The following stories are one employee's memories of an executive in his office. The author's identity, individuals' names, and other identifying information have been obfuscated to maintain confidentiality. I am grateful to this employee for allowing me to interview him and share his stories here. He hopes that this contributes to the blog's mission.
To maximize your learning, I suggest empathizing with the author. Put yourself in his shoes.
The first executive I came across, let's call him Ewan, was off. If someone disagreed with him in a meeting, he might insult or shame them. He also had a fragile ego. He singled me out (I eventually learned) with emotional abuse almost from the start, which made it really difficult for me to feel psychologically safe in the office.
During one office-wide meeting, we were discussing whether it made sense to buy $300 landline phones for everyone’s desk. Ewan announced that this was in the plan and opened it up for discussion. A senior member of our software team, Roger, told us that he never needs to talk to anyone on the phone to do his work, so if he gets a desk phone, it’ll just sit there. He was well-liked and good at his job. He was known for his cheeky sense of humor and the room chuckled along with him.
In response to this, Ewan said, “Roger, listen to yourself!” and then stood there looking at him. His tone of voice had disgust in it. His comment was abrupt and upsetting. He had a habit of doing this. When the meeting ended and we all walked out of the room, a coworker of mine had a suspicious look on his face and said, “that was...weird.” We all knew what he was referring to. Roger retired happily two years later.
Two coworkers of mine (one male, one female) were once presenting in a project review meeting. There were about fifteen people in the room. My coworkers were making the case that the project wasn't worth pursuing further. Ewan was presiding over the meeting and abruptly told them that they were “bitching” with a disgusted tone of voice. When he said that, there was dead silence in the room. Some people froze, including me.
He then asked to see the “marketing” slide again and proceeded to agree with my coworkers’ conclusions. He said that “there’s nothing for us here, it’s a saturated market”. The project was immediately shelved.
The project became an inside joke for many years afterwards because the laws of physics didn't allow the product to exist at all. Just ten days prior, we had held the technical progress meeting that reached that conclusion. The irony is that he made his comments in a meeting to evaluate the business case.
Kicking around new hires
Ewan started targeting me six weeks after I joined my group. A manager in my group eventually told me that Ewan felt I didn’t deserve to be here. That made total sense given how he conducted himself in our first conversation.
He walked up behind me at my desk, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “let’s speak in my office” in a dull, emotionless voice. He then turned around and walked back to his office without saying another word, and I followed him. I already felt shocked by this abrupt situation with a stranger.
He closed the door behind me and we sat down. He didn’t introduce himself or ask how things were going, or anything like that. He simply said, “I want you to tell me what you think you’re doing here, and then I’ll tell you what you should be doing.” All with a dead look on his face. I felt frozen and crushed at the same time. I remember that I was hunched over a bit in discomfort.
The conversation felt like it lasted forever. He told me that “this isn’t school anymore” and that “we do things differently around here”. I told him that it might take me some time to adjust. To that he replied, “you’ll do it today”. It felt like I had just been thrown up against the wall behind me. And it went on like that.
Before I walked out of his office, I asked him what his role was here but never mustered up the courage to ask for his name. I had been searching earlier for a nameplate on his desk and couldn’t find one. I was shocked by what was happening and struggled to think straight. As I left, he swiveled back to his desk and started typing, as if nothing had just happened.
Ewan had managed to intimidate a few other people whom he didn't like into quitting, including my mentor and another new hire in my group. But I resisted him. I wasn’t going to validate his bad behavior by doing exactly as he said. This must have really thrown him off because it was the start of a pattern that I later recognized as emotional abuse. First time being outright bullied by an adult as an adult.
Humility on command
After a while, it became clear that Ewan lacked empathy and was unhappy. It was really on another level and I wonder if he actually had a personality disorder.
He eventually got transferred out of our office, marked by an office-wide announcement meeting that was led by our CTO. My jaw nearly hit the floor when the CTO praised Ewan for his humility. It was something to the effect of, “something I’ve come to admire in Ewan is his humility”.
As soon as he said this, Ewan looked caught off guard for a split second, but then crossed his hands in front of himself and bowed his head as if he were paying respect to a fallen comrade. He reacted on command. It was obviously fake. It indicated to me that our CTO was a politician who couldn’t be trusted.
Here's another bizarre experience with Ewan. I was taking advantage of a quiet Saturday at the office to catch up on work. I was sitting in a video conferencing room situated in the corner of the building that fit up to eight people. The sliding door was closed. This was not long after he had probably gotten a talking to by another manager to leave me alone.
Ewan slid the door open, strolled confidently in and upon realizing that I was inside, quickly turned around and tried frantically to close the door. It had a funky latch mechanism that retracted into the door itself. He fumbled for a full ten seconds before getting it closed.
What really got me was that he was there to show his wife around the new workspace, and as they walked away down the hallway, he said that he was thinking of turning that conference room into his new office. I was stunned. It was a room specially set up for video conferencing that everyone used for their meetings, sometimes with international collaborators. And he already had a much bigger office on another floor where all the executives had their offices, including the CEO, whose office was right next to his. It took me a good moment to wrap my head around his arrogance.
I worked through all of this with a therapist. Our sessions were mid-day on a Tuesday. Some days, before I returned to the office, I would first stop in the bathroom of the cafe across the street to cry for a while. That helped to process those painful emotions before I went back to my desk, which was in plain sight of Ewan's office and the passage that he used to get from his office to the main hallway and back.
My sense of psychological safety and belonging never fully recovered after that first year. Initially, my manager was helpful in giving me support and “managing up” with Ewan to “educate him”. He told me many things. That Ewan's behavior was "average" for someone in his position, that I “shouldn’t think of him as a colleague”, that I should “be pleasant if I see him around the office and tell him what he wants to hear”, that he “has a rigid mentality about hierarchy”, and that I’m on his bad side. He also said that Ewan is "too old to learn anything new”.
I felt as if I could go to my manager after each incident and be heard. But after a few months, he became annoyed and told me to stop bringing up the past.
Later on, I was told that management didn't think I handled the situation with Ewan well because most people “got along great with him”. For me, this was tone-deaf. It translated to “Ewan didn't bully anyone else who stayed, so why did you struggle so much when he bullied you?” The gaslighting was illogical and mind-boggling. It shielded Ewan from taking responsibility for his actions and shielded other managers from having to enforce healthy norms. I couldn’t tell if they just wanted to stay on his "good side" or they actually didn’t recognize that he had done something wrong.
One of my managers once wondered to me aloud, “why shouldn't I expect to have the same problems with you?” I tried to keep a straight face and said, “because you don't have a personality disorder and you're not emotionally abusive.” He looked confused. The ripple effects of Ewan's abuse echoed after he left my office.
Submission as a survival strategy
One former coworker said that, to deal with bully managers, you should smile and nod, never directly disagreeing, to avoid being targeted. It struck me to hear her say that because I was once perplexed by a guy who was talking to Ewan in his office. The man seemed to have a smile plastered on his face and he was nodding every 5-10 seconds, holding solid eye contact. He later became the head of a large group under Ewan.