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.


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.