The Trunchbull Complex

Matilda is a 1996 movie (one of my favorites) based on Roald Dahl’s book about a bright, but lonely, little girl with some very unusual abilities who finally gets her wish to go to school, only to discover that the principal is a despotic troll of a woman who hates children. Miss Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall, barks insults, doles out detention with impunity, and creates a general sense of terror among Matilda’s new friends. During one scene, she reminds the students that her authority will not be questioned by proclaiming, “In this classroom, in this school I AM GOD.”

Though a purely fictional character in a lighthearted family film, Miss Trunchbull demonstrates the worst kind of leadership mindset that is very much a reality in organizations today. She tells Matilda, “I’m big and you’re small, and I’m right, and you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Too many managers take a similarly dysfunctional authoritarian, command and control approach to leading employees. They suffer from what I call a Trunchbull Complex, even if they aren’t aware of it, causing fear and disengagement within their teams.

The following characteristics of managers with this loathsome condition highlight the need to ensure its expulsion from corporate culture.

They humiliate anyone who irks them

When Miss Trunchbull suspects one of the students, Bruce Bogtrotter, stole some of her special chocolate cake, she calls a school assembly wherein she forces the boy to sit in front of his peers and eat what looks like 40 pounds of the dessert. Much to Trunchbull’s chagrin, Bruce finishes the entire cake and even licks the plate clean as his classmates cheer him on. Furious that her plan to demoralize and intimidate the students backfired, old Trunchbull smashes the dessert plate over Bruce’s head and gives every one of the children detention.

Aside from the (alleged) nutjob who runs Scientology and (allegedly) beats up his employees, I don’t think there are any bosses who would get away with that kind of behavior. However, I have been in situations with bosses who used humiliation as one of several tools to keep employees in a state of fear. Once, my coworkers and I were sitting in on a vendor demonstration and, during a break, our manager herded the whole team into a conference room where she went from person to person demanding each individual’s explanation as to why he or she had not taken any notes. It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my career. I felt like I was in elementary school with the teacher berating us for not doing our homework.

When an employee doesn’t live up to your expectations, your job as a leader is to coach and guide him in the right direction and collaborate on a plan to get there without blame, condescension, or embarrassment. It should go without saying that humiliating employees and then expecting them to be invested in the company’s success isn’t just counterproductive, it’s detrimental to them both emotionally and professionally. An employee’s manager has the power to lift him up or knock him down. Exercise that power wisely by always choosing the former.

They show disdain for those they perceive as inferior

It was no secret to any of the students at Crunchem Hall that Miss Trunchbull hated children. Her daily tirades usually involved some expression of disgust for the students. During one particular rage-a-thon, The Trunchbull muses aloud that children are “…like insects. They should be got rid of as early as possible.” She goes on to say that her “…idea of a perfect school is one in which there are no children…at all.”

Most leaders have probably thought that their lives would be so much easier if they did not have to deal with the challenges of managing employees, especially those who are younger or less-experienced. Just look through the comments section of any article about millennials in the workplace and you’re bound to see frustrated managers labeling Generation Y as entitled, lazy, or any number of other pejorative phrases to describe this age group.

Unfortunately for Miss Trunchbull and all managers who secretly (or not so secretly) detest those in their charge, being a leader means learning how to adapt to and collaborate with your followers in order to gain their respect and buy-in. It also means coming to terms with the fact that, without anyone to lead, you don’t really have a purpose…or a job. And in the case of millennials, leaders had better warm up to this generation because they are quickly becoming the dominant force in today’s knowledge economy.

They will not tolerate nonconformity

On Matilda’s first day as a student, one of her classmates, poor little Amanda Thripp, makes the mistake of coming to school wearing pigtails. Not one to allow any freedom of thought or expression on her watch, Miss Trunchbull picks up Amanda by the offending braids, spins her around and flings her over the schoolyard fence like an Olympic long-distance hammer throw champion (which she was).

Conformity gives certain managers a sense of control over the happenings within their organizations. They feel that controlling every process, every function, every facet of their employees’ work lives will maintain a level of order required for optimum performance. They create draconian dress code policies, like Crunchem Hall’s ‘No Pigtails’ rule, to restrict even the slightest bit of individuality. And these managers enforce their standards with relentless, dictatorial passion by swiftly removing any nonconformists.

What managers with a Trunchbull Complex fail to grasp is the concept of diversity and the value it adds to their organizations. True diversity isn’t just limited to our differences in the way we look; it relates to an overall inclusion of different ways of thinking. One of the most powerful questions a leader can ask is, “Why do we do it this way, and is there a better way?”, even if she implemented the rule in the first place. Embracing individuality and allowing teams to challenge the status quo yields more innovation from happier employees.

They keep subordinates in constant fear of punishment

Miss Trunchbull loved to inflict all sorts of punishments upon her students, but she was especially fond of sending troublemakers to the Chokey – basically a hole in the wall of the principal’s office which was lined with rusty nails and broken glass where she would lock children for breaking the rules. Matilda finds herself thrown in the Chokey as punishment for her unscrupulous father selling the Trunchbull a faulty used car.

Bullying from managers takes many forms, some overt and others subtler but no less effective in achieving their intended result: fear. I’ve heard outright threats like, “If you don’t do what I’m telling you to do, then I’m going to be really pissed off.”, and experienced mere insinuations of impending doom such as the ‘scary boss’ look. We’ve all probably seen that look at some point in the workplace – something we say or do rubs our boss the wrong way and we’re given the stone cold glare that lets us know something terrible for our job security this way comes.

Fear of punishment is an effective motivator, but it comes at a devastating cost to morale and trust. Old Trunchbull’s motto as an educator was, “Use the rod, beat the child.” Matilda decided she and her classmates would no longer suffer under such tyranny, so she used her amazing telekinetic abilities to send the Trunch fleeing from the school grounds, never to be seen again. Managers who use threats of punishment, or even well-intentioned progressive discipline, will be unpleasantly surprised by the negative residual effects of this approach. Employees might not throw their lunches at you, like the students at Crunchem Hall, but they will find other ways to get revenge. The costs of fear-based management far outweigh any temporary benefits sufferers of the Trunchbull Complex believe they are getting.


Soon after Miss Trunchbull left her post as principal, Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, took the job. Miss Honey was kind, caring, and wanted nothing more than to support her students in reaching the potential she knew that they all had within themselves. She embodied the qualities of a true leader and turned her school into a place where the students wanted to learn and grow. Leaders, resist your inner Trunchbull by taking a cue from Miss Honey and show your employees that you validate their feelings, view them as equals, celebrate their uniqueness, and will work to earn their respect.

What do you think? Have you ever worked for a boss with an apparent Trunchbull Complex? What about a boss more like Miss Honey?

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