Use the Force: What To Do If You Work For Darth Vader

Back in July, I wrote a post titled “Searching For Your Jedi: What Star Wars Can Teach Us About Hiring Innovative Talent.” I offered specific interview questions managers could ask to ensure they are hiring their next Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. But I was checked by a reader who offered me some constructive feedback, saying my advice was all well and good for managers, but what about the creative, problem-solving, go-getter employees who find themselves facing down an evil boss like Darth Vader. How do they stay motivated to innovate if they work for the Dark Side?

That’s a very good question.

With Star Wars: The Last Jedi set for a Dec. 15 release, my inner movie geek keeps circling back to this dilemma. So, let’s explore the options.

You’ll get no argument from me that working for a bad boss is one of the most difficult situations there is. The stress and anxiety from a lousy work life can bleed into your personal life, coloring everything as gray and hopeless as the Death Star. In a best-case scenario, your Darth Vader is blissfully unaware that he/she stinks at management. But in the worst case, your Vader is a bully who derives pleasure from the power trip of controlling everyone and everything in the office. People fear him, so they will never take a risk or try something new because the consequences of failure are too great. Just look at what happened in Rogue One. Orson Krennic, a director in the Imperial Army, was heading up the project to build the Death Star and had completed his first successful test when he was summoned to a meeting with Vader. Vader questioned Krennic’s ability to continue leading the project and threatened to take it from him. Krennic appealed his case, and Vader responded by nearly choking him to death — a show of pure intimidation. It’s a scene that plays out in corporate offices across America, with the metaphorical choking of employees who excel at the tasks they are given only to discover that their best isn’t good enough.

Along with fear, a Darth Vader boss thrives off the self-doubt he creates in employees. Fear and doubt are two major obstacles in the pursuit of innovation. And if you have Siths in your organization with power and influence, you can kiss that growth mindset goodbye. Just like their fictional counterparts, Sith types grow stronger from exploiting the weaknesses of others. They encourage strife, struggle and confusion. They are the bloodsuckers of every office.

I would be remiss to leave out the Stormtroopers. You know who they are — the folks who blithely follow the Dark Lord because acquiescing is easier than innovating. Unfortunately, these Stormtroopers are multiplying as employees become more and more disengaged at work.

Now that I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of working for the Dark Side, you’re probably thinking the only advice I can offer you is to bail. While there are definitely situations in which I would shout, “ALL IS LOST! GET OUT NOW!” I’m not pulling the plug just yet. There is something you can do, and you’ve heard about it before. It’s called managing up.

You can’t work through a Darth Vader boss, so you have to learn to work around him to accomplish your goals. That means figuring out what sets him off, what makes him happy, what he fears most and what he is trying to accomplish for himself. Got a Vader who loves to hear himself talk? Then give him the stage. Got a Vader who hates it when you know more than she does? Then minimize your giant brain while in her presence, or find a way to use it to make her look good. Got a Vader who is just mean? Then kill him with kindness. He’ll find it so disarming that he may eventually leave you alone to do your thing.

There are a number of tactics you can use to manage up, and nearly all of them require a combination of diplomacy and suppression. You will need to suppress your urge to fight back. You will need to suppress your urge to point out Vader’s mistakes. From time to time, you will even need to suppress the urge to throw your coffee mug at his big, stupid helmet head.

While I highly recommend avoiding conflict, I’m not telling you to kowtow to bullying or let Vader make you doubt yourself. You should gently and firmly stand up for yourself. And don’t succumb to the Dark Side. If you find yourself giving up and giving in, then it’s definitely time to go. Life’s too short to be miserable, and work is way more satisfying when we are given the support to live up to our full Jedi potential.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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