To be “pathological” or nearly so, behavior doesn’t have to be menacing or insane.

Stupid, pointless and self-sabotaging behavior, such as screaming at employees, will do as close approximations, especially when the consequences for the individual or for others are dire.

Acting in a merely neurotically self-defeating way, especially when it is habitual, is sometimes enough, even if not necessary, for pathology. Screaming at an employee (or anybody else, for that matter) is a case in point. An irascible boss’s (frequent) screaming at an employee in order to motivate her is an example of what can demonstrate both pathology and stupidity (which are, in virtue of being equally “maladaptive”, closely related, although, of course, not identical).

The Three Legs of Pathology

Although the term is used far too casually, and far too often without any clear definition (even in psychiatric literature), “pathological behavior” can perhaps best be understood as behavior that is

  • Self-defeating, self-frustrating or self-destructive (e.g., pathological dieting to the point of emaciation or even death)
  • Without any rationally predictable or predicted net benefit to anyone (e.g., pointless, needless, yet compulsive lying that is unmotivated by any anticipated rational gain, as opposed to the calculated and strategic lying of spies and ponzi-scheme operators)
  • Unjustifiably and dangerously anti-social (e.g., sociopathic criminal behavior)

When at least one of the above applies, a particular case of office screaming may prima facie be viewed as pathological. Just as gambling and lying come in both pathological and non-pathological forms, office screaming per se can be non-pathological, depending on the specifics of the case, e.g., whether employees somehow positively respond to being screamed at. (This suggests that social pathology is best defined as an n-person relationship, not as a single-person trait. If the screaming works, it’s not pathological, even if scary or irritating.)

What will make the screaming both stupid and pathological is the circumstance in which although repeated outbursts are intended to improve employee performance, they are very likely to impair it, making the screaming self-defeating. This is what will happen when (as is commonly the case) the employee can take flight (quit), fight back (even if only passive aggressively, e.g., by working more “carefully” and therefore much more slowly), or feel so much fright or resentment as to be unable to concentrate on the job.

Self-Defeating Brooms and Bosses

Such self-defeating actions, like that of a badly frayed and disintegrating broom that mostly sweeps up its own broken and shed bristles, are forms of self-contradiction: the means adopted preclude and subvert achieving the ends. One’s stated goals are contradicted by one’s chosen means. The solution, like sweeping with a damaged broom, perpetuates or exacerbates the problem.

It’s a bit like a goth teenager’s trying to get her parents to love jarring dub-step and ear-splitting punk rock by turning up the volume: the louder the message, the more deaf to it the target audience becomes. More achieves less—result: self-defeat. This frustrating outcome is especially likely when the dramatic medium (a megaphone-volume scream) dwarfs the basic message (“Please work harder”).

The pathologically screaming boss is in the contradictory state and situation of seeking workplace harmony (in terms of smooth performance) by creating organizational, interpersonal and personal disharmony (the latter being his internal disharmony in the form of frustration and the shared perception of a conflict); by attempting to increase productivity by jeopardizing it; and by trying be respected or feared while in fact triggering resentment, resistance or retreat.

It is often said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Although this definition has its flaws (e.g., bending metal over and over again and expecting it to split, far from being an insane notion, is perfectly intelligent), it is a useful diagnostic in some instances, including instances of office screaming.

Smart Screaming

The only circumstance in which screaming at an employee doesn’t carry the risk of amounting to a huge self-defeat is when the employee cannot quit, cannot resist and is not so traumatized by it as to be unable to do her job. Such situations do exist—for instance, the relationship between a waking and hungry screaming infant (employer) and its harried mother (employee).

But given the odds against such successful screaming in other contexts, characterizing it as high-risk self-defeating behavior seems right.  When it persists, despite being virtually guaranteed to fail, such screaming deserves to be labeled pathological, or at least really stupid.

Using the three criteria given above to determine whether specific behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, etc., are pathological, labeling screaming as pathological seems warranted if the outbursts are self-defeating, demonstrably without benefit to anyone and/or unjustifiably anti-social (or unprofessional), with the co-existence of any dire consequences as a compounding factor.

To the extent that the screamer is a boss or an infant who not only can get away with such high-decibel onslaughts, but can also get what (s)he wants, the screaming is not evidence of pathology. Instead, it is merely evidence of….

….being a baby.

Like this article? Subscribe today! We also offer tons of free eBooks on career and recruiting topics - check out Get a Better Job the Right Way and Why It Matters Who Does Your Recruiting.
in Business Communication]