When Bosses Become Tyrants

Last Updated Apr 5, 2007 11:18 AM EDT

My buddy and I used to call our boss "The Tyrant" because he was so unnecessarily ruthless. We were very happy when he left for another job and my buddy was promoted to succeed him.  But now my buddy has turned into an equally vicious ruler -- some of my colleagues say he's worse than his predecessor -- and I'm dumbfounded. When I tried to talk to him about this, he told me it was "part of the job." I know a boss needs to be tough, but I'm shocked that my buddy is carrying on the tyrant tradition. What can I do? Where's the line?

In 1971, a team of researchers at Stanford University took 24 undergraduate volunteers and placed them in a mock prison to study the effects of imposed social roles on behaviors. The group was randomly divided into "prisoners" and "guards" and sent to live in a faux-prison set up in the basement of the Stanford psychology building for two weeks. After 36 hours, the experiment was out of control. After six days, it had to be called off.

Researchers were shocked to see how quickly -- and to what extreme -- the volunteers fell into their perceived roles. "Guards" quickly exhibited ruthless -- and, in many cases, truly sadistic -- behavior. They imposed brutal physical punishments. They denied bathroom breaks. They forced "bad" prisoners to clean toilets with their bare hands. The "prisoners" were equally guilty of falling into their perceived roles because they accepted the treatment. When the prisoners were offered parole in exchange for forfeiting the money they were being paid for the experiment, most accepted. When their parole was rejected, they returned to their cells, despite the fact that they were free to leave the experiment at any time.

Psychologists use the Stanford Prison Experiment to support the theory of situational attributions of behavior, arguing that the situation caused the participants behavior, rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities.

Your buddy appears to support this theory, because he's allowing his situation to dictate his actions. He believes that his role requires brutal management based on the actions of his predecessor. And like anyone, he wants to be a little better than the previous person, which he's interpreting as "more ruthless."

You need to get your buddy to see the light. To do so, you may want to take another page out of the Stanford Prison Experiment. That experiment finally ended when the girlfriend of the chief researcher visited the "prison" and convinced her boyfriend -- who was serving as "warden" and later admitted to being completely caught up in his role -- of the brutality of the situation. You need to do the same.

The fact that you still refer to him as a "buddy" means you have a strong relationship, so you have the capacity to enlighten him and expose him to his own brutality. Get him out of the office, away from his role, and talk to him. Let him know what the others in the office are saying. Show him examples of where he crossed the line from being a tough boss to being a tyrant. Let him know that being a good boss doesn't have to mean ruling with an iron fist. And, most importantly, remind him of how you guys used to view "The Tyrant."

Use your power as a friend to remind him of the guy he was before he got promoted, and hopefully he'll have a moment of clarity and return to his true personality, which will allow him to bring his own best qualities to the role of "boss."

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wherestheline@gmail.com.

 

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.