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…