Don’t break eye contact. He wanted someone to “look at” for the video. Don’t say anything, don’t look elsewhere, or do anything that would be distracting or otherwise break his concentration. It’s too hot in here. What can you do about that? The tension and impatience were visceral, affecting everyone working on this doomed video.

A boss, more than one or two levels above me, was commandeering my time, my focus, and my humanity. I was to be a silent mirror, an engaged audience of one, to coax out the brilliance and inspiration for a monologue during a video shoot. I had explained that I had other things that needed my attention, but really what else could be more important than this? He was pouring sweat; he took his shoes and socks off.

I requested a bathroom break, swiping my laptop on my way to the upstairs facilities to go work on my pitch that was due the next day. I had to get it to the offshore team for review in time. My need to do work, my priority, was of no consequence. As he had told me before, we’ll never get that client and just like the time before, his discouragement pushed me harder (we won both).

Have you ever tried to sustain eye contact with someone for more than hour? Two? This was one of the single most humiliating experiences of my entire career — I didn’t feel human at all. It was clear who was leadership and who was support, who was valued and who was belittled. There would be other times, when I felt not seen or put up as a face instead of a person, but this is the experience that ground into me, minute by minute, just where I stood.

I started to try to write about power in an abstract way or maybe to talk about how being a middle child impacted my innate sense of fairness, but it was my experience with the “thought-leadership” video many years ago that stays seared in my memory when I think about who has the power in an employee relationship. In extreme cases, like this one, your obligations, your team counting on you, your word, your reputation, they don’t mean anything to the people above you if they don’t see you as valuable part of the company. If your sole function is to support leadership, how can the company ever grow, much less the employees?

Writer, researcher, observer