Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace?

(image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

Organizational psychologist Robert Sutton advises on his blog “Work Matters” (hosted by Psychology Today) that “for people who are trapped in nasty workplaces, and can’t escape at least for now,” one useful coping mechanism “is to learn the fine art of emotional detachment — so the poision (sic) around you does not ruin or infect your soul.”  Sutton, who draws on his popular book The No Asshole Rule (2007), further explains:

Passion is . . . wonderful if your organization and your colleagues care about you.  BUT it is [a] recipe for self-destruction if you are trapped in a job with a demeaning boss, or worse yet, knee-deep in [a] workplace where asshole poisoning runs rampant.  If you face constant abuse, then (until you can get out) going through the motions and “not letting it touch your soul” is one tactic that can help you survive with your self-esteem intact.

Exit vs. Voice?

Sutton’s commentary bears some connection to insights from Albert O. Hirschman’s classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970). Here’s my very oversimplified nutshell: Hirschman suggested that when an organization’s actions trigger objections from one of its members (such as an employee or customer), the individual may choose to either exit (i.e., some type of withdrawal) or voice concern (via a complaint or grievance). The choice of response may be influenced by the degree of loyalty that individual feels toward the organization, with the latter indicating anticipation of an active, continuing relationship.

As Sutton and Hirschman might concur, the exit option in a work situation can include emotional detachment or withdrawal.  For example, organizations rife with workplace bullying can experience reduced employee loyalty and productivity, in addition to the predictable effect of higher attrition.  Obviously this means that more workers have “checked out” in the face of an abusive work environment.


Emotional detachment may be related to the concept of presenteeism, which EHS Today defines as “the phenomenon where employees show up for work but don’t perform at full capacity.” Although presenteeism is often discussed in the context of employees showing up for work sick due to lack of paid sick leave, it also relates to how bad workplace conditions negatively influence engagement and productivity.

There’s a big difference between giving a job a fuller effort vs. doing enough to escape criticism. Emotional detachment nudges even the best of workers toward the latter.

When jobs are scarce

Emotional detachment may be a more prevalent choice during a difficult economy when employment options are more limited.  It galls me when those who oppose workplace bullying legislation base their objection in part on the assumption that a target of abuse has the easy option of picking up and going to another job.  There are myriad reasons, some quite rational, why someone might remain in a less-than-wonderful employment setting.  At a time when the job market is tight, keeping a roof over one’s head and food on the table might be among them.

But still…

Emotional detachment does not come without its costs, as anyone who understands workplace bullying can comprehend. After all, indifferent slackers aren’t the ones typically targeted by abusive bosses or co-workers.  Oftentimes it’s the high achiever, or at least someone who is engaged in her work, who is marked for mistreatment. Telling this person to turn off the passion for her work is indeed an instruction to numb her soul, even if for the purpose of avoiding deeper injury.

In sum, emotional detachment may be an effective coping mechanism for a hostile work setting, but for many it is a sad response to a bad situation, nothing more.


This post was revised in July 2016.

26 responses

  1. The concept of detachment as a workplace coping skill seems to be appearing more often in the publications and blogs that I read. As someone who has consciously decided to put my head down and “stick it out” at work until I have more economic options, I feel sad that so many of us our spending such significant parts of our lives this way.

  2. Count me in as someone who’s sticking it out. I’m not bullied, really, I just work around a lot of emotionally immature people who don’t appreciate others. Today I’m really bothered by it and don’t want to be here. It’s interesting that I saw this post today, because I very much feel like my soul has taken a hit. It is sad to spend our lives this way.

  3. Hi David,
    Well I have a strong (emotional) reaction to this topic and to this important post!

    Regardless of what we do as consultants with mostly corporate audiences, emotional intelligence is at the core. Under “normal” conditions, we work with people to more deeply understand and appreciate the role of their emotions regarding their work. Lately, the “new normal” (“post” recession) has really brought out the fear, resentment, anger and depression so many people are now experiencing.

    Too many people, in our opinion, have been engaged in too much “emotional detachment” for too long. Coping strategies do not satisfy our real and legitimate needs.

    While I am sure that Bob Sutton’s post is very well-meaning it can reinforce unhealthy old ideas about our emotions in the workplace. (all the latest neuroscience reinforces this)

    First and foremost, it is, more than ever, critically important for people to ACKNOWLEDGE what they are really feeling. So if you understandably feel anger about a toxic work situation, that’s what you feel. Period.

    The real question is what to do with what you feel. Stuffing it is not the answer, or possible. (an illusion that we promote when we talk about emotional “detachment.”)

    You are right to respect that so many people are in work scenarios that are not right for them on many levels – but have valid reasons (not to mention the terrible job market)to stay put for the time being.

    So much of this speaks to the lack of understanding and appreciation we have about emotions especially when it comes to feelings that relate to work.

    Yes, there is a price tag to ignoring what we feel -sometimes it is a very big one. Relationships suffer, our health declines and most important our spirits erode, and when that happens – what happens to our work?

    Valuable post, about to tweet it too!

    • Louise, thank you for putting a needed sharper point on this topic — as opposed to my more equivocal one!

      I wish that this topic wasn’t driven by our acute economic situation. Too many people are stuck between staying in a lousy work environment and being able to pay the bills for themselves and loved ones.

  4. As the Vt State Coordinator for the Healthy Workplace Bill and a Whistleblower I have had the opportunity to speak with many targets in Vermont. Vt. Bully’s are plentiful in our Green Mt. State. A pattern emerges with each new story, the thing I am always amazed at is how administrations do not self-govern themselves. There is no age discrimination with bullys, tomorrow I am meeting with a small group of women who will bring their story and their packets of documents to validate what they say. Emotional separation is not the solution, I believe we need to drag the skeltons out of the closet and expose the bully’s to daylight. We need to take back our pride, dignity and not be the custodios to the Bully’s secrets they hide from others. Bullying happens because it can, I once asked a Vice President of HR if the Healthy Workplace Bill had been law would he have done the things he did to so many, he told me no.

  5. Pingback: Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace? (via Minding the Workplace) « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  6. Although I enjoy Sutton’s writings, I found his suggestion of detachment unrealistic. I could NOT help feel anger and disgust at a bullying coworker and the boss who would not deal with it.

    • I have not read Sutton’s writings but as someone that went through the process of been bullied by a self appointed ( I love me type CEO), who had a weak board all full of yes-men, I was a dead man walking when I stood up to him. Its impossible to find emotional detachment when your in the eye of a bullying storm. I could not believe what was happening to me and the ink is not even dry on the compromise agreement I ended up accepting to get my life back and get away from a a nutcase CEO.

      He was the sort of person that used the following cliche:

      Even when your wrong—! your right..!

      I intent to write about my experiences with bullying at the top-table, its complicated and it involves close family members, sadly the fall-out has damaged these also… A very sad tale indeed


  7. I understand the advice. It is just hard for me to emotionally be abused, lied about, and discredited on the good job that I do To take this abuse every day is something that I just can’t continue to do. The job market is very bad and I have been looking for another job for 7 months, but I haven’t been able to get one. I have had some interviews and I am still trying, but I don’t know how much longer I can endure it!

  8. I need to learn how to emotionally detach. I have quit jobs because I am not prepared to tolerate toxic bullying co-workers. Life is too short to have to put up with their shit!

  9. Thank you, TootyFuity, for responding to this article, as I have not read it before. I do think that the ’emotional detachment’ concept is a provocative one. I do agree that protecting one’s soul is of upmost importance.

    Having said that, coping with an abusive work environment is taxing to the soul, as well. As time passes, I find myself developing a deepening sense of appreciation for the old adage, “keep your friends close…keep your enemies closer”.

    Having access to the target is paramount for the bully, as the dysfunctional dynamic fulfills a hole in the bully’s soul. Using one’s emotional intelligence to navigate through the land mind of madness is paramount in surviving the mistreatment, as it is so true that the job market is suffering.

    I tend to think that there needs to be a mixture of emotional detachment with intermittent episodes of expressing one’s mind about the treatment. Each incident needs to be assessed individually, as there are times, at least in my own experience, where speaking up is the only option I have, while, at other times, stepping back is a more prudent choice.

    Overall, I make every effort to not engage with the person, who happens to be my immediate supervisor. At the same time, I make sure that I speak with this person at the appropriate times when issues pertaining to our professional roles with one another arise.

    In my case, I have done everything I can; I have said everything there is to say about the treatment. I have encouraged my supervisor, as well as the CEO (enabler, as well as perpetrator – when she needs him to be), to educate themselves about workplace bullying, as I have declared to them that the interactions that occur, are simply bullying tactics that have nothing to do with our work relationship.

    A word of encouragement – at least I hope it is- they are aware that there is an active movement in my state – MA – whereby the Healthy Workplace Initiative is gaining momentum.

    As of fairly recently, there has been what almost seems like a moratorium on the bullying pertaining to me. I realize that I could get thrown a curve ball at any time, of course.

    One of my co-workers was recently fired and brutally so, I must add. These immature personalities need to be held account for the atrocities that they inflict on the lives of countless people, as well as their families, as my family has been devastated by the bullying I have endured, especially my daughter. We struggle regain and redefine our lives with one another.

    The saddest part about all of this is that my daughter was only ten years old when the bullying started, and it negatively impacted upon her developmental years, as my attention was focused on the bully’s narcissistic and sadistic need to feel power and control over another human being above and beyond what civility would dictate as appropriate and necessary.

    At times I find I have to snap back when my supervisor rudely snaps at me. It continues to amaze me how people who enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on others, find the honest and forthright responses from others to be incomprehensible and intolerable to endure. In other words “they can dish it out…but they can’t (don’t want to) take it”.

    These folks are profoundly sick people. That is why they resort to the cowardice and exploitative acts of inflicting pain on those who have been able to express healthy passions, and yet, at the same time, are able to maintain a sense of self-respect, as well as a healthy respect and appreciation for others.
    Unfortunately, for those poor unfortunate souls that my supervisor chooses to target, these unsuspecting and hard working individuals are dealing with a sociopath who has sadistic and narcissistic features. Extremely sick person, indeed.

    • I meant to say, TootyFruity, sorry for the misspelling. My spell check did not catch it, and sometimes my eyes get blurry when I am tired, yet I still desire to communicate about this topic.

  10. I will tell you that the problem with emotional detachment. I did this when I was bullied in the workplace and the problem is that it does spill over into your personal life.
    You cannot be emotionally detached in one place and then emotionally attached at 5 PM to the world around you.
    You are a victim and are bullied, it never ends. You cannot detach from the Sunday night stress, wake ups at 3 AM, panic attacks, etc.
    Your soul is under attack when you are a target, my God, people are killing themselves.
    The other problem is that the work horses and those with high morals and ethics are natural targets. If you try to deaden yourself, you would literally have to medicate yourself.
    I think that this causes further stress and fighting or fleeing is better.

  11. Dear Education survivor –
    Thank you. I am just starting to put words to my workplace bullying, this weekend has been consumed by internet searches, ongoing conversation with my amazing husband and putting a plan together on how I deal with my personal workplace bullying circumstances. You captured a part of my dilemma, emotionally re-attaching at 5 pm on Friday and detaching for Monday morning at 8:00. This morning while watching a program I generally don’t like, my husband said “I am surprised to see you so intent on this program; generally you don’t care for it”. I came clean and said,” I won’t call it a depression but a level of preoccupation. I wasn’t listening to the words but focused on the TV so I could “hide” in peace. (Meaning I was less likely to be questioned about my thoughts if I was doing something typical). I am generally a very positive person which worked against me. The bullying started almost 2 years ago and I allowed my supervisor control over my thoughts-I know I am good at what I do but allowed her to chisel away at self-esteem. My bottom came just a few days ago….By the grace of God I had a light bulb moment and went the EAP. While describing my situation realized I wasn’t talking about my capabilities or lack of skill but workplace bullying. From what I am reading, EAP isn’t the best option but seeking an independent mental health consultation. This weekend my emotions have fluctuated like a bad EKG, one moment I am strong the next in tears. This afternoon, I am torn between reading work emails from home so I can “manage” my response. If I wait and read them Monday morning and she senses my vulnerability, it is like a shark smelling blood. Thank you all for posting, it is critically important to keep this dialogue going.

  12. I don’t think emotional detachment is the only way to deal with workplace bullying or difficult workers. Unfortunately, most organisations will have some bully or seriously maladjusted person working for them, often in a position of authority – who will suck all the congenial atmosphere and overall goodwill out of a working environment. I know I’ve met them and have the mental scars to prove it. What helped me, after much emotional wrangling and tears and breakdowns, was to toughen up totally. You don’t have to go down to their level, but you do need to build up a strong inner mental wall to deal with these people – so their stings, barbs and overall nastiness can’t get through to affect you greatly. You don’t have to be detached, why compromise who you really are too much, you just don’t have to let these thugs weaken you personally or mentally. A robust and assertive response will often wrongfoot them. Showing them you’re not phased by their meanness and maltreatment, should work wonders. You don’t have to overdo it. Just stand firm and not allow their poison to harm you. The biggest thrill for bullies is to see you openly diminished. Showing them their tactics aren’t working and sending you in to meltdown will cause them some alarm and distress – poor dears!

    Moreover, people often sell themselves short. When you’re in the proverbial rat race, you may feel you can only follow a certain well worn path or route to respectability and career success. This isn’t true. There are many things or business like activities people can do or start for themselves – ie start an online shop, have a craft market stall, do outside work – so you’re not so reliant on you employer and have other avenues to make money. Some make the leap all together to downsizing and becoming self-sufficient – this is often the way out to better life – but you might not get the job title and supposed career kudos to go with it. But you’ll probably live a much happier life and won’t have to put up with the toxic crew anymore.

    What might help break you out of your rut, is to go and volunteer at a charity or for a hospice where people have very life limiting or life threatening conditions. You’ll see your life in a whole new perspective, and see how insignificant, petty and stupid your enemies are and are spending time fretting about them is pointless and self-defeating. View them as the assholes they are, this is the first step on the road to freedom. They don’t matter, understand this, and don’t let them take up such a big part of your life and thought time. They’re really not worth it.

    • Well done, Anna. Thank you for sharing – and to all the other excellent commenters as well. So glad this article was revised and reposted. It came up in my FB feed at perfect timing! I will be taking a corporate buy out shortly (due to bullying) away from a pensioned career and majority of colleagues that I truly loved. As a Head of Household, this is a very scary decision. But stress is the mother of risk tolerance so I’ll be returning to school to become a paralegal (what I have always wanted to do) and work in Employment Law advocacy (since I could practically teach it at this point – as I’m sure many of us reluctantly could). Best wishes and support to you all. -A

  13. This may be one of those on the list of “easier said than done” mostly because those targeted are passionate about their jobs. So…. given that, I do believe these employees “get a little help from their friends”. Their doctors are likely to prescribe anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications so they can practice presenteeism while they getting support to remove themselves from the toxicant.

  14. I wonder if this is possible. I am currently being bullied by my workplace and have shed light to all in my department and HR. Nothing. The bully feels she is doing no wrong but I am for speaking out. No accountability. The organization looks the other way. They say it is a personality conflict. No, it is called “Disrespected and intimidated in the workplace.” So the behavior continues. Now I am just looking for another job to get out. Because I don’t want to work for an organization who do not value and respect good employees. Reading the comments, I realize that I am not alone in this. Thank you.

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