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  • Writer's pictureChristina

Mental Health Mondays | Dressing Up Abuse in a Ball Gown Doesn’t Change That It’s Abuse.

Updated: May 25

I recently had a heart-breaking interaction with a coworker.


A member of the client satisfaction team and part-time developer came to me for advice. He was looking to change jobs but didn’t want to do anything rash, like quitting. He wanted to know if he was being unreasonable.


I was astonished because this young man was the company superstar. Everyone looked to him as an example of an ideal employee. We went into my office, and he started unloading.

He had grown tired of being told how great he was but was being blocked from advancement or any meaningful growth. Which is a valid complaint. He told me that whenever he receives feedback from his managers, it’s always phrased as how great he is but if he worked harder, he would be the best and moved into management.


He started getting teary-eyed when he said that he finally told his senior manager that he was doing his absolute best and she responded with “I don’t believe that, you have so much more potential in you.”


I asked if his feedback included any SMART goals, incentives to perform better, or at the bare minimum something to work on. “Yeah,” he said, “the problem is, it’s always for metrics that I’m already top performer for.


After the discussion, he left and informed the HR director that he was formally resigning. In the meeting the next day, senior managers were incensed. How could they lose their best employee, especially after telling him how great he was all the time. Clearly, he was just ungrateful. I steered the discussion to the things that the employee had mentioned. They wrote off his (and my) concerns by stating that it’s the leading with a carrot trick, it’s how to keep employees engaged and operating at 110%. They knew he wanted to be a manager, so telling him he needed to work harder to be one led him to be the best in the building. They were doing him a favor!


The general belief was that promoting him would disincentivize him to work at the exceptional level that he had been working at.


When this is published (2nd of October), it will be the first week we are working without him. I can only imagine how much this is going to negatively affect, not only the client experience and satisfaction but the ripple effect it will have on team morale.


For this month’s installment of Mental Health Monday, I want to talk about the use of positive feedback as a way to control and manipulate your team.


The Bastardization of Control Theory

First off, let’s talk about control theory and cults.


Control theory, in its most basic term, is a theory of motivation that argues that an individual’s behavior is determined by what they want at that time. That is, it’s not something that is influenced by the outside world but is something intrinsically determined.


Employers use this as a way to tap into that intrinsic desire/want/need to manipulate the motivational factor that contributes to hard work. The dangled carrot theory. If you know that an employee wants to move into management, you continually tell them how close they are, knowing that it’s going to tap into that desire to move up, encouraging them to work harder.


It promises an outcome, which encourages the work, but has been predetermined to never deliver on the outcome, call it moving the goalposts.

This sort of manipulation is also seen in cults. The promise of something the prospective cultists wants then a constant moving of the carrot to encourage the new recruit into going deeper and deeper.


Nobody wants to be accused of running a cult in the workplace, so what is there to do? How do you recognize the signs of positive manipulation, and how do you correct it?


Am I Rationalizing My Bad Behavior?

Ask yourself, do I find myself rationalizing why I’m giving this feedback?


In talking to a former district manager of a Fortune 500 company (with a reputation for this bad behavior), the DM said that every time he would provide this hollow type of feedback, he had to tell himself that he was just helping the individual reporting to him grow. He was doing good things. He was being a leader.


Deep down, he said, he knew that wasn’t true. He was doing it because he knew if he told the truth people would quit. “I knew I was deliberately ignoring the weird intricacies of the roles and exploiting hidden nuance to tell them what they wanted to hear so that they would think they were just inches away from achieving their goal.”


What Happens if They Achieve Their Goal?

Ask yourself, if my report achieves their goal, what effect will that have on my team?

What we are trying to uncover is if there is a buried deep motivation to keep the individual where they are. In speaking with my dear friend and confidant, he told me the number of times that he was told they couldn’t promote him because he was too valuable where he was.


This is something that comes up frequently. Frequently enough you are guaranteed to always find a handful of inspirational managerial messages on LinkedIn encouraging managers to not get stuck in the trap of punishing hard work.


The fear of losing a valuable key player can drastically change how you interact with that employee, whether you realize it or not.


This fear can lead you to constantly move the goalposts, thereby severely limiting what the employee can achieve, all the while praising them for their performance.


Why Are You This Way?

The cap’n has a guiding principle when it comes to leadership. Train your team, such that any one of them could replace you.


“When I worked for {major food manufacturer}, the managers were all desperately clinging to their positions. Anytime one of their sales reps began to outshine their district manager, it was almost guaranteed that that person would be somehow put in their place. This was contrary to my belief that in any master-student relationship, the student should always outshine the master, that’s their job.”


For many managers, the fear that their reports will someday be more successful than they are, that one day they will be reporting to those that were initially reporting to them, or that they will be viewed as being lesser than their report can be detrimental to the health of the team, and the environment in which they work.


So, ask yourself, why am I like this?


So, We’re Not Allowed to Provide Feedback Now?

The enraged backlash I get when discussing this issue is always the same. We’re not allowed to tell people they are doing a good job? We’re not allowed to give them constructive feedback?


This is almost always peppered with terms such as “snowflake,” “millennials,” “no one wants to work,” and “socialism.”


Let me stress this point, we are not saying that you can’t provide feedback, we are saying that your reason for it should be genuine, and not for the purpose of manipulating your employees.


One thing I’ve learned from writing for this site is that those who want to maintain the status quo are quick to scream and yell about how encouraging a healthy work environment is ruining capitalism.


So, I want to reiterate something that was said in the first installment: this is not about you. Stop being a child. We can do things better, but it means giving up on the toxic things that have caused so much heartache and mental health issues. We need to break the cycle.

In my graduate program, I interviewed a research participant who was dealing with workplace PTSD. While they were embarrassed to admit it, they no longer could take any sort of positive feedback without becoming angry and lashing out. They had been told how great they were, but also told that they weren’t good enough for any sort of recognition. Eventually, receiving praise was linked to frustration. Anything positive was seen as a lie and a way to placate him. He went from being a top-10 employee, to the guy no one wanted to talk to. He told stories of nightmares he would have, intrusive thoughts about how terrible he was, thoughts about how he’ll never live up to the expectations imposed on him, how he is a disappointment to those he respected.


I think of this man’s story, and I hear MBAs sitting in their castle in the clouds defend the behavior that leads to this, and I hear them call him a snowflake because he couldn’t stand being told he needed to work harder on a daily basis for seven plus years, even though he was sacrificing personal time and relationships for this company. I hear these things, and it fills me with absolute rage.


We can do better.


We can break the cycle.


How Do We Do It Right?

· Stop presenting these promised goals (like being promoted, making a top-sales rep list, etc.) as a definite. The dangling carrot theory doesn’t work unless there is a definitive goal that will be achieved.

· Only layout what is expected to reach the goal. To move into management, you don’t need to be the absolute best of the absolute best (otherwise no one would be promoted). Layout what things are typically looked for when determining the goal and start working from there.

· Let your employee control the conversation. A great way to prevent you from abusing your authority to manipulate your reports, is to let your reports control the conversation. Instead of telling them what they need to work on, ask them what they want to work on.

· Encourage them to self-reflect on where they still need to develop. When they see a need to develop somewhere, build your discussion around that.

· Beyond just setting their own goals, ask them what they feel their end-goal is. What does their life look like once they’ve achieved the goals they’ve set? You’ll be amazed how much they are willing to engage, when you get them thinking about the day after achieving their goals.

· Always, always, include frustrations as part of the discussion. So many times, managers don’t want to hear that an employee is running into problems with their growth. Be prepared to acknowledge that you might be the frustrating party.

· Make sure that all communication is going both ways. Obviously, you’ll have visibility to the things that your report doesn’t see. These things should be shared, but not in a way that dominates the conversation. State what you see and give them time to respond. Don’t become defensive if they argue that you don’t have the full picture.

· Related to the previous point, always phrase your feedback in the context of their discussion. Remember, you are letting them drive this interaction. Too many times, employees will want to discuss one thing, and the manager will change the subject to talk about what they want to talk about. It’s ok to talk about the things you want to talk about, but make sure you do so in the context of the current conversation. If you struggle to work it in, make it a point to discuss it later, or after you wrap up the current conversation.


Closing Thoughts

There is a difference between capital T Trauma, and lowercase t trauma. Both of which can contribute to a decline in an individual’s mental health. Occupational PTSD can be caused by long term exposure to lowercase t trauma like bullying, gaslighting, feeling of helplessness, emotional abuse, and emotional manipulation, not just moments where they fear for their life or safety.


It’s weird that we’ve become so accustomed to managers manipulating and emotionally abusing/emotionally blackmailing their employees that it’s difficult to have this discussion. It’s the workplace norm.


The purpose of this article isn’t to persuade you to never give positive feedback to employees, it is to make sure that that positive feedback doesn’t have a sinister reason behind it. Feedback should be used as a way to grow, not as a way to manipulate.


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