There’s a Word for What Terrible Bosses Do: It’s Called ‘Inflicting’


In the book Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe describes the leadership “style” of some of the members of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma. (Think oxycontin.) 

For example, CEO Richard Sackler liked to bring his dog UNCH to the office. In my favorite passage from the book: 

UNCH had a tendency to (poop) in the hallways, and Richard had a tendency to not pick it up. So visitors to the ninth floor learned to weave around the occasional deposit left by the dog on the royal purple carpet.

When board member Kathe Sackler had computer problem at her Westport, Connecticut mansion, she had a tendency to phone Purdue headquarters and have them send a company tech. She also seemed to enjoy a captive audience. “What Kathe liked to do was call you to her office late in the day and just lecture you for hours,” a former Purdue executive said. 

In the executive’s opinion, the success of one drug had given rise to a self-regarding aura of superhuman business prowess. And regardless of their job titles, most of the Sacklers weren’t leading, at least not in the way we usually define “lead.”

Instead, they used the authority of their positions to say and do whatever they chose.

The result? As the former executive says, “They would just inflict themselves on us.”

Which naturally affected employee performance. 

According to a 2013 meta-analysis of 57 different studies published in The Leadership Quarterlythe negative impact created by a bad boss outweighs the positive impact created by a good boss. “Destructive leadership” significantly decreases employee job satisfaction, performance, dedication and commitment, well-being, and turnover intention. (Hi, Great Resignation.) 

As expected, the highest correlation arises between destructive leadership and attitudes toward the leader.

Surprisingly, the next highest correlation was found between destructive leadership and counterproductive work behavior. 

Inflict yourself on your employees and they won’t just dislike you. If they hold leadership positions, whether formal or informal, they will also like start to act like you — and not in a good way.

Fortunately, it’s easy to tell when you’re straying into the infliction zone: 

  • You say or do something because you can, not because you should, and you’re inflicting. Leaving dog poop in the hallway is an obvious example. Less obvious (and a lot more common) is wasting the first ten minutes of a meeting by talking about your recent vacation. 
  • You say or do something simply because it’s your company, and you’re inflicting. An upside of being an entrepreneur is that you are your own boss. A downside is that you are your own boss; as Warren Buffett says, a primary reason toxic CEOs manage to keep their jobs is because they don’t report to anyone. So while it is your company… the rules should apply to you more than they do to everyone else.
  • You put performance above people. According to Adam Grant (if you haven’t noticed, the title of this post is an homage to Adam’s viral article about languishing), “Employees are not resources to manage. They’re humans to value. Bad managers only care about your results. Good managers care about your well-being. Great managers care more about your well-being than your results. We do our best work when leaders put people above performance.” So while it is your company… your employees still work with you, not for you.

One last thought: Research shows remote workers tend to be more productive, spending more time per day on core work and significantly less time on communication.

The same holds true for non-remote work: Leave people alone, and they get to spend more time getting things done.

Ultimately, that’s the best way to determine if you’re serving or inflicting. If what you do or say helps people do their jobs better, helps them feel more valued and respected, helps them develop skills and abilities that support your goals and theirs… then you’re serving the people you lead.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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