o one saw it, but Rajiv Ahuja's teeth had developed
a constant chatter. Head of sales at a large telecom company, he
had just been summoned by his immediate boss, the sales vice-president,
and blasted-with the most soul-crushing of expletives as punctuation
marks. How come? Ahuja's performance, as his boss put it, was "15
per cent below par". When word of his "fire in the belly" deficiency
reached the hr department, there was surprise; Ahuja was held in
high regard as an executive by his peers and subordinates. So hr
called Ahuja in for an interactive session.
The diagnosis? Bossphobia. Despite his designation,
he was mortally scared of his boss. He'd turn to pulp at the very
sound of the boss' voice, his palms sweaty, his brain reeling, his
mind unable to function-much like a batsman paralysed at the crease
by the fear of the selectors' axe, eclipsing any thought of the
current 'asking run rate' to win.
What Ahuja needed, hr found, was some positive
reinforcement, plus some coaching to deliver the numbers the boss
wanted, even under backbreaking circumstances (Ahuja had even been
asked to bait tourists in a remote hill-station for a cell network).
Today, the man is a high-performing vice-president himself.
Often fear authority per se
to take initiative
at the big picture
Most cases, however, are not so easy to resolve-particularly
in firms with highly authoritarian work systems, adorned as they
are with clear-cut rule cards, hard-and-fast operational templates
and an exalted set of authority figures.
That's an important question. Is the boss really
a terror-or a misunderstood soul just trying to get the job done?
Unfortunately, few subordinates who work for
a superior with an authoritarian temperament ever make the effort
to answer the question. Honestly, that is-free of bias. Some get
so convinced of the alleged cruelty that they instinctively reject
any evidence to the contrary.
Mumbai-based psychoanalyst Kaushik Gopal explains
how this could happen. A person's childhood imprint of a "highly
critical and shaming parent" could get transferred to the office
authority figure, and this person could start responding to the
boss as a sort of "replica of the feared parent". Gopal
gives the example of a case he came across of an adult who continued
to look at authority from a child's perspective. "It was as
though a part of him had simply not grown up," he sighs.
Not to imply that fearful subordinates merely
have heads filled with demons of their own making. Prejudices do
exist. So do terror-bosses, and they can scar an employee's psyche,
crushing his or her self-esteem. According to Gopal, "The 'target'
often begins to doubt his own perceptions, and often falls into
the trap of thinking there is something wrong with him and not the
boss." Once fear seeps deep into a subordinate's subconscious,
and worse, if a persecution complex takes hold, it's difficult to
maximise his contribution.
That's terrible. And that's a pathological
fear, not to be confused with the regular respect-related fear (in
a mild sense) that any subordinate ought to have of a boss who sets
the direction, acts as a role model, enhances his performance and
mentors him up his career curve.
Often, the dividing line between the two is
something of a blur. According to Y.V. Verma, Senior Vice President,
Human Resources, LG Electronics India, bossphobia in some form or
the other is a reality in every firm. The big reason? Stress. Brought
on, say, by changes the company must institute just to stay in business.
Big Bad Boss
Quite often, bossphobia is a direct result
of anomalies in the boss' style. In the view of Praneet Mehrish,
Country hr Manager, ST Microelectronics, there are four boss categories
that turn normal workers into nervous wrecks. The first kind of
boss suffers from the 'male dog syndrome'. Territorial, he thinks
of his zone of operations as a personal fiefdom. Mehrish narrates
the tale of Rishi Joshi, a steel firm's sales general manager who
voiced the very ideas he had earlier given his boss one-on-one,
at a top management meeting-only to get a public dressing down from
the boss. The experience reduced him to a little void on a chair,
humiliated beyond all consolation.
Then there's the 'action hero' boss. The sort
who flings management buzzwords in the air, and gives his subordinates
hell if they miss his wavelength. Consider the story of Rahul Patel,
an assembly unit head in a mid-sized auto ancillary firm. All he
did was express worries over the implementation of the gee-whiz
theories on 'change' being handed down, and he was labelled a 'cynic'
and heckled into quitting his job.
The third is the 'invisible human'. The silent
operator, on the prowl. This boss won't say anything while work
is in progress or even reveal his intentions, but still manages
to stalk employees. Always under his eye, employees turn bossphobic.
"In a way, the boss assumes the role of a watchdog," says
Mehrish, "and uneasiness develops among the employees."
Some family-run businesses are notorious for loyalists who act as
spies, for the boss to wreak vengeance later.
The fourth terror-striking boss is the 'alien
inductor'. The boss who moves in, and starts replacing the staff
with his own cronies from his previous stint. The old employees
feel collectively victimised.
So, what's the solution? At the organisation
level, as Verma suggests, transparency is a big security blanket.
But the top needs to make a credible push for it, systemwide. Another
phobia-buster could be the simple de-concentration of power. This
can be achieved through a relatively 'flat' operational structure,
with employees empowered to operate fearlessly. "In order to
ensure the organisation is not command-centric," says Jagdeep
Khandpur, Director, Human Resources, Bharti Tele-ventures, "it
is necessary to develop processes that discourage such an order."
That's why we have hr processes to track employee well-being.
At the individual level, exorcising the fear
of authority is harder. Some merely need a signal of 'values' from
the top, especially the 'mind is without fear' Tagorean sorts, sworn
never to bend their knees before 'insolent might'. Others have deeper
fears. These people need to be addressed on a priority basis.