5 Signs of StartUp Stockholm Syndrome

Start_Up_Stockholm_Syndrome-flying_chairYour entrepreneur boss throws a chair across the office and you should probably think to yourself, self, this is not a stable boss.

But then again, he didn’t throw the chair at you. So that’s okay, right?

It’s not the type of behavior that would be tolerated at say, IBM, but in the sometimes bizarro world of entrepreneurial start-ups, it’s accepted. Almost expected. In fact, the antics often become part of the office lore. Remember the time —insert entrepreneur boss’s name here— set the office on fire? Forgot to wear shoes to work? Disappeared for an entire week?

The stories are retold to new hires that weren’t there during the “crazy times.” And those new hires lament the fact that they missed out on the turmoil.

The question is why.

Start_Up Stockholm_Syndrome_shoelessI worked for the furniture flinger. I also worked for shoeless Joe Jackson. And in college I worked for an entrepreneur restaurateur who would fire the entire staff regularly. At least one busy Saturday night a month he would arrive to the restaurant drunk, and fire everyone. Including two of his own children.

We’d all show up to work the next day and laugh as we told the story to the co-workers who weren’t lucky enough to be part of the chaos.

“Yep, he fired us last night. Again.”

This particular gem of a boss once waived a butcher knife in the faces of a shocked suburban family as he as he kicked them out of his restaurant for sending back an appetizer.

We told that story a lot.

But why did we stay?

Ties that Bind
A study by the Corporate Executive Board of 20,000 employees discovered that workers are more likely to stay in a job if they feel connected to the company’s strategy. Even longer if the employee is put in a position to help solve some of the company’s biggest challenges.

Connection to the company? Check. Nowhere are employees more connected to their company than in the sink-or-swim environment of an entrepreneurial start-up. And feeling like you contribute in solving the company’s problems? Check that box too. The phrase “all hands on deck” doesn’t come close to describing it. In a start-up environment it takes all hands to hold the deck above water.

But do we still feel this connection even if our boss’s behavior is intolerable? The answer is yes.

Stuck in Stockholm
Combine a strong feeling of connection with the constant adrenaline rush of launching a business and you get Start-up Stockholm Syndrome. No, it’s not an actual certified medical condition. I just made it up. But I think it’s appropriate, even if it sounds a bit extreme.

There are very basic emotions involved in Stockholm Syndrome; fear and self preservation. Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was said to have been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome when she wielded an assault rifle while robbing a bank with her captors. She certainly didn’t need the money. And when she was freed, she defended her kidnappers.

It boils down to the psychological shift that takes place when someone receives both threats and kindness from the same source, and chooses to believe the acts of kindness are more representative of the aggressor’s true self.

Usually they’re not. Not in the case of actual captors, and not in the case of a boss who throws office furniture. Or verbal barbs. Or any other treatment that makes you want to run screaming from the building or crawl back into your mother’s womb.

Despite this fact, some eager start-up employees can become emotionally stuck in a situation that is anything but healthy. Start-up Stockholm Syndrome.

Check out some comparisons.

  • In Stockholm Syndrome captors keep their victims isolated from the outside world. (When did you last have free time with non-work people?)
  • In Stockholm Syndrome captors make it clear that they can inflict mental or physical pain. (Do you go to meetings afraid your boss is going to make you look like an idiot? Do you fear getting fired? Does the staff walk on eggshells, unsure what the mood will be today? You’re living in fear.)
  • In Stockholm Syndrome captors hold the keys to life. (You entrepreneur boss writes your check; which feeds, clothes and houses you. The keys to life.)

You see what I mean? The basic criteria are met.

Start-Up Stockholm Syndrome Quiz
So are you captivated by your job, or are you being held captive? Take our quiz and see for yourself.

The toxic level of stress you feel 24/7 is due to:
A. the challenging workload typical of a start-up.
B. you fear that Mr. Hyde will come to work instead of Dr. Jekyl.

You toss and turn at night because:
A. you wonder if you could have done something (on your impossibly long list of tasks) better.
B. you fear the of the wrath of your boss if he thinks you could have done something (on your impossibly long list of tasks) better.

You eat bland, over-salted frozen meals at your desk everyday because:
A. it’s a start-up and you need every minute of your day to get the job done.
B. you fear getting fired if your boss finds your desk empty even for a minute. (Or worse, the boss will think you’re not passionate enough, or even a whimp for needing the break.)

You’ve forgotten your friend’s names and your parent’s phone number because:
A. you’re passionate and excited about the job. There’ll be time for friends and family when the product launches, the big meeting is over, or the next big hurdle is hurdled.
B. you leave work too drained to string a sentence together, let alone have a conversation.

You are on the verge of tears most of the time because:
A. you just broke up with your significant other, your dog died, or something equally (and actually) horrible.
B. you simply cannot take the mind-numbing stress a minute longer.

If you answered A to most or all of the above: Don’t be a weenie. Get back to work! The stress you feel is momentary, and normal for a start-up. Work through it!
If you answered B to most or all of the above: Your boss is a weenie. Get a life and get out while you can.

We know that some entrepreneur bosses are lacking in management savvy. They’re unique people with unique skills, and unique quirks. Often they are also uniquely bad managers. But if you know entrepreneurs, you know that they can be charismatic Pied Pipers with legions of loyal followers. Despite their bad behavior.

Or maybe, because of it.

Working for Wonka? Know this: If what ties you to your job feels more like a noose than a career path, it’s time to cut to the cord, announce your freedom and find another job.

(Reprint from FastCompany.com)

[Photo Credit: Captive Cartoon czsar via flickr, Flying Chair – monbibi via Shutterstock, Feet – Gemenacom via Shutterstock]


  • Corinne Edwards

    Reply Reply November 19, 2010

    I have worked for two crazy bosses. Never bothered me. They were so unpridictable they were fun.

    One of them fired me every other Friday night. But I was expected to show up on Saturday morning to show houses.

    Another was a binge drinker. He called me to bring some papers to his house one day.

    Sesame Street was on his TV,

    He asked me, “Are that a bird talking or am I still drunk?”

    • admin

      Reply Reply November 21, 2010

      Your stories crack me up! I’m assuming (and hoping) that is WAS your boss, and not Big Bird who’d been hitting the sauce.

  • Debbie @ Happy Maker

    Reply Reply November 19, 2010

    I always found it strange when the bose didn’t like you anymore, because you got smarter then they were. You knew you were probably going to be out the door. When I worked in the corporate world I always tried to keep the attitude, “When I found this job I was looking for a job and there is always another job out there.” There are some really good managers out there and there are some really bad ones. No job is worth lossing sleep over. Life is to short.
    I do love the way you put things and it is really good advise. thanks

    • admin

      Reply Reply November 21, 2010

      Thanks Debbie!

  • Vickie

    Reply Reply November 19, 2010

    This is a hard topic for me because I will not work for a boss that is unnecessarily uneven in temper. There are so many good entrepreneurs that you can work for and learn so much from that I would not give any alligence to one that threw things in a room or showed up drunk. However, I can relate to the excitement of working for a startup. I love that time. It’s hard, scary, exciting, long hours and there is a lot of comraderie inside these startups.

    this I love

    thank you


    • admin

      Reply Reply November 21, 2010

      Vickie: Good for you for standing strong re: difficult bosses. And you’re right; it’s the exciting, hard, scary part of the start-up environment that can be addictive. I, personally, really enjoy it. But it’s like running a marathon that is sprinkled with speed races. You may be addicted to the runner’s high, but if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll burn out.

      Every time I finish a “race” I think it will be my last. Then another opportunity is presented that I can’t say no to. (A quote from the Godfather comes to mind….”just when I thought I was out”…)

      Where is the finish line??

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