The Workplace or the Individual: Who has control?

By Jenny Campbell|January 13, 2020|Being Resilient|

Who has control in the workpleace, control freak, boss control, when my boss has control, when my boss is a control freak, wellbeing in the workplace
In my earlier career when I worked as a business analyst, I worked for a boss that was, frankly, a nightmare. In a small team of very smart people who were tasked with deciding on the IT platform and systems to support a whole number of business changes, she was massively controlling, and it caused great stress amongst us all. She would micro manage, insist on her ways of doing things, lay down a workload that was out of kilter with our capacity, and give difficult feedback almost weekly.  Our voices weren’t really heard, despite the fact that we – and I in particular – represented the voice of the business itself, in understanding its day to day operations and what was important to systemise.

I and my other 2 colleagues in my team were tearing our hair out.

Culturally, we were operating in a very different set of assumptions that my boss was. We were British, she was American. And the long-hours, always-on culture (and I really do mean, always) was not part of what we thought was right or good. Nor was it being checked by the boss’s boss, we just had to get on and deal with it. 2 or 3 years of it. A tough gig.

Her 3 direct reports, one of them me, suffered as a result. The long hours took their toll on energy. The never-ending feeling that we couldn’t do things right took their toll on both our satisfaction in work and in our confidence. The real underlying issue however was deeper than all of this – it was the real lack of autonomy or influence on decision making.  We fundamentally disagreed with her approach to choosing suppliers and the systems that were being considered; the only options being considered were niche systems from the USA that the boss had known previously. Fair enough to consider these in our evaluation, but not to skew the evaluations to give these as the only ‘right’ answer.

In the middle of all of this, my colleagues and I decided that the level of stress was unacceptable. We also didn’t have a lot of hope for change, given we each had tried individually to shift things. And talking to her about it was a complete failure; no understanding, no real listening. Instead we decided to team up together, and to set up a series of experiments to see if we could change the behaviour. Thus we learnt

It helped enormously to set common boundaries; and somehow the boss was taken off guard because of the consistency between us. After a few weeks, our exit time from the office was never mentioned again.

  • To disagree.
Initially, we never disagreed solely in front of her, we always went in with at least another member of the team.  Once she got used to us not following everything she said to do/decide, it became easier to disagree alone.

  • How to Pop the Stress Bubble
By sharing, we often felt the burden lifting, and we also gained a real perspective. One of my colleagues whilst being a bit rigid in right/wrong, also had a brilliant sense of humour. Boy did that count when we did our daily or weekly ‘5 minute moan’ (reference Monty Python!)

  • Perspective
How to keep it!  We limited our time moaning, and instead turned it into either action, or walking away (in our minds) from the situation.  We helped one another stick to these ground rules. It helped shift our energy towards the positive. In the end, I cannot say we weren’t glad when the boss left to go back to America! But we had helped ourselves to go beyond just putting up with things, we lifted ourselves out of coping towards a level of Bounceback. In this we learnt a lot about our own value and judgement, what it was like to join together in the face of difficulty, and a lot about assertiveness.

Who in the end was the cause of the stress? The boss? The organisation for not spotting what was going on? Each of us?  The answer is all of the above!

Often the boss or organisational culture is the trigger for stress-inducing behaviours, but it doesn’t end with just that, we each have a choice over how we behave and respond. In this situation, we owned our reaction, and recognised that whilst the behaviour was tough we could either be a victim, or at least try to shift it. The latter became easier by accepting that we couldn’t change our boss or the organisation, and by acting on a shared commitment to take responsibility for the parts we could change, including what we could influence. These were invaluable work lessons!
What have you learnt about the lines between the workplace versus yourself on stress-inducing behaviours?

When do you find yourself giving up on the idea of change being possible? Who else might offer a different perspective?

If you consider your own situation in terms of maintaining a healthy working life, where would you draw the lines of responsibility between your organisation’s culture, your boss’s needs (eg for control), versus your own responsibility?

We would be interested in your views!
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