“You carry forever the imprint that comes from being under someone’s thumb.”
—Nancy Banks Smith
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about ambitious women. We are not abrasive. We are not… What else do people say? Aggressive. Or monsters. No, we are talented, passionate, and strong. And I’ll also throw in wonderful. Just like our male counterparts. We are all of the latter things and yet too often we are labeled the former; even by our fellow sisters and otherwise well-meaning men—our husbands, fathers, brothers, and bosses.
I have never officially labeled myself a feminist though I suspect I rightly am. And being a feminist has not one thing to do with hating men or a desire to snatch away men’s rights. What it comes down to for me is a desire for collaboration and equal partnership. A desire to take a giant sledgehammer to the cement walls of privilege that stand in our way and create an equal-opportunity, equal-access and fully integrated community.
In the workplace, and the upper echelons of power, we hear a lot about glass ceilings. For many talented women and other minorities this is an accurate analogy—a seat at the table is visible yet unreachable. Still, for many more there isn’t so much a glass ceiling as a cement wall. No trespassing, the wall is labeled. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all doing a pretty good job of making cracks in glass ceilings, so I’m not really interested in them anymore. I want to effectively demolish those fucking walls.
Women come up against all kinds of subtle barriers in the workplace that men don't necessarily run into. The success of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In is a testament to the fact that these subtle barriers are finally being given the time of day. And when we’re competing with men, or most of the time just being perceived as competing with men, unnecessary power struggles ensue. A power struggle makes great work not, as Yoda might say. Instead, it makes a competitive every-person-for-themselves atmosphere where the individual’s best interest is considered first, above community and company goals. Some businesses thrive on this kind of old-guard boys club competitive culture. But the future looks a lot more collaborative. And the best companies to work for, the most successful companies, understand the importance of valuing their people first.
Power is a scary thing. Most of us will either crumble or become ruthless when we’re allowed too much of it. Power isn’t always held by the fair and just. And in order to climb, one needs to impress those with power. Power and the fear of loss of power is what keeps a cement wall in place. It’s what pushes someone to want to keep another under their thumb. But I really feel that one can only keep someone who is genuinely talented under their thumb for so long before they get fed up and break it.
So then, when ready to break a powerful thumb pressing from above, how does one fight back?
Let's first delve into psychology and look at the profile of someone who wields power ruthlessly and often insidiously—someone with a personality disorder.
The calling card of a personality-disordered leader—and by personality-disordered I’m referring to a Narcissistic Sociopath, or any of the Cluster B personality disorders that are quite often found sitting on the power side of cement walls—is an insidiously controlling relationship that goes through this cycle: idealize, devalue, discard. In a nutshell, that means a disordered leader—always very charming, outgoing and persuasive—will begin to idealize a new interest in their life as they focus all of their attention on acquiring this new desire.
After they’ve achieved their goal, or once their interest realizes what’s happening and begins to fight back, the disordered leader blames the object of their desire and devalues them. Then they abandon them, discarded as worthless. The whole cycle, for the victim, can best be described as being under someone’s thumb without ever realizing it until damages such as loss of job and reputation, and emotional damage—sometimes permanent—have been done.
Most often, anyone in the business world wielding lavish power who is actively and intentionally standing in another’s way—and probably using them to their own ends until it’s time to discard them—will fall into this personality-disordered category. When someone has another under their thumb, this is usually the kind of person they are.
The devaluation part of the cycle is where I want to focus. Because this is where the emotional and psychological damage begins. Disordered leaders only feel alive when they are in pursuit. Of wealth, status, power… But the most fun someone who is disordered in this way can have is in the pursuit of another person’s being. Their desire is driven by envy. They want to become their object of desire and force them to feel what they feel. We can think of them as vampires.
Once the hopeful glass-ceiling-breaker has given the green light to being idealized by this type of leader, the process of devaluation begins. They’ll be bombarded with various tactics aimed at getting them to allow this disordered individual to cross their boundaries. The first and most common tactic is for the disordered individual to mirror the victim and then convince them to mirror back. If successful, the identities of victim and leader are blurred.
Abuse comes in many forms. Emotional, physical and sexual abuses are equally degrading and harmful. One is not worse than the other. They are all abuse. And the manipulative tactics the disordered leader I’m describing above uses amount to abuse, plain and simple. Recognizing the tactics and playing against them intelligently will be the only way around them.
The simplest rules of the game are:
There is strength in numbers
Before effectively embracing victimhood and running to complain, remember: One complaint from one person makes that person look like a whiner. Many complaints from a group of people will raise eyebrows. Talk to trusted colleagues. Chances are, almost everyone has had an experience with the disordered individual but no one has mentioned their experience out of fear. Band together and take action.
Remain emotionless. Unless…
Never show emotion or any kind of weakness to a disordered leader unless the intent is to game them (Note: Gaming anyone is unethical and never suggested, unless wanting to fight back in this type of incredibly difficult situation). People with Cluster B personality disorders thrive on others’ weaknesses. If the emotion being shown is in fact genuine weakness, head to the bathroom and privately let it out there. On the other hand, if the intent of showing the emotion is to feign weakness, let it out but be cautious. The bottom line is to never let this type of individual know they're successful at their button-pushing unless the intent is to let them think they're successful.
Stay strong and trust instincts
The thing about manipulation is that no one is entirely immune. And those skilled at it, who actually use it, are pretty ruthless. The going will get tough, the tactics tougher. There will be false promises, silent treatment, gaslighting, seduction, intimidation, and more. Recognizing tactics and trusting instincts will be paramount. It's important to remember that when dealing with a disordered individual, their own interests, survival and well-being is their only priority—not the interests, health and well-being of those around them.
Have a backup plan
Great leaders hate bullshit. They value strong-minded, honest achievers who know their shit, and promote them. But disordered leaders hate strong-minded, honest, knowledgeable achievers and aim to squash them. The only way to be promoted when a disordered individual is leading is to become their lackey. So whenever making the choice to expose this kind of leader rather than become their lackey, it’s important to anticipate their wrath and have a backup plan—whether it be another job waiting in the wings or the support of someone (or a few someones) higher up within the organization.
To be certain, not all glass ceilings are put in place by power-hungry, personality-disordered leaders. But cement walls are, and even some female leaders who may have been ruthless in breaking their glass ceilings will turn to putting up cement walls to protect their hard-won positions. So when I talk about demolishing cement walls, this is the type of leader I talk about going up against. Sometimes the battle might not be worth it. Other times, it might be much more worthwhile to be part of meaningful and lasting change, breaking thumbs and taking a sledgehammer to walls, than it would be to sit on the sidelines.
For those who may find themselves in a situation where boundaries are continually being crossed and attempts to resist or push back are twisted to make it seem that they are the problem individual, it may be well worth it to become more informed about Cluster B personality disorders. Counseling Resource is a wonderful... Well... Resource.