McMurphy had it easy: When your boss is Nurse Ratched

If you read this post’s title and thought, “I totally get it”, then you have my heartfelt sympathy.  You are really dealing with something.

nurse_iconFor those of you wondering what the heck I’m talking about, a little background – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a terrific film (from the book which was made into a play) in which the protagonist McMurphy (a tour de force by Jack Nicholson) feigns insanity to avoid jail and comes face-to-face with Nurse Ratched (perfectly played by Louise Fletcher) – the no nonsense, no fun, rigidly exact head of the ward who relies on boredom and humiliation to rule with an iron fist.  She hides behind rules, reason, and a terrifying belief that she’s helping people even when she is doing the exact opposite.  McMurphy’s impassioned attempts to bring life into the ward lead to an escalating battle of wills…one that Nurse Ratched wins by (SPOILER ALERT) sending McMurphy “upstairs” for a lobotomy.

Now, hopefully you are NOT in a McMurphy vs Ratched battle of wills with your boss.  That would be bad (and you don’t want Chief to have to smother you before escaping…oh – SPOILER ALERT).  But there may be days when you feel like your boss is trying to drive you insane, or at the very least, like you’ve had a lobotomy.   Below are some tips on how to handle scenarios that make you feel like you’ve gone crazy:

The Situation: The Boss is a stickler for the rules.

No, Mr. McMurphy. When the meeting was adjourned, the vote was 9 to 9. 

In the movie, McMurphy tries to convince Nurse Ratched that they should get to watch the World Series on TV and they put it to a vote.  Long story short, the vote is 9 to 9 and McMurphy works desperately to get the Chief to vote.  Ratched adjourns the vote moments before the Chief raises his hand.  After all, rules are rules.  There are a lot of bosses out there who would applaud this stance, stubbornly seeing the world in black and white, refusing to admit there might be gray.

Why it sucks: Because it ignores the human element. Listen, I am a fan of having a process and some rules.  Consistency is an important part of scalability and, dare I say, fairness.  But you’ve got to be able to make a decision that makes SENSE.  It’s like zero tolerance policies – when you adopt an all or nothing approach, you end up suspending a 5 year old for making explosion sound effects because you’re afraid he might be a terrorist.

What do you do? The first thing you need to do is realize that your boss is motivate by rules and regulations.  Rah-rah moments like getting the previously-unresponsive Chief to raise his hand will not inspire your boss to change his/her ways.  Discuss the policy/rule with your boss, and understand why he/she is sticking to it.  Then find a way to base your argument for a decision that meets the parameters your boss outlines.

The Situation: The Boss doesn’t like to rock the boat.

The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.

Nurse Ratched approaches her job with the mantra that boredom = routine = sanity.  Steady as she goes.  Go about your business.  This too shall pass.  Any way you say it, you’re dealing with a Boss who wants to keep his head down and his people quiet.

Why this sucks: Because variety is the spice of life!  Innovation comes from friction – we don’t like something, so we change it.  Neuroscience tells us that a great way to keep the brain young is to keep learning new things.  And who doesn’t want a young brain? A boss who doesn’t encourage experimentation and dialogue will soon have a team of clock-watching zombies, shuffling about the office, waiting for their time to go home.  I’ve been in companies where people confuse stability with success. It keeps you from realizing your full potential as an employee, and that can make you bitter over time.

What do you do? If your boss is truly as risk- or change-averse as Nurse Ratched, you may be better off finding a champion outside of the team.  A mentor who can help you develop your ideas or point you towards some even better ones may help keep you challenged, even if your boss can’t.  Keep up on the latest and greatest ideas in your industry.  Read…a LOT.  Do anything you can to break your own routines.

The Situation: The Boss surrounds herself with group think, and is protected because of it.

Year by year she accumulates her ideal staff: doctors, all ages and types, come and rise up in front of her with ideas of their own about the way a ward should be run, some with backbone enough to stand behind their ideas, and she fixes these doctors with dry-ice eyes day in, day out, until they retreat with unnatural chills.

That pretty much sums it up.

Why this sucks: Because not only does the same bad thinking get perpetuated at the top, but anyone who tries to oppose this thinking gets shot down…to the point that people stop trying to change a terrible culture.  Apathy is one of the most depressing cultures, in my opinion.  Give me enthusiastic yes-men over people who don’t care (if I had to choose…but I wouldn’t want to choose).

What do you do? Keep trying.  McMurphy tried to rally his fellow ward-mates by playing poker, watching baseball – reminding them what it was like to be a human being.  Do the same with your coworkers.  Encourage their ideas, lift their spirits, remind everyone why they do what they do.  Not every boss lasts forever.  Your attempts to keep the dream alive will help your team, and it will give you something to fight for, too.

The Last Resort

No, I’m not talking about the scene where McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched. Sheesh, people.  This is a leadership blog, for goodness’ sake!

The reality is that some bosses cannot be outlasted.  After all, Nurse Ratched, though bowed, was not broken.  At some point, despite all your efforts, you find that you can’t fight anymore – the rest of the team moves on, you lose your mentor, you notice you’re not the chipper person you used to be.  You may need to simply move on and live to fight another day.  And as long as you gave it your best, you can leave with your head held high.

‘But I tried though,’ he says. ‘Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, now, didn’t I?’

Do you have a survival story?  I want to hear about it!  Leave a comment below!!!

2 thoughts on “McMurphy had it easy: When your boss is Nurse Ratched

  1. And so it goes… Well said Faulkner. Sage advice and I hope I have inspired others to try and survive, even thrive as I skip off to a new challenge!

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