The perils of mother-in-law leadership syndrome


The real pleasure for a corporate mother-in-law leader is to stress out others by the virtue of their authority. Negotiating employee happiness with unrealistic and impatient demands is at the core of their leadership. They convert an organisation into a dungeon.

Sentimental Warning: The article does not intend to hurt the sentiments of the mother-in-laws of the 21st century, who tend to treat everyone equally and fairly. Rather, this inference is drawn to express thoughts on better management and leadership so that we discover and accept reality with a tinge of humor. Thus, we back it with a sentimental warning to all readers as well as mother-in-laws. We wish they do not to take it to heart, but accept it in the right spirit for their learning and betterment.

The paradox of Indian marriages has always been dominated by mother-in-laws since ages. In fact, it has also been the basis of TRP hikes for television channels.

Coming from the human resources function, I am privileged to have come across several leaders and observe their behavioral patterns as well. In the early days of my career, my observation was confined to using tools such as Lominger 67 and Gallup 34 themes, etc. Indeed, such tools are scientifically tested and proven by B-schools as well as eminent management gurus.

Surprisingly till date, none of the business schools or management gurus have touched upon the peculiar leadership behavior that connects the behavioral pattern of mother-in-laws with that of the leaders. These patterns are commonly faced by the Indian workforce – especially the GenX and millennials.

Filled with the ecstasy and inquisitiveness of understanding leadership behavioral patterns, and observing my surroundings, I have discovered the interesting style of leadership called the ‘19th century mother in-law leadership’.

When we talk of a mother in-law, the first and foremost things that most of us visualise are:

1. Woman control, command authority.

2. They seek perfection from their daughter-in-laws in everything they do, something that they could not achieve in their lifetime.

I have observed that this behavioral pattern of mother-in-laws is predominantly higher in the organizations where the average age of employees is higher, and where leaders are home grown, all by their inward thoughts and approaches, which they have cultivated over ages.

The mother-in-law leadership behavioral pattern is always looking for errors to disqualify, or discredit someone who they consider as a potential threat. They will often try to control the personal matters and constantly remind their subordinates of the numerous skill gaps. They have a tendency to flaunt their superiority. They make the other person believe that they are the best masters to bail one out of the situation. What is even worse is that they do this in a horrid and impatient manner.

You will always find a typical mother in-law sitting at a top position and trying to replicate his/her mask on you so that your confidence takes a beating and you are unable to express your creative thoughts. This is an emotionally tiring and excruciating experience.

The real pleasure for a corporate mother-in-law leader is to stress out others by the virtue of their authority. The day starts when they step out from home and sit in the car to reach office. They shoot texts, creepy one-liner mails, and continuously send reminders, where it is totally unnecessary. They make a mountain out of a molehill, to re-emphasise their authority simply not realising that they are micro-managing. Negotiating employee happiness with unrealistic and impatient demands is at the core of their leadership.

I have enlisted their pattern for the comfort of the readers. Though the scope is unlimited, I have tried to encapsulate:

? Insulting you in a personal manner, often publicly
? Invading your personal space without asking
? Threatening you verbally or non-verbally
? Sending email flames
? Interrupting you rudely during meetings
? Giving you dirty looks
? Acting as if you are invisible when it suits them
? Withholding praise even though you clearly deserve it
? Second-guessing all the time or demanding perfection
? Making sarcastic jokes or teasing you as a means to deliver a nasty message
? Reminding you in front of everyone where you stand in the hierarchy
? Touching you when it’s clear that you don’t want this
? Making two-faced attacks – you understand one thing from your boss, only to learn later that your boss said exactly the opposite to somebody else
? Stealing clients or accounts from other workers
? Bad mouthing the firm’s culture
? Refusing to help or explain anything when asked (but will deny this if pressed by anyone else, and insist it was you who didn’t ask for help), etc.!

Such leaders are typical fault finders, micro-managers and bask in superiority complexion, which is garnered through bookish knowledge. They keep flashing a mirror that only reflects your negatives. They forget the fact that a true leader is one who appreciates your talent and skills and leverages them to further the organizational goals and vision.

Upendra Chaturvedi

Mother-in-law leadership converts an organisation into a dungeon. These leaders are inward thinkers and their periphery is limited to the interim activities in the organisation. They engage in fire-fighting and this unfortunately, makes them immensely happy, even if the organization is gradually eroding due to recurrent upheavals.

The purpose behind writing this article is to bring out the fact that the philosophies and initiatives related to employee engagement always get defeated by such regressive leadership behavior pattern.

Mother-in-law leaders should not impose their superiority and typical behavior pattern on the younger employees or subordinates. This creates distaste in their young minds about their leaders.

Owing to this overbearing leadership behavior, they also hit the panic button and react in a typically immature manner. The young should not forget that the process and the system have been built over years of deep analysis and thinking. If they wish to introduce change it cannot be done precipitously; it has to evolve through synergy and team work.

(The author works with the human resources management team at Garware-Wall Ropes.)


  1. Dear Mr. Upendra Chaturvedi,

    Hats off to the details and accuracy with which you have written this article; W too have a Mother-in-Law type of boss and each word that you have written strongly relates to her.


  2. loved it….. alll the points stated above is vot my mother in law and my lady boss at work practice….. thnx….. i don belive in this MIL culture as I believe it hinders growith and creativity and human space…..Being an HR person…. I believe workplace should be made so calm n energising that it should be the first choice than home for employees….. rgds… Prof.Henna Punjabi

  3. True!! Most of such mother in laws were Bahu once upon a time and subconsciously learnt behavioral pattern of Sas and behaving in manner they were treated provides them gratification !!!
    Apart the metaphor ….the psychological sickness.has serious impact on organization and shouldn’t be ignored.

  4. Dear Upen,
    Very interesting and practical observation!!

    Appreciate this innovative concept…

    Keep writing!!

    Ravi. Baviskar

  5. It’s well written. I feel that a few line can be added that the differentiation shown between their own daughters and daughter in laws. What can not be expected of their daughters is expected of their daughter in laws. May be you can add this syndrome as well.

  6. Excellent observation and explanation.. indeed its the case with majority of the leaders. Very well written!!!

  7. Well written Upendra! The root cause of such mother in law behaviours in organisations is the failure of the leadership to priotise relationships over tasks and rewarding for the latter which only encourages this narcissism. This leads to disenchantment and disengagement of employees!

  8. Very well articulated and in lucid language. One could visualize while reading. Enjoyed reading, and a great learning.

  9. Very well articulated ! Any thoughts or experiences of changing these mother-in-law managers into forward thinking goal oriented leaders?

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