Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)

“Crazy making” is a term one hears a lot in counseling and psychology. It basically means what it sounds like: Behaviors and actions — often intended — that create stress, confusion, and anxiety, and sometimes make people question their judgment and even sanity.

There are lots of overlaps between workplace bullying and the concept of crazy making, in ways that validate bullying as a form of psychological torture. In this post I’m drawing on previous commentaries in an effort to understand those interrelationships.


Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment. Wikipedia defines gaslighting this way:

…a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. It may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

When I wrote a post about gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic in late 2012, I never imagined that it would still be getting dozens of “hits” each week from online searches today. But now I informally nominate it as one of the most pernicious forms of individually targeted, crazy making behavior in the workplace. If you doubt my assessment, do a search using “gaslighting” and “workplace” and you’ll see why I’ve reached this conclusion.


Ostracism is among the most stress-inducing of workplace bullying tactics. Imagine going into an office or plant every work day, only to be greeted by silence and avoidance from your co-workers. It’s a silent form of mobbing or “puppet master” bullying. Ostracism is painful to endure and can fuel paranoid, hyper-vigilant emotions, especially when experienced over an extended period of time.

Button pushing

Workplace aggressors are often experts at button pushing. They know how to get a rise out of someone, and if it causes the target to say or do something that gives the aggressors even more of an upper hand, then all the better. Under stress, targets can engage in self-defeating behaviors, and crossing the line in responding to abusive work situations is a frequent one.

Accordingly, button pushing is strongly related to our next topic…

Bullies as victims

Workplace bullies sometimes claim to be the victims of workplace bullying. And the smartest aggressors often are experts at doing this. The typical scenario is when bullying targets retaliate or act impulsively toward their aggressor(s) out of exasperation, fear, or anger. That response provides reason for the aggressor(s) to claim victim status. The target is put in the crazy making position of having to explain/defend his actions and being on the defensive.

Superficial civility

The organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work. It often starts with mistreatment masked by a steady, calm demeanor. This may include behaviors that are calculated to be plausibly deniable, such as bullying by omission (e.g., exclusion and ostracism), “lighter” forms of harassment, or indirect discrimination.

An individual who protests such mistreatment, especially in loud or allegedly disrespectful tones, may be accused of violating unofficial or official codes of conduct and may be called to answer for “inappropriate” behavior.

Erasure and institutional memory

Bad organizations choose to “forget” less flattering events of their institutional history and the individuals associated with them, especially whistleblowers whose allegations threaten their self-generated mythologies. Those individuals will be conveniently rendered “unpersons,” an Orwellian term for an individual whose existence is more or less expunged. Those who later try to remind organizations of these transgressions are criticized for talking about “the past,” even if the events in question occurred very recently. If they bring up that past too frequently, they risk being pushed out and turned into unpersons.


It takes a pretty twisted individual to engage in a campaign of crazy making bullying against another. I believe the most likely candidate for this type of aggressor is the so-called “almost psychopath,” a term coined by psychiatrist Ronald Schouten to capture those individuals who fall short of meeting the clinical definition of a psychopath but who nevertheless possess characteristics such as a lack of empathy and a willingness to engage in harmful behavior toward others. Almost psychopaths can function within the boundaries of society and often are very skilled at manipulating others and covering their behaviors.


Related posts

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012)

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012)

Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse? (2012)

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory (2011)

Workplace bullying as psychological torture (2009)


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Boomers and workplace bullying: Cause or cure?

Can Baby Boomers play a lead role in stopping workplace bullying? In a blog post published earlier this weekNext Avenue’s Nancy Collamer says yes:

So what are you willing to do about it? I ask because many boomers are in management and as a result, some are in a good position to take action. Even if you’re not among your employer’s leadership team, you still might be able to make a difference.

If you’re well respected by colleagues, have good relations with key influencers at your employer or have strong job security, it’s likely easier for you to speak up and get management to take bullying seriously than it is for your younger co-workers.

Nevertheless, she acknowledges that Boomers can be among the responsible parties for bullying at work, quoting Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute:

“Boomers are among the guiltiest of the bullies,” says Gary Namie, director of the WBI. “It is our generation that revered command-and-control management style.”

In fact, Namie argues that younger generations (including the boomer’s kids who were groomed on the intolerance of bullying throughout their school years) will be the ones who make bullying unacceptable sometime in the future.

Collamer goes on to suggest familiar ways in which individuals can help to prevent and respond to bullying behaviors at work.

Boomers and bullying

I’m a big fan of the PBS Next Avenue website, and Collamer’s piece echoes its generally optimistic view of how folks in the 50+ age cohort can live meaningful, impactful lives. On this question, however, I believe that Gary’s perspective is more realistic. It’s not to say, as Collamer suggests, that Boomers cannot make a positive difference here. Rather, with the exception of those who have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying close up, many Boomers simply don’t get it.

Boomers — as a group — are in positions of considerable power. Many are managers, directors, presidents, department heads, and senior executives. However, it’s clear that many Boomers in positions of leadership are condoning, enabling, defending, supporting, or perpetrating these behaviors.

Older workers targeted

Furthermore, older workers, including a lot of Boomers, may be targets of workplace bullying at disproportionate levels. Last year I reported on the results of the Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll suggesting so:

Midlife correlates with an increased risk of being bullied at work, suggest the results of a Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll released earlier this month.

The instant poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Will it be up to the Millennials?

The success of Collamer’s article is in bringing this topic before an audience that needs to hear the message.

Until that message sinks in, we’ll continue to see executives complicit in workplace bullying, defended by lawyers denying that any such behaviors have taken place, and bolstered by corporate lobbying groups that oppose legal protections against targeted abuse at work.

In fact, I believe that the passage of workplace anti-bullying laws will be among the spurs toward getting Boomer executives to take workplace bullying seriously. The mere threat of the Healthy Workplace Bill being enacted already has prompted some management-side employment lawyers to advise their clients to adopt workplace bullying policies.

Or maybe, as Gary suggests, it will be the Millennials, raised on the idea that bullying is wrongful behavior, who bring our society to the next level on this. If so, perhaps generations hence will look back at the largely Boomer-led, top-down organizations and wonder how we could’ve been so misguided.


Related post

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

“Hey boss, are you a narcissist?”

What if a simple one-question test could “out” the narcissists in your workplace?

Of course, maybe they don’t need to be outed; their behavior often does it for them. defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder this way:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by a long-standing pattern of grandiosity (either in fantasy or actual behavior), an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others. People with this disorder often believe they are of primary importance in everybody’s life or to anyone they meet.…People with narcissistic personality disorder often display snobbish, disdainful, or patronizing attitudes.

Just ask

Narcissism has been typically identified via multi-question diagnostic instruments. But now a team of researchers suggests that all we have to do is ask and we shall receive. Rachel Feltman reports on this study for the Washington Post:

To find a narcissist, just ask them all to stand up. According to a new study (based on 11 separate experiments), the 40-question diagnostic test for narcissism can often be skipped in favor of a single, blunt question.

Are you a narcissist?

Together, the 11 experiments showed that individuals who scored high on the old evaluation were very likely to respond in the affirmative. “It’s pretty cool actually, because narcissists aren’t afraid to tell you they’re narcissistic,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.

Wouldn’t it be tempting to pop this question at your next office meeting? (Umm, it’s probably not a good idea.)

The bigger issue

But seriously, it’s telling that narcissists appear to be very willing to identify themselves as such. If they have no qualms about that,  it’s no wonder that narcissism is associated with so many aspects of dysfunctional, hurtful behaviors at work, ranging from lousy management to severe workplace bullying. The extreme self-centeredness and absence of empathy can result in behaviors that destroy morale and livelihoods. 

Consultant Victor Lipman, blogging for Psychology Today, suggests a connection between the ranks of management and narcissism:

Are narcissists over-represented in the ranks of management? Data on this issue is hard to find, perhaps nonexistent. Yet for a variety of reasons related to the nature of the condition and the qualities that often help one succeed in management, it’s reasonable to assume there’s ample narcissist representation.

In other words, the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more likely we are to encounter narcissistic behaviors. And we know that such behaviors tend to roll downhill.


Related post

Is the “psychopath boss” theme overhyped? (2013)

The daily routines of creative minds



How do creative geniuses and brilliant intellectuals spend their typical workday?

If you’ve ever wondered how great writers, artists, philosophers, scientists and other creators of art and knowledge greet their mornings and beyond, Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (2013) is a pleasing, easy way to find out.

Early in life, Currey became deeply interested in the daily rituals of creative people, and it led him to write this book of short profiles describing the routines of the likes of Ernest Hemingway, George Gershwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Carl Jung, Maya Angelou, Albert Einstein, Ayn Rand, Truman Capote, Charles Darwin, Toni Morrison, and some 150 others. (Demographically speaking, the group is heavier on white males, but it’s an eclectic assemblage nonetheless.)

Browsing through these profiles, it’s clear that there’s no single way to be productive, creatively speaking. One’s idiosyncrasies also play a big role in how the day is spent. As NPR’s John Wilhol said in a segment about Daily Rituals last year:

The book makes one thing abundantly clear: There’s no such thing as the way to create good work, but all greats have their way. And some of those ways are spectacularly weird.

If that last line doesn’t pique your interest, then nothing will! (That said, Currey commendably writes to inform and entertain, not to titillate. Those looking for the juicy details on the “secret lives” of great creatives will be disappointed.)

Individual quirks notwithstanding, The Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman did sift through the book and identified some core habits that seemed to pop up more often than others. He presented his findings in a full-blooded review essay:

  • “Be a morning person”
  • “Don’t give up the day job”
  • “Take lots of walks”
  • “Stick to a schedule”
  • “Practise strategic substance abuse” (Even here the point is pretty tame: “But there’s only one [chemical aid] that has been championed near-universally down the centuries: coffee.”)
  • “Learn to work anywhere”

Of course, despite Burkeman’s prodigious mustering, there are many exceptions to each of these points. Also, the short, individual profiles are a delight to read; the essence of the book cannot be appreciated from a review.

Most of those profiled come from the World Before The Internet. I wonder if Currey has a followup volume in mind on how today’s creatives are navigating the online world in terms of productivity and resources.

In the meantime, I’ll hit “Publish” for this blog post and refill my coffee mug.

Recycling: Five years of August

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

August 2013: Notes on the workplace anti-bullying movement — “If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve figured out that workplace bullying and related issues of human dignity at work have become focal points of my career. …These experiences have been defining ones, personally and professionally. They also have taught me a lot about the challenges of organizing a movement and building public support for it. I’d like to step back for a brief moment to share some of those insights and observations, centering on the types of people who have been drawn to be a part of this. Concededly, these are fairly broad generalizations, and I apologize in advance to anyone who believes I’m overstating my points. But here goes…”

August 2012: Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying — “You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; and (3) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of “left-brain” logical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence. You then unleash them unto the world of work. Uh oh.”

August 2011: Hiring decisions, hard times, and personal & institutional integrity — “Employers, managers, and HR folks have a lot of power in an economy where jobs are hard to come by. Sometimes, the hiring decisions they make reveal something of their personal and institutional integrity, or lack thereof.”

August 2010: Can an apology help to prevent and settle employment litigation? — “It would take considerable reworking of the commonly assumed role of an employer’s lawyer to encourage, when appropriate, apology and disclosure as a healthy approach toward resolving employment disputes.   Right now, too many management-side lawyers assist their clients in creating a public fiction: We do no wrong — never, ever.  However, is it possible that a different turn will lead to less litigation, less contentious dispute resolution, and — ultimately — better employee morale?”

August 2009: Bully rats, tasers, and stressNew York Times science reporter Natalie Angier has an interesting piece in today’s edition…about an experiment using lab rats to assess the effects of chronic stress, feedback loops in the brain, and how to reverse the damage.  It’s a good report on a thought-provoking study, but for me it confirmed what has become obvious…”

Transparency may be a “win-win,” but too many organizational leaders don’t understand that

“Transparency” is one of the buzzwords we hear in organizations, usually via leaders proclaiming they’re all about sharing information with their fellow workers. The benefits of transparency have been touted over the years in the business press, especially in light of the corporate scandals of the last decade.

Of course, we know that walking the talk on this one can be an elusive quality, especially in the workplace. Personally speaking, the more an executive or manager proclaims their commitment to transparency, the more I question whether he will deliver.

This is a shame, because the results of transparency — common knowledge shared by all — may likely create more team players whose priorities go beyond the self. For an interesting spin on this, here’s a study published by Harvard University researchers (including noted professor Steven Pinker), suggesting that shared knowledge among key stakeholders can increase cooperation between them. Avital Andrews, writing in Pacific Standard magazine, reports on it:

If you know that someone knows something that you also know, does that make you more likely to cooperate with them? A new study out of Harvard suggests the answer is yes.

…[The study], published last week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that when people have common knowledge, they’re much likelier to act in each others’ best interest.

Andrews explains how the study helps to break new ground on our understanding of mutually beneficial cooperation:

Social psychology has plenty of studies that examine altruism, but there hasn’t been much research that looks into its obscure cousin, “mutualistic cooperation”—that is, when people cooperate to benefit each other and themselves.

It makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? Common knowledge — the proverbial “let’s make sure we’re all on the same page here” — can lead to greater understanding and trust. Certainly there are instances where information cannot or should not be shared. However, as a general proposition, when employees feel treated respectfully and believe that key information is not being withheld from them, they are more likely to get beyond the us vs. them paradigm that typically besets poorly led organizations.

The quest to enact Healthy Workplace legislation, Part II: From individual targets to advocates for change

In our efforts to advance the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) in the recently concluded Massachusetts legislative session, we started getting feedback from folks inside the State House at levels of frequency and intensity that we hadn’t heard before: Your advocates are making a difference.

In other words, when our outreach coordinator asked HWB supporters to contact legislators at different points in the process,  those supporters responded by getting on the phone, sending e-mails, and scheduling visits. While we fell short of the success we had hoped for, at critical points the HWB made it to next procedural steps and overcame opposition because of the voices of our grassroots advocates.

This is a critically important development, and permit me to explain why.

Many advocates for the Healthy Workplace Bill have experienced workplace bullying. In other words, they have been targets, and they know firsthand what this form of interpersonal abuse can do to people. They also understand how being bullied at work can be a lonely, isolating experience, especially when others around you dive for cover or start to keep their distance.

That sense of isolation can create self-protective barriers that may make it difficult for targets to participate in a movement to create legal protections against how they were mistreated.

And yet, we’re now seeing more targets coming out of the woodwork, joining with others to say that the law, among other societal institutions, should step in and draw the line against workplace bullying.

For many, it’s not easy. Sharing one’s story, even self-identifying as a target during, say, a phone call with a legislative staffer, means revisiting very difficult stuff. But those personal stories are helping to drive the forces for change.

Especially for those people, I hope that being a part of a broader response to their own terrible experience is a life-affirming way to make positive change. So many social movements leading to legal reforms — the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, to name a few — have been fueled by people who have experienced injustice and abuse. Why not this one?


Related post

The quest to enact Healthy Workplace legislation, Part I: Subtle progress in Massachusetts (2014)


What if our society was built around advancing human dignity and well-being?

Let’s pretend, for even a few minutes, that we could build our society around the advancement of human dignity and well-being.

What would our educational, social, economic, and governance institutions look like? How would we balance opportunity, individual responsibility, societal safety nets, and shared obligations? How would we address health care and public health issues? How would our laws and legal systems operate? How would we define our relationships with the planet and other species that inhabit it? How would we operate our workplaces?

Most importantly, how would each of us choose to conduct our own lives?

For many reasons, I think we’re at a juncture where we need to be steadfast and unapologetic about making human dignity and well-being the defining priorities for our society. The ensuing discussion may take us in many different directions, and we won’t always be in agreement about what approaches to take, but at least we’d get the framing concept right.


Related posts

Dignity instead: The “markets and management” framework for U.S. workplace law should go (2014) — “Within such a “dignitarian” framework, there is plenty of room for market-based competition, entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and sound management prerogative. Furthermore, the call for dignity in the workplace is not a rallying cry for state ownership, runaway taxation, or regulatory micromanagement of the workplace. Rather, it is about promoting the complementary goals of healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces within a mix of robust private, public, and non-profit sectors.”

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014) — “One of my periodic “battery rechargers” is the opportunity to reconnect in person with a network of law professors, lawyers, judges, and students associated with a school of legal thought called therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), which examines law, legal procedures, and the legal profession from the standpoint of psychological health.”

Dialogues about dignity (2013), Parts I (Meeting in Manhattan), II (Mainstreaming the message), and III (Claiming and using power to do good) — “The founding president of [the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network] is Evelin Lindner, a physician, psychologist, and self-styled global citizen whose life mission is rooted in the displacement of her family during the ravages of the First and Second World Wars. In her remarks to the group, Evelin talked about the need to “embrace the world as our university.” She urged that in the face of powerful political and economic forces that operate to advance the interests of the most privileged, we must “build a new culture of global cohesion, global friendship.”

“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing worker health issues (2013) —  “By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.”


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How headlines mislead: The $4.7 million “workplace bullying case”

Yesterday I received multiple e-mails alerting me to a jury verdict awarding some $4.7 million to an employee in a “workplace bullying case.” In fact, this is the headline that blared from a legal compliance site:

Federal Jury Awards $4.7 Million in Workplace Bullying Case

The accompanying summary by Marjorie Richter says more about the case. Here’s the lede:

An employee of a Brooklyn, New York clothing store was awarded $4.7 million by a federal jury after being repeatedly bullied by a co-worker and ultimately physically attacked. The award was for assault, emotional distress, negligence in the employer’s hiring of the bully and punitive damages.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff, a Yemen-born stock clerk, was bullied by a security guard at the store, who repeatedly called the plaintiff “bin Laden” and used other religious, racial and ethnic slurs throughout the plaintiff’s employment at the store. The security guard also made threatening physical gestures.

She goes on to describe the need for workplace bullying prevention and training, and she links registration information for the site’s online course.

In reality…

The article/sales pitch may give the misleading impression that bullied workers can easily generate winning claims for emotional distress, negligent hiring, and similar causes of action.

In reality, this lawsuit illustrates the huge gap between discriminatory harassment and standard brand workplace bullying.

Although the legal compliance site frames this as a “workplace bullying” case before making a pitch for its training and compliance programs, the underlying claims are grounded in harassment on the basis of protected class status, in this case possibly national origin, religion, and race. If bullying is motivated by discriminatory animus, it may be the basis of a claim for damages under the federal Civil Rights Act and state equivalents. Furthermore, while most tort claims for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in workplace bullying-related situations are dismissed before trial, the ones that survive are typically related to situations involving discriminatory behavior.

However, if the bullying cannot be linked to categories protected by employment discrimination laws, the target often has few, if any, viable legal protections.

In other words, the $4.7 million “workplace bullying case” only highlights the need for workplace anti-bullying laws. The push to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill must continue.


For a detailed summary of the core legal points made in this post, see my law review article, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), the first in-depth examination of the American legal and policy implications of workplace bullying.

Positive thinking in a terrible job situation

It’s one thing to make the best of a bad workplace, but it’s quite another to engage in a sort of forced mode of positive thinking as a response to a terrible job situation. In a piece published on AlterNet, Alexander Kjerulf examines “5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes You Miserable at Work”:

1. “Faking emotions at work is stressful”

2. “Positive thinking makes things even worse for people who are unhappy at work”

3. “Negative emotions are a natural part of work”

4. “Positive thinking can contribute to quelling dissent and ignoring problems in the workplace”

5. “Trying to force yourself to be positive, makes you unhappy”

He offers extended explanations for each of these points. I recommend the full article to anyone who wants to understand more of the nuances between relentlessly negative and relentlessly positive attitudes at work.

While endorsing the idea that people can change their “mood and outlook through conscious effort,” Kjerulf takes on the notion “that you can always change your thinking in any situation, and that external circumstances don’t matter,” adding that “telling someone in a really rough life situation that they should think more positively is incredibly condescending and a terrible way to trivialize their pain.” He also does a nice job of distinguishing positive thinking from the field of positive psychology, the latter of which he generally endorses.

Related posts

If this general topic interests you, then these two earlier blog posts may be worth a look:

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (2014) — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

Beyond happiness: Founder of positive psychology movement expands his vision (2011) — “Perhaps the most articulate critic of the ‘happiness movement’ in America has been Barbara Ehrenreich, political and social critic extraordinaire, who took happy talk to task in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In a sub-chapter titled ‘Managing Despair,’ Ehrenreich excoriates corporate use of motivational speakers and team-building exercises to “inspire” workers in the midst of layoffs and pay & benefit cuts….”

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