artists

I came across this article from the president of Wheaton College recently. In it, Philip Ryken gives an admittedly abridged list of ways church leaders can discourage artists. The information is applicable to other organizations, especially non-profits. If you’re in leadership and want to encourage creativity and artistry, I hope you will heed Ryken’s advice because he is painfully accurate.

Here are a few tidbits:

Embrace bad art. Tolerate low aesthetic standards. Only value work that is totally accessible, not difficult or challenging. One example would be digital images and photography on powerpoint as a background for praise songs. Value work that is sentimental, that doesn’t take risks, that doesn’t give offense, that people immediately “get.”

Demand artists to give answers in their work, not raise questions. Mark Lewis says, “Make certain that your piece (or artifact or performance) makes incisive theological or moral points, and doesn’t stray into territory about which you are unresolved or in any way unclear. (Clear answers are of course more valuable than questions).” Do not allow for ambiguity, or for varied responses to art. Demand art to communicate in the same way to everyone.

Never pay artists for their work. Expect that they will volunteer their service, without recognizing their calling or believing that they are workers worthy of their hire. Note that Old Testament artists and musicians were supported financially.

When you ask them to serve through the arts, tell them what to do and also how to do it. Don’t leave room for the creative process. Take, for example, a children’s Sunday school mural: “Tell them what it should look like, in fact, draw up plans first,” David Hooker said. Discourage improvisation; give artists a AAA road map.

As someone who has served as a volunteer in churches through the years, and as a professional in the market, I have seen these types of leadership mistakes suck the creativity out of artists. The value of creativity and art is being trumpeted by many thought leaders today, but until we find a way to encourage the artists in our organizations, we will not see that potential fully realized.