You are not my boss. I stopped working for you and your organisation a while ago. Now I am an independent freelance self-employed person having extended annual leave. Your structural position doesn’t legitimise my economic personhood and neither does your lifetime professional achievement.
When you were my boss, you were not my boss. I was an independent, freelance, self-employed person working for you and your organisation on an unwritten contract with a crudely described remit which was both essential and dysfunctional precisely because of the entrenched nature of unsayable faults within your working practice. While these features of a job are not entirely new to me within the patriarchal structures that pervade the contemporary British workplace, nevertheless I was shocked and confounded by the practices and relationships I was led to discover. You were many people’s boss.
Those people were far kinder to you than I ended up being. Although my apparently confrontational choices were difficult for you to understand, they were made based on my realisation that it would be worse for you if I did not make them. I made a sacrifice because it was the best way there was to go forward. The people who you were the boss of, needed me to make those choices even more than you did. They had suffered long enough.
Although there was and still is a lot of affection for you in the organisation, it became radically harder to see exactly who felt it and to what degree, and how they could feel it fully and genuinely while feeling all the other feelings that they must have been feeling based on the things that you did and did not do that made their jobs immeasurably harder. The real mystery was and remains, not how they managed to still feel or feign affection for you despite your blind spots about yourself and your practices, but how you manage to continue to be so hopelessly blind.
This question may or may not be answerable, but it does answer the question as to how they managed. It seems that when one person is hopelessly blind to their own major flaws, this creates an insurmountable wall of deafness around them, and even a false reality. It is like a reverse Babel fish is at work, where any criticism or suggestion of change that is spoken aloud will be translated into the boss’s ear as a hostile or deluded expression of the speakers’ problems. Learning this quickly, workers devise alternative strategies to get by.
If a team can develop and share the awareness that the reality is false, and band together to work-around, then their mental wellbeing is more or less preserved. But if there is doubt about this, for example because some team members don’t or can’t see it, or because the opportunity for self-advancement by being more on the boss’s side than others gets in the way of the team’s solidarity, then deep internal conflict can occur. Yes, this is a lot like an abusive marriage or childhood, because the boss ultimately controls the pay of the workers, having the power to directly or indirectly jeopardise the workers’ income, which determines their basic security, and for some even the stability of their family life.
When a boss has a lot of blind spots and a huge ego which they parade around like the Queen of Sheba, it is fairly easy for external stakeholders to observe this, and to hone in on the competencies of the organisation and make the best of it, and even bring in a little novel sympathy and advice for workers. Of course they might also be the same type, running overtime on ego which they fused together from childhood specialness and illusions of their own success.
What about a boss who brings in experts to help the team all look together at their blind spots, explore ways of being emotionally open with each other, and learn how to use Johari’s window to further individual personal development? When your boss replies to every criticism with ‘We’re all human, we make mistakes’, without making one step forward in witnessing their own blind spots, that’s when you should maybe worry that this boss is beyond recovery. But it’s okay, because you’re not my boss.
Top image credit ‘HBR staff’. If that’s you and you don’t want me to use it I’ll take it down.