DELANY DEAN, JD, PhD
INTRODUCTION: This problem, as a distinctive workplace phenomenon, first came to my attention back in the 1980’s, when I was first seeing psychotherapy patients in private practice. I saw several women who had, without any discernible reason, been subjected to terrible treatment by their supervisors and/or colleagues. Later, in my practice as a forensic psychologist, I did an evaluation on a man who had undergone a similar phenomenon. Because of my experience with these clients, I did some looking around, and saw that there was quite a bit being published about this, and that it is a sort of underground (seldom mentioned) disease, or disorder, in many workplace environments. I think that one reason it has gotten so little attention is that it is one of those experiences that we call “crazy-making.” When a person is in the midst of being emotionally destroyed by one’s supervisor, she often feels that it somehow must be her own fault (after all, she is being repeatedly told that everything that she does is wrong), and she often feels ashamed to tell anyone else about what is happening (nobody wants to admit that they are getting terrible feedback from their supervisors and/or colleagues). In many ways, it resembles being raped: there is a sense of shame about it, a sense that the victim must have somehow brought it on herself; and, afterwards, the victim’s self-confidence is often badly damaged, even shattered, and she really doesn’t feel capable of talking about it. She doesn’t feel capable of trusting her own perceptions.
In this page, you will find some of my posts and links about this ugly phenomenon.
HOUNDED FROM A JOB
Have you ever seen someone hounded from her job? Once, in my practice as a psychotherapist, I worked with a patient who had left her job after it became so toxic that it was making her sick. She told me about the frequent occasions when she had been “taken to the woodshed” by her supervisor. My patient, who was in her 50’s, had left a good position at another company to “move up” into the job she was then at; she had been known as, and knew herself to be, a competent and well-liked worker in every other position she had ever held. She had never needed to see a psychotherapist or counselor before. Now, at this new job, no matter what she did to try to please her supervisor, the “woodshedding” continued. She became depressed and anxious, and began to doubt her sanity; her husband, deeply concerned, did some online research and identified the situation as one of workplace scapegoating. It’s really not very uncommon, especially (for some reason) in workplaces dominated by women. [This phenomenon bears some resemblance to playground bullying: one kid gets tagged as being an “outsider,” and all the other kids abuse or shun the child. Adults who see this happening can do little to intervene.]
Anyway, my patient did her best to stick it out despite the pressure, because her family was heavily dependent on her income and her health insurance benefits. Eventually, however, she felt she needed psychotherapy. During the time she was in therapy, despite her serious demoralization, she managed to get back into the job market, and eventually found another position (not easy to do, if you are in your 50’s and you can’t get a good recommendation from your current supervisor!).
Here is an excerpt from the website that promotes the book Scapegoats at Work.
“Have you ever felt unfairly treated, singled out, accused, or blamed at work? This book addresses an all-too common yet rarely discussed workplace phenomenon—scapegoating. Each year, thousands of workers seek professional help for job stress, and many more attempt to cope through alcohol, drugs, angry outbursts or emotional and social withdrawal. Employee turnover, absenteeism, substance abuse and stress claims cost the economy billions of dollars each year, and yet many workplaces have developed a culture which actively promotes all of these ills. This is the culture of scapegoating: a process of identifying individuals then blaming, and punishing them for problems that rightly belong to the larger organization.
Scapegoats At Work is a book about recognizing and combating this process by understanding how the individual and the system act together to bring a myth to life. It is a survival manual for people caught in a scapegoating workplace. It is also a book for workers and managers who wish to develop cooperative ways of dealing with individual differences and to create a working environment that is not only more humane, but also more efficient.”
Scapegoating is not the only form of workplace bullying; sometimes it is a simpler, but no less toxic, situation involving a supervisor or co-worker on a power trip. Often, it is a case of deliberate retaliation against a “whistleblower,” a worker who has spoken up about an issue that somehow touched a nerve. Usually there is little help to be found for the target of the bullying, because nobody else wants to get involved, for fear of becoming a target, also. This is a serious problem in many workplaces, but information about, and resources to address the problem are growing.
THE EMPLOYEE ELIMINATION GAME
I have written (above) about a former client of mine who, years ago, was forced out of her job. I also recall two other former psychotherapy clients. One was forced out of her job after she complained about being sexually harassed (and the truth of her claim was thoroughly demonstrated); another client lost not just a job, but her license to practice her profession. All three of these women insisted that they had done nothing that would come close to justifying the treatment they received. Overall, I tend to be pretty skeptical about such claims of innocence; but, in these cases, I was quite convinced that these women were, essentially, scapegoats. If you know much about employment law, you will have learned that it is certainly not unheard of for supervisors to perceive an employee as a nuisance, or some kind of threat, and to find a way to get rid of him or her.
If you’ve never seen it happen, and if it’s never happened to you, you may find it hard to understand how a supervisor can get rid of an employee who has done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, however, it’s quite easy. The supervisor can simply make the employee’s work life so miserable, that s/he eventually resigns, or self-destructs, or both. Here’s how it works:
1. The supervisor will not allow any of the employee’s errors or faults to go unnoticed or unremarked upon. The supervisor will mention each and every one of them (sorrowfully) to the employee, and will write a little memo about it (these memos are an important part of the “employee elimination game,” and they can be shaped, or even fabricated, so as to make the employee look as bad as possible).
2. Wherever possible, the projects that the employee most enjoys working on will be crippled, eliminated, or shifted to other personnel, always with some superficially plausible excuse, such as “for the good of the company.” If there is an area in which the employee is particularly competent, it will suddenly become impossible for the employee to work in that area.
3. If others (co-workers, customers, etc.) should make any kind of complaint about or criticism of the employee, the employer will take it very seriously, even if it is obviously without genuine merit. It can, then, become the topic of a memo, and the subject of a meeting with the employee. Also, if the employee responds with irritation or anger when attacked or criticized by a co-worker, the employee can be labeled “aggressive,” and the co-worker’s complaint or attack can be labeled as “just an attempt to be helpful.”
4. The supervisor will maintain a sorrowful tone in these meetings with the employee, and when mentioning the employee to others. The supervisor will take care to convey how much s/he hopes that the employee will be willing and able to bring his or her performance up to the very achievable standards that have been set, and how sad s/he is when the employee is unable (or refuses) to do so.
5. If the employee makes any requests of the supervisor, they will be turned down, and a plausible, defensible reason will be given for the refusal (usually it is enough just to cite the needs of the workplace).
Employees subjected to this kind of emotionally devastating scrutiny and treatment will generally be unable to withstand it for more than a few weeks, possibly months. Most people will simply resign. Many will respond to the treatment by becoming highly distressed and agitated, or very depressed. This, in turn, will affect their job performance, which will provide more fuel for the supervisor in the “employee elimination game.” Of course, some employees are so stubborn, or so clueless, that they will continue to work on, and on, despite this kind of treatment. Even so, the supervisor will ultimately win; having effectively written up the employee’s many faults in a series of memos (in which it is documented that the employee was warned numerous times, and given numerous chances…), it will be, by then, an easy matter to find justification to legally terminate the employee’s job. Either way: Game over, supervisor wins.
THE HARMFULNESS OF WORKPLACE BULLYING
The NYT has a nice short article about bullying in the workplace, here. The article itself is good; but even more impressive (and outrageous) are the comments that appear along with the article, in which you will find story after story of genuinely awful situations in which employees have been unjustly and utterly trashed, without any effective means of recourse. I am pleased that this phenomenon is getting more attention. I know people who have gone through it, and I’ve experienced it, myself. I can attest that it can be personally and professionally devastating. In fact, the article states that it can be more damaging than sexual harassment. That makes sense: like any other traumatic event, workplace bullying (by a supervisor, and/or by co-workers) creates alterations in your perceptions of self, others, and the world around you. You are likely to perceive yourself as less competent, less effective, and less likable (and you will display less self-confidence). You will see others as (at least potentially) vindictive, deceitful, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. And you will see the world (especially the work world) as unsafe. Most of us walk around with a comforting sense that the world is generally going to be OK for us; we harbor a “just world hypothesis” that tells us that if we behave generally like good people, then we will be treated fairly. Loss of the “just world hypothesis” can cause us to become more timid, less willing to take risks. These changes in perception (and, accordingly, in behavior and in emotions) can be long-lasting, and very much detrimental to our well-being.
A related topic that is of interest in many of these situations is that of narcissism and psychopathy; many of the supervisors who engage in destructive behavior to subordinates are highly narcissistic and controlling, prone to engaging on power trips.
I recently found a fascinating blog devoted entirely to bullying in the world of academic life (here).
Describing the problem much easier than offering solutions. In reading about this, I find that there is little agreement about how an employee can best respond if s/he finds herself being, essentially, targeted for destruction. Some say she should speak up to anyone who will listen; others advise that he should attempt to placate the abusive supervisor. Many suggest, sadly, that it is best to simply cut your losses, and get out of the situation as soon as possible (in other words, get another job, while your sanity and reputation are still intact). Sometimes it might be a good idea to get a lawyer; other times, that would just make the situation even worse. I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a good answer, myself.
Image via WikipediaInteresting new research I came across recently (click here), in the area of “workplace” psychology. It appears that if you cause a person to be placed into a position of “low power,” then that person’s cognitive functioning (capacity to make effective and sound decisions, for example) will be impaired, compared to the people who are placed into positions of “high power.” Here is an excerpt from the “Science Daily” piece about this research:
“New research appearing in the May issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that being put in a low-power role may impair a person’s basic cognitive functioning and thus, their ability to get ahead… In one experiment, the participants completed a Stroop task, a common psychological test designed to exercise executive functions. Participants who had earlier been randomly assigned to a low-power group made more errors in the Stroop task than those who had been assigned to a high-power group. Smith and colleagues also found that these results were not due to low-power people being less motivated or putting in less effort. Instead, those lacking in power had difficulty maintaining a focus on their current goal.”
This research is really not surprising, in light of prior research that has long indicated that, among primates, when an individual is eliminated from a powerful position, that individual experiences an impairment in the functioning of his serotonin system (serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in many brain functions, including mood regulation). And, together, these lines of research would seem to demonstrate that adverse employment actions can cause workers to experience significant incapacitation: clinically significant depression, for example, and impairments in judgment and decision-making capacity. And this will likely have a negative impact on the employee’s subsequent performance on the job.
Accordingly, we can see more clearly what kind of biological effect the actions of a workplace supervisor can have on her/his employees. In situations (all too common) involving a workplace supervisor who engages in bullying-type actions with employees, the targeted employee will experience changes in his or her brain that will very likely be reflected in his/her mood and capacity to continue to work effectively. For example, supervisors who want to punish an employee might take actions such as: removing the employee from leadership positions; shifting job responsibilities around in such a way that the employee experiences a diminished sense of control over his/her workplace duties; or outright demotion. And I suspect that even seeing one’s colleague being treated unfairly might well cause co-workers to experience a feeling of fear and disempowerment, thus spreading the ensuing dysfunction even more broadly throughout the workplace. Common sense and life experience tell us that any of these actions will cause employees to have negative emotional responses; now, we can see a bit more about how the brain changes to produce these negative effects.
I recently re-discovered the blog called Orcinus, and within it a series of articles by Sara Robinson about authoritarianism. She begins the series (click here) with a summary and review of John Dean‘s book, Conservatives Without Conscience. I was very much intrigued by this re-discovery, for several reasons. First, I did not realize that John Dean (who was made (in)famous by Watergate, and who is not a relative of mine, so far as I know), wrote about authoritarianism; second, I have not read anything within the academic literature about authoritarianism (see Dr. Robert Altemeyer) for years, probably not since I was in grad school; and, third, I am struck, again, by the very significant overlap between the construct of authoritarianism and the construct of psychopathy (which is an area in which I am quite interested in, click here).
I also am reminded of the phenomenon now known as workplace bullying, and especially the situation in which there is a supervisor who regularly targets others for mistreatment (click here for some of my previous writing about this). I have usually viewed that situation through the lens of the professional literatures about psychopathy and narcissism; but it is clear that the social psychology literature about authoritarianism is also very applicable. Here are excerpts from the first part of this series by Sara Robinson:
Authoritarians come in two flavors: leaders and followers. The two tiers are driven by very different motivations; and understanding these differences is the first key to understanding how authoritarian social structures work.
Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high social dominance orientation (SDO)… “These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others,” says Dean — and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who’ve made your adult life a living hell as well.
High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, [as well]… High-SDO people are drawn to power, and will seek it ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the consequences to others… [In modern America], we celebrate our most powerful social dominants, pay them obscene salaries, turn them into media stars, and hand over the keys to the empire to them almost gratefully. They have free rein to pursue their ambitions unchecked, with no cultural brakes on their rapacity. They will do whatever they can get away with; and we’ll not only let them, but often cheer them on…
While the high-SDO leaders are defined by Dean as dominating, opposed to equality, desirous of personal power, and amoral, right-wing authoritarian followers have a different but very complementary set of motivations. The three core traits that define them are:
1. Submission to authority. “These people accept almost without question the statements and actions of established authorities, and comply with such instructions without further ado” writes Dean. “[They] are intolerant of criticism of their authorities, because they believe the authority is unassailably correct. Rather than feeling vulnerable in the presence of powerful authorities, they feel safer. For example, they are not troubled by government surveillance of citizens because they think only wrongdoers need to be concerned by such intrusions… ”
2. Aggressive support of authority. Right-wing followers do not hesitate to inflict physical, psychological, financial, social, or other forms of harm on those they see as threatening the legitimacy of their belief system and their chosen authority figure. This includes anyone they see as being too different from their norm (like gays or racial minorities). It’s also what drives their extremely punitive attitude toward discipline and justice…
3. Conventionality. Right-wing authoritarian followers prefer to see the world in stark black-and-white. They conform closely with the rules defined for them by their authorities, and do not stray far from their own communities. This extreme, unquestioning conformity makes them insular, fearful, hostile to new information, uncritical of received wisdom, and able to accept vast contradictions without perceiving the inherent hypocrisy… Conformity also feeds their sense of themselves as more moral and righteous than others…
Anyone who looks at our contemporary culture, and the various parts of that culture, can see these characteristics and dynamics in full swing. They are readily apparent in government and big corporate environments, but they can also be seen in operation in smaller systems (closer to home, for most of us): in our work environments, in religious communities, certainly in the military, and of course within families. And I would submit that, although this set of dynamics might be over-represented among politically conservative (right-wing) groups and individuals, it is not their sole property; I have personally observed amazingly authoritarian types who identify themselves as politically liberal, and they are perfectly capable of garnering followers who may well also see themselves as politically left-wing. But this description of the personality, cognitive, and behavioral dynamics of authoritarian leaders and their followers, is right on target, regardless of political leanings.
BULLYING AT SCHOOL
There is a devastating article in the NYT about a young man (16 years old) who has been enduring years of bullying (including physical attacks) by other students at his school in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His parents have tried, and tried, to find some way to get help for him from school authorities, but without success. Here’s part of the problem: What, really, can school officials do? When one kid is targeted (for reasons that, often, nobody can ever really figure out) as an outsider, there is strong social pressure for all other kids to join in the exclusion, if not the actual bullying. There is no way to effectively force young people (or adults, for that matter) to include a particular person within a social circle; and it is the act of exclusion that is so very painful and harmful in this situation, just as much as (or more than) the acts of physical violence. It wasn’t long ago that a girl committed suicide in the St. Louis area after being targeted for internet-based bullying. In the case of the young man in Arkansas, it appears that some have suggested to the parents that they simply move into another area, another school district… and they have (I am sure for any number of reasons) decided not to do so… and I am sure that it is their perspective that they shouldn’t have to move… But, I wonder what I would do, in their position. I wonder how that young man will manage to recover from his ordeal.
Here are some online resources about this issue: