How to deny, discount, and dismiss bullying and psychological abuse at work

A recent blog piece by psychologist Kenneth Pope explaining how reports of torture can be easily denied, discounted, and dismissed strongly resonated with my understanding of the dynamics of bullying and abuse at work. I thought it worth sharing and discussing with readers here.

Three cognitive strategies

Dr. Pope identifies “three common cognitive strategies for denying, discounting, dismissing, or distorting instances of torture and for turning away from effective steps to stop it and hold those responsible accountable”:

First, “reflexively dismissing all evidence as questionable, incomplete, misleading, false, or in some other way inadequate.”

Second, “using euphemism, abstraction, and other linguistic transformations” to hide the abuse.

Third, by “turning away: ‘I’m not involved,’ ‘There is nothing I can do about it,’ ‘I have no authority, jurisdiction, power, or influence,’ ‘This is no concern of mine,’ etc.”

Applied to workplace bullying

I quickly thought of workplace bullying when I read this blog post.

First, on “reflexively dismissing all evidence”: My gosh, how many stories I’ve heard about people in positions of authority — CEOs, supervisors, and HR directors — dismissing claims of workplace bullying, even when they are backed up with e-mails, statements, third-party observations, and the like!

Second, on “using euphemism [and] abstraction” to hide workplace abuse: How many versions of this have we heard? Oh, they had a personality conflict. . . . Yeah, he can be abrasive, but he’s really a great guy underneath. . . . She just wasn’t a good fit for this place. Need more?

Third, on “turning away” from a bullying situation experienced by someone else: Workplace bullying thrives when bystander indifference is commonplace. Bullying targets frequently experience abandonment by colleagues, including those who know very well what has been transpiring.

When it comes to shedding light on our understanding of workplace bullying, I try to be very careful about invoking references to other severe forms of interpersonal abuse and mistreatment, especially those that are commonly associated with significant human rights violations. At times, however, when the shoe fits…

14 responses

  1. Thank you for posting this – it is a very important topic to discuss. Your article describes my former workplace perfectly! It was common in my former workplace for managers to minimize occurrences of harassment and/or bullying, avoid engaging in discussion of these events altogether, use euphemisms to deny the gravity of the harassing comments or actions from other managers or coworkers, and use abstractions to describe the personality of one of my coworkers. In fact, at one point, HR actually took it one step further and attempted to blame victims for the actions of the harasser/bully and to isolate us. Management and HR supported one another in promulgating this type of atmosphere in order to pressure whistleblowers to quit. I have posted on this topic here: which I would like to update based on your excellent post, so thank you again!

  2. David Yamada — I rec’d your blog in my email earlier in the day and when I went back to reread it later it was gone!…replaced by an email from Drew. I like all the bloggers on workplace bullying, but I’m wondering if Drew’s reblogging somehow got messed up.
    Would you please try re-sending this great, memorable piece to my email and I might be able to tell whether or not it’s my email that is at fault.
    Thank you.

    • The email to subscribers is sent by WordPress directly, not by me, so there’s no way to resend it individually. You can check the right hand column of the blog to make sure you’re still a subscriber. Thanks, DY

  3. My wife is going through hell after reporting her supervisor for bullying. She did all she could for long time to live with the abuse and let go until enough was enough. Yes the abandonment is always around the corner AND witnesses ran for cover. Obviously the bullying was denied and she became the one to take down for wrongdoings (mind you after 15 years of loyal and smooth work!). Now she is the bad apple to the advantage of the bully who gets even more arrogant. The case now is with the Labour Commissioner but it takes ages to the resolution. HR and management know the long procedure and they are taking advantage of time by supporting each other to put the blame on her, influence key staff and managers and build a file against her. The Union did nothing. One solicitor actually worked in favour of the company after taking loads of money. She now found a good solicitor and let’s hope for the best!

  4. Thank you for shining a light on dynamics of work abuse that need to be ‘called out’ as often as possible.

    There is a very real need to examine and understand why these ‘strategies’ occur. It’s critical to change what allows, feeds and enables them. Our work cultures – most of which are based on authority and hierarchy – make it very difficult to effect real change.

    It often isn’t until a person experiences the injustice of work abuse AND the ‘blind eye’ of the organization, that a person even realizes the abuse ‘can actually happen’ with little to no consequences for those who do the hurting.

    There are so many layers to the dynamics of work abuse. Chauncey Hare and Judith Wyatt wrote a book called “Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It.” For those interested in better understanding what psychological and social factors contribute to the dynamics of work abuse, their book is a must read.

  5. Sometimes being mobbed in academia really does equate to torture. After torture, you may not be able to stand on your own. After this past academic year, I was barely able to stand on my own. After torture, you have repeated nightmares, flashbacks, lost sleep, intrusive thoughts. Ditto for my last year in academia. After torture, you can have hyper-reactivity and fear of the situation re-occurring. I had the symptoms of a heart attack every day while going to my classes for the last 3 weeks of term. I’ve lost memory, had terrible migraines, lost all feeling, become unable to relate to my child and wife, etc. I am emotionally distant, unable to express or feel anything. If I were the type, I would have already killed myself. I’m not.

    All this to say, academic mobbing can have outcomes that are very literally the same as torture. Humans have a breath-taking capacity to inflict harm on each other. All that and life is so short as it is. It’s really quite sad, when you look at it in the larger context.

  6. Pingback: How to deny, discount, and dismiss bullying and psychological abuse at work | Beat the Bullies

  7. The fourth strategy: vilifying the victim. The target’s reaction to provocations and abuse, isolated from the bully’s intentional triggers, is used to paint him/her as a troublemaker and to justify mistreatment. At the same time, with attention focused on the victim and his/her behavior being scrutinized, the bully evades responsibility for the situation and may even play the victim and rally supporters. It’s no wonder that the true victims—humiliated, denied even the most basic respect, ostracized, and powerless—feel that life is unbearable or actually commit suicide. See “Baiting & Bashing”:

  8. Pingback: Judge, Jury, and Executioner | artEAST Forum

  9. Insightful article – it’s these types of response and actions from colleagues that prevent victims of workplace bullying from speaking out and seeking support.

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