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Work Ethic

Stunted at work? How to bypass the office hierarchy

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

In a famous John Cleese sketch, who looks down on whom is parodied. (BBC)

The question of who looks up to—or down on—whom is parodied by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett on Frost Over England. (BBC)

Q: The owner of our company and his sister are both executives here. While they’re both friendly when I meet them socially, they make life in our office quite difficult. Perennially unhappy with the team’s work, they frown and complain constantly, and insist employees stop whatever they’re doing to fulfill their requests. What can we do about this?

A: This sort of hierarchical leadership ought to be as antiquated as an iPhone 3 by now. Companies these days generally understand that good ideas can come from anywhere in the ranks, and they try to make employees feel as though their contributions are important. A company that doesn’t get this is a tough place to work.

What you’re experiencing is “stiff neck syndrome, a condition employees developed by looking up and waiting to be told what to do,” said Frank R van Vliet, an executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, in Baltimore, Maryland.

If your managers demand that employees stop what they’re doing to tend to their whims, you and your colleagues will continue to suffer from a case of stiff neck. “Why would someone want to start a task on his or her own accord, when they know that the boss could come around the corner at any moment and change the scope of work that the employee was planning to tackle?” van Vliet asks.

This kind of behaviour can sometimes be found at start-ups where the entrepreneur is still in charge but the company has grown larger. In the early days of a company, the founders have to make all the decisions and do all of the work. The problem comes when they have trouble trusting the employees they hire later on. At some point, a manager has to back off and let people do their jobs.

First, think about your own behaviour, just to rule out the possibility that it’s actually you who are the problem. Do you work in a self-directed manner? Get all your work done? Take the initiative? Do you complain about other things in the office, or just this one aspect of workplace life? Maybe your performance is what’s wrong in this situation.

If not, you’ll have to seek some sort of conflict resolution. If your company has a human resources department, consider discussing this situation with them first “Allowing the management team to belittle employees, either one-on-one, or worse, in front of others, should be not be tolerated,” van Vliet said.

If there isn’t an HR department, or if that function is filled by the boss who’s bothering you, van Vliet suggests sitting down with that manager and having a calm, rational discussion. Because you said your two executives are friendly in social situations, they may be amenable to this approach. Explain how all the interruptions to your work are getting in the way of your productivity and morale — and that of your colleagues. With introspection, and perhaps some coaching, it’s possible that your bosses could change their ways.

Maybe not, says van Vliet. It’s often true that “you can send a duck to eagle school, but at the end of the day you still have a duck.” In that case, you may have to look for a new job.

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Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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