Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Petruchio Trap

I published the following little article in a local newspaper, The Northern Rivers Echo. It was stimulated by a number of stories about how our workplaces are unhealthy places and a result of applying the 'business model' blindly.

Organisations at Their Worst

The Petruchio Trap

You might, as do a lot of workers, sometimes wonder about the long hours you’re working, the way in which your bosses keep increasing your targets, loading you with extra tasks. What is worse is that you feel powerless to stop it. You can’t complain because that will really work against you. And with a poor job market and your other responsibilities, you feel trapped. You may be someone low in the food change, a manager under pressure to get your team to perform or even a CEO who has to meet the expectations of the board or shareholders.

Well there’s a name for this situation and I’ve called it the Petruchio Trap. The term is taken from The Taming of the Shrew in which Petruchio systematically tames Katherina through prolonged, non-violent abuse until she becomes a totally subservient wife. The tragedy, of course, (I’ll avoid the debate about how tragedy can be found in what is essentially a comedy) is how Katharina became trapped and allowed him to do this to her at all.

In the frenzy of the industrial revolution it was standard practice to exploit workers in myriad ways that included poor wages, unsafe and poor working conditions, long hours, and low prospects. Most people, even employers, would agree that sending young children up chimneys is undesirable, although the export of manufacturing to exploit the low cost workforces of SE Asian and Pacific countries might belie that hope. Nonetheless, most Western countries have enjoyed largely civilised industrial conditions post revolution. But capitalism, or at least its ideals, has come up with some new ways of exploiting workers in the new globalised age. One of these is the Petruchio Trap, a tactic based on abuse and exploitation.

The inability experienced by some people to leave an abusive, controlling or just plain negative relationship is a well-known psychological phenomenon. The victim unwittingly, reinforces the behaviour of the perpetrator by not taking positive action to stop it. For example, the victim, usually a female, is subject to physical and/or verbal abuse but on each occasion either stays in the relationship or returns after a having left during the incident. The implicit message in the simple act of not taking a stand and leaving the relationship if the behaviour continues is permission to continue the abuse. It is important to point out that it is not the victim’s intent to be abused and that the perpetrator is solely responsible.

This phenomenon is quite complex and controversial regarding the underlying pathology. The victim often believes that one day the negative behaviour will eventually cease and life will get better. This is usually underpinned by emotional dependency by the victim on the perpetrator so that the consequences of leaving far outweigh those of staying. Fear of retribution, powerlessness, worthlessness and decreasing self-esteem may also play a role in the victim not being able to see a way out of the situation. The perpetrator, however, continues to have his or (more rarely) her needs met in a strange, unconscious and pathological way.

The Petruchio Trap is an organisational variant of this phenomenon. It is particularly invidious because it is consciously employed by CEOs with an astonishing lack of concern about the damage that it does to people. Psychologists and medical practitioners commonly see the damage in their consulting rooms and organisational psychologists are often called in to fix organisations fractured by the inevitable human resource disaster.

The relationship between victim and organisation starts innocently enough and may appear very positive at the outset. Then slowly, once the honeymoon is over, management keep upping expectations for deliverables until the employee is completely overwhelmed. It is often done gradually, just like the boiling frog syndrome, and the employee often doesn’t realise what is happening until it is too late. By then the employee is working at weekends and evenings just to keep up. Often there is a decrease in staff rather than an increase and this strategy has a subtle intent of creating uncertainty. It also starts a cycle of a sense of increasing worthlessness, that no-one cares. As I’ve often said to suffering patients in this trap that it takes a long time for an organisation learn to love you!

The fear for the employee is that if they say ‘no’ to additional work, complain, or fall behind they will be ‘performance managed out of their job’. The victim may mention their situation with their line supervisor who is just as powerless to do anything because they are in the same situation. At some stage up the food chain, the ‘complainant’ is met with a sage smile and a shrug. I have even heard more than one senior manager in organisations for which we have consulted say that, ‘if they don’t like it then they can apply for another job’ when confronted with staff dissatisfaction and without understanding the true cause of the problem. Humans attack when they are criticised and this response is understandable but it is not the best response, which is to think hard about why people are unhappy.

The employee who is most conscientious, agreeable, and who enjoys their profession is most likely to hang on and keep trying to attain the targets drifting ever further out of reach. Other factors that contribute to Petruchio Trap are financial insecurity, a mortgage, a single parent family, and a poor job market.

The effect on the victim is enormous. Responses include anger, anxiety, sleep disturbance and ensuing fatigue, substance abuse, relationship problems and physical illness related to stress. A drop in actual work performance and accuracy results from these symptoms. The victim loses confidence in the organisation but, in a spiral of increased powerlessness, cannot find a way out of the trap. The link between helplessness and depression is well known and the spiral downward is not uncommon when the trap is sprung.

The negative effect on the organisations is just as deleterious and it is strange that CEOs and boards would encourage an activity that, despite being intuitively logical, will be more likely to reduce effectiveness and efficiency. There is a mountain of research that demonstrates that reduced job satisfaction is directly related to reduced performance and quality. There is also vast occupational stress research, which shows that mental health problems (stress, anxiety, depression) are also related to performance, sick leave and staff turnover. Of course high staff turnover is a huge cost to organisations resulting in lost service ability, advertising, recruiting, and training. Of course, there is strong self-destructive element on the part of the perpetrator in abusive relationships, so at least organisations are remaining consistent with the syndrome.

The phenomenon is not confined, as one might think, to the big business end of town. In an age when all organisational activity is based on a business model the public sector is as culpable as the private. In fact, those organisations, such as health, which you would somehow expect to be more sensitive to the wellbeing of their employees, are often worse than others who might not know better. One only has to look at the plight of nurses to see the effect although they are leaving the profession in droves thereby, wisely, avoiding the Petruchio Trap.

The answer to this problem is not simple because, like the exploitation of the industrial revolution, the core of the issue is corporate greed. A solution will involve CEOs and boards of directors being held accountable for creating these damaging co-dependant traps. It will take governments to do what they did with bullying and harassment, which was to expose the behaviour and make it illegal. Or will we see the rise of unionism again to protect these new victims of the industrial age?


  1. I'm with you Stewart. I'll add your blogs to those my own blog refers to. Interestingly we both seem to be dealing with similar issues in different ways. Well done. keep it up.

  2. Your observations are spot on and well stated. It is difficult to believe that we still to replow this ground after years and decades of preaching on these issues. Thanks for shedding more light on this.

    Dick Ward

  3. I like the topic here. We see it every day with SME's. Business Owners so focused on an outcome that they miss the repercussions their behavior has on not just the team in the business, but also in their personal and professional environments. Just like the CEO's in your article, people are so focused on a result or outcome they miss the fundamentals of leadership. When will people learn to work smarter not harder! :)

    Lovin your work....keep em coming.


  4. You are so correct when you say it doesn't only happen at the big end of town. I've seen the Petruchio Trap used recently in a NFP with supposedly high ideals. Unfortunately the gap between rhetoric and reality is all-too-often wide enough to drive a truck through!