We have all done it – putting on the special telephone answering voice as we pick up the phone. In our daily life, we use many different personas. This is not a bad thing as this helps us to navigate our way through daily interactions. But there is a phenomenon occurring in offices all over the world that is disturbing.
My mother used to call me a “street angel and a house devil” because I often behaved well in public but was a tearaway at home; luckily I have out-grown those unfortunate behaviours. There are many people in workplaces today who are acting in the opposite way. That is they are “house angels and work devils”. These individuals may be known to their families and friends as charming and delightful people. However, to those unlucky enough to cross their path in the workplace the meeting is with a bully, tyrant, and emotional saboteur.
A friend gave me a book to read on psychopaths in the workplace (Working with Monsters). Based upon that book and other reading it does not seem as though these work devils are psychopaths in the classic form. But having seen the damage done by these work devils, there must surely be some kind of psychopathology behind such dreadful behaviour and bad treatment of other people? But evidence of several cases where I have known the work devil on a social basis showed clearly that these people are quite charming in a social context. Even in work based social contexts, such as lunches or dinners, the work devil can display charm and be a pleasant person to interact with. But as soon as they are back in the office setting, the work devil reappears.
It is important to note that, while work devil behaviour can be displayed at any level within an organisation, it is most generally displayed amongst managers and supervisors. I suspect that this is because of the greater power that managers and supervisors exercise in the workplace. The work devil behaviours that I have seen displayed in workplaces include (but are not limited to):
- Walking past every staff member and not greeting them or acknowledging them in any way
- Screaming at an individual about a problem that they had nothing to do with while in an open office
- Gossiping about staff to other managers to avoid losing them to another internal role
- Yelling at a staff member in a large meeting that they were stupid
- Lying to staff and then pretending they did not lie
- Setting impossible targets for staff to ensure that they cannot meet achieve a bonus
- Micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement, micromanagement
- Isolating individuals from information they need to do their job, not inviting them to important meetings
- Going through a staff member’s personal possessions
- Doing something wrong then pretending it was one of their staff who did it
What is difficult to encapsulate in a bullet point is the way that a work devil can chip away at your sanity and self esteem on a daily basis. Leaving you feeling stupid and ineffectual. There is good stress and bad stress at work. The feeling you get from a work devil is definitely bad stress (see Lenson’s Good Stress, Bad Stress).
The most frightening issue with many of the behaviours listed above is that they are often public displays, yet rarely does any person in authority take action to stop the behaviour. Rarely have I seen a senior manager take the work devil aside and counsel them. Never have I seen a work devil fired due to their continued bad behaviour. Often in spite of high levels of staff turnover in their department and clear suffering of stress by their staff the work devil is allowed to continue their reign of terror.
What makes the work devil think that it is acceptable to act in horrible ways at work? Why do they act that way at work and not at home? Is it because at home nobody would put up with that kind of behaviour? Does this mean that the work devil is being authentic in one place and not in the other? Which place is the one where they are being authentically themselves – home or work? What would their families and friends think if they could see the work devil in action?
An interesting thing to note is that some of the most brutal commandants of the Nazi concentration camps (e.g. Rudolf Hoess http://www.deathcamps.info/Letters/Hoess.htm) also displayed this work devil pattern. They were known to their families as kind and gentle people, noted for their kindness to animals, but displayed dreadful inhumanity and cruelty in the workplace.
More on this topic later…