Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shell-Shocked: Stalin and the KGB

In my experience I have worked for more poor leaders than I have good leaders. It is almost by bad example that I have learned "what not to do" when leading my own group of people. As I reflect on my past and current list of bad leaders I clearly see one who is the crème de la crème of poor management practices and behavior. I look back almost 10 years ago to my time working for a gem of a boss I’ll refer to as Stalin (named after the former cold hearted Soviet leader).

Stalin would enter my career by being promoted to Director of my department. I had known Stalin for many years and was very familiar with her tactics as I had interactions with her from time to time. Like the real Stalin she was both ruthless and ambitious, a combination that spelled doom for anyone who worked under her. She was also completely paranoid and employed KGB (Cold War Soviet Secret Police) management methods to ensure her people didn’t revolt.

Her KGB approach would ensure her complete control, as she constantly needed to know what people were doing or saying at all times. Some examples of her KGB methods included:

  • Stalin had hand picked several of "work moles" to infiltrate the various management groups within our large department. The "work mole" would come into your group as a new hire of Stalin’s. They would attempt to blend in, all the while compiling information to report back to Stalin. The "work mole" in my group was named Nancy and she was very clever.

  • Any managers that were not "in line" (as she would say) with her commands were frequently belittled in front of the group. . I can remember one massacre meeting in which she, one by one, pointed out the faults of each team member in the room. She’d break you down, but never build you back up. This ensured conformity with her dictatorship as the weakened cannot rise up against the strong.

  • She would setup interogations or "fish sessions" in which she would at first act like she was just getting updates on your work. The "fish sessions" would slowly evolve into her attempting to pry information out of you about other members of the team. She used "smear tactics" as she would make up something derrogatory that a fellow co-worker said about you to see if you would then spill your guts about that employee. She was always looking for an angle to take advantage of people and situations.

I had been under her KGB rule for over 2 years when I tried to lead a revolt. My fellow managers had always looked to me for guidance and assistance. Many of them came to me and we began to discuss how bad things were and how sick we were of Stalin. The stars seemed to be in alignment as we had a new VP who was very interested in learning about each member of management. Although, I would normally follow the chain of command, this was not possible in this case as Stalin was a dictator and would not take my comments about her leadership seriously. Dictators don’t listen to reason, they send you off to some deserted wasteland and leave you to die if you remotely oppose them.

Our new VP had gotten to know me and was impressed by my work. During one of his visits he had asked if I would like to go to dinner with him to "talk about the department". During our dinner he had eluded to Stalin’s dictator style and asked for my comments. At first I was aprehensive in answering questions about my boss as I always believe in the chain of command. But then I thought about the past two years and how badly my co-workers and I were treated. I spilled my guts on her. I didn’t feel good about it, but I felt it necessary to overthrow our ruthless dictator. My VP assured me he would look into the situation and try to make things better for all of us.As I said, Stalin was paranoid and caught wind of my dinner with our new VP, through her "work mole" Nancy. She called me in the next day to "fish" about what I had discussed with our VP. Despite her "fishing" I stayed strong and left the interrogation unscathed.

My downfall in my revolt efforts came with one sentence said out of frustration. Since my meeting with the VP, Stalin had been increasingly cruel and demanding with me. She had called me one day before she was flying out to Ohio on business to rip me out about an email I didn’t copy her on. Upon ending our conversation I slammed the phone down and uttered "have a nice trip, I hope your plane crashes!" I’m not trying to defend my statement, because it was wrong, but I was frustrated and we all say things we don’t mean sometimes. Unfortunately I was in the presence of Nancy the "work mole". Nancy had heard the comment and I was doomed.
Stalin returned later in the week and I was immediately called into her office. She started the meeting by saying "so, I hear you want me to die in a plane crash!" My heart dropped and I knew my days at the company were coming to an end. I tried to explain, but you can’t explain a comment like that to a dictator. She had siezed the opportunity to discredit me and the revolt was over. It was not long until she had told my VP of my comments, probably adding on to the story. A few months later, to the dismay of my co-workers, I left the company for another opportunity.

Why leaders like Stalin exist in the workplace is beyond me. They do exist though and almost thrive as companies pay less and less attention to what and how leaders manage. It’s unfortunate because many innovative people are squashed each day by poor leaders who only regard people as pawns, to be used and disgarded. The bad leaders out there just drive people to become Turtles at Work. Being a Turtle is may be all you can do to survive, so stay within the shell!


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