Workplace mistreatment: The importance of cross-situational empathy

Comprehending one form of workplace mistreatment, abuse, or trauma ideally should make us more empathetic toward those going through different, but similar experiences.

However, this is not always so. Over the years, on occasion I have observed the unfortunate tendency of some people who have experienced serious workplace mistreatment to be dismissive of the difficult experiences of others, even when those situations bear similarities to their own. For example:

  • Targets of workplace bullying who are dismissive of people alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or some other group;
  • Those who are deeply concerned about discrimination in society but are dismissive of claims of workplace bullying, assuming that it’s not as bad; and,
  • Professionals who rail against the unfair or wrongful treatment that disrupted their career tracks, but who disregard the sufferings of underpaid and mistreated low-wage workers here and abroad; and,
  • Targets of workplace mobbing (group bullying) who put down targets of more one-to-one workplace bullying, as if mobbing by definition is worse.

I’m not suggesting that all forms of workplace mistreatment are alike and that we should regard them equally. Far from it. They may vary greatly in severity and longevity.

But they all involve various levels of distress, fear, anger, want, pain, and injustice, sometimes with long-term impacts.

Of course, drawing lines on our empathy may also be a defensive mechanism, a guard against “empathy exhaustion,” a more lay version of what clinicians might call compassion fatigue for those involved in medical and caregiving work. Indeed, with all the suffering in the world, can we really pour our hearts out to all of it without eventually burning out? Perhaps not, at least for us mere mortals.

But as I wrote some time ago, we need to connect the dots between various forms of trauma and mistreatment in order to comprehend how power is used and abused in our society. Sometimes it will lead us to understanding common sources and systems. That horribly bullied mid-level manager in a local manufacturing plant and that sexually harassed staff assistant working at the company’s corporate headquarters? The roots of their mistreatment may have a lot more in common than first meets the eye.

Only when we understand these commonalities can we build a broad-based movement that affirms the importance of dignity at work for all.

***

Great video on empathy — and under 3 minutes!

I’m changing the subject slightly, but as long as we’re talking about empathy, here’s a great little animated video on the subject by Dr. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (2013):

11 responses

  1. I recently experienced having someone who had been bullied many times, shut me down when I told my story. What I understood from that was that her experience was so raw that she could not tolerate hearing anyone else’s story. A long time ago, I took part in a really interesting dream workshop with other musicians (I am also a professional violinist) I know and trust. One person would share their dream experience and the others in the room would shut their eyes as the “dreamer” recreated their dream and actually moved it along as far as it would progress. So many insights were revealed by this powerful process. We all learned so much about ourselves, each other and what it means to be a human being. The important thing I want to relate pertinent to the bullying topic is that if someone is experiencing something that is highly fearful or seems dangerous, the person will literally fall asleep – at the dream workshop. We all witnessed this many times. So if someone hears something they don’t want to experience, they don’t fall asleep but may somehow need to negate that so that it can’t harm them. The downside is that the bullied person who is trying to get validation is instead getting another slap in the face!
    Only by realizing certain psychological processes are at work, not taking things personally or seriously and by keeping a healthy distance (detach), can one survive the process and learn. It’s still very very difficult.
    David, I especially loved the clarifications of types of bullying, the differing levels of severity, the money and prestige value attached to the bullying and all the rest. I loved the little video because for a long time I have been railing against people saying “At least.” As in “I was harassed and bullied out of the job I loved.”
    “At least you HAD

  2. I recently experienced having someone who had been bullied many times, shut me down when I told my story. What I understood from that was that her experience was so raw that she could not tolerate hearing anyone else’s story. A long time ago, I took part in a really interesting dream workshop with other musicians (I am also a professional violinist) I know and trust. One person would share their dream experience and the others in the room would shut their eyes as the “dreamer” recreated their dream and actually moved it along as far as it would progress. So many insights were revealed by this powerful process. We all learned so much about ourselves, each other and what it means to be a human being. The important thing I want to relate pertinent to the bullying topic is that if someone is experiencing something that is highly fearful or seems dangerous, the person will literally fall asleep – at the dream workshop. We all witnessed this many times. So if someone hears something they don’t want to experience, they don’t fall asleep but may somehow need to negate that so that it can’t harm them. The downside is that the bullied person who is trying to get validation is instead getting another slap in the face!
    Only by realizing certain psychological processes are at work, not taking things personally or seriously and by keeping a healthy distance (detach), can one survive the process and learn. It’s still very very difficult.
    David, I especially loved the clarifications of types of bullying, the differing levels of severity, the money and prestige value attached to the bullying and all the rest. I loved the little video because for a long time I have been railing against people saying “At least.” As in “I was harassed and bullied out of the job I loved.”
    “At least you HAD a job you loved!” which implies that the person who says this cannot let go of their view of the world to try to understand the sufferer’s world. In evolving, I think empathy is key.

  3. The book “Work Abuse” by Chauncey Hare and Judith Wyatt (both are therapists) is an excellent resource for anyone trying to better understand the dynamics of abuse, wherever it may occur. The book is not a ‘light’ read, but requires study and reflection (ideally with others). It’s dated but still very relevant. It addresses our authoritarian and hierarchical systems and how these are fodder for abuse.

    Due to medical complications related to a hip replacement, I am hospitalized in a skilled nursing facility. Just yesterday an Occupational Therapy Assistant – who has worked at the facility for years – was working with me and told me it was her last day of work here. She told me that her supervisor has been targeting her since she refused to do something (per supervisor’s request) that would put her (OT assistant’s) license at risk. More recently the assistant said an accusation was made (about her work) by the supervisor – and it was this act that led the OT assistant to believe that if she stays, the supervisor will eventually find a way to fire her. The OT assistant is older and she said she wants to leave before things get worse, her reputation is harmed, etc. The OT assistant said she has been recognized (via awards, patient feedback, etc.) for her work and she cannot believe what is happening.

    She was in tears and she apologized for talking with me (I had not received therapy from her prior to this time, but had seen her in the therapy room and, she, me.)

    Clearly, she was (is) distraught and I have no doubt that, normally, she would not have talked with patients about these issues. BUT I understand why she did talk about them. We talked about work abuse. We talked about why no one did anything when she went to her supervisor’s supervisor. We talked about why her co-workers were treating her as they were. Anyone reading this knows the despair she is feeling.

    Bottom line – until we acknowledge and actively work to change abuse caused by authority and hierarchy in our enclosed work systems, meaningful change will be difficult to obtain.

  4. Where has all the empathy gone? I don’t think it can be found in the workplace anymore, it’s everyone for himself. Even those with whom I thought I had a friendship have almost completely abandoned me, now that I am a target for mistreatment in the workplace. I tell myself, that’s okay I understand and I push the feeling down in the depths of my being to simply survive the every work day battle’s that I must endure. Don’t get me wrong, the daily battle is not obvious to others and in truth from the outside it must like the life of Riley but it is not it is a very lonely place in all respects. I have been taken out of my beautiful window office and moved to work in the bowels of the building in a dungeon with no windows, away from all people, in silence with no talking or laughter. It’s hard to think that there are other’s in my situation because for me this treatment is tortuous. Where has all the empathy gone…years ago it was there but now I can’t find it anywhere.

  5. Wow David. What a wonderful video to illustrate the concept. I’m so familiar with the subject, yet I had never made the conscious connection that empathy brings about connection, whereas sympathy which brings about distance.

    Please introduce me to that bear! ; )

    ~Dawn

  6. I agree completely that different forms of mistreatment at work (or even outside of work) have much in common. I think they often come from the same ugly place, a desire to control, manipulate and humiliate another person. They also share similar outcomes for the victim, shame and humiliation, feelings of isolation and powerlessness. The difference is in the method, what the perpetrator does or uses (sex, age, race, socioeconomic status, the ways to do this are endless…) to control and humiliate.
    I think there are some people who cross these gray lines and will use any of these methods, they are the master manipulators and ones to be very cautious around. Unfortunately, they often get away with it, because not only do they manipulate their victims, they manipulate their own supervisors and other co-workers into thinking they are great people.

  7. Great topic to open up thankyou David. I love Brene Brown’s work, her video is timely. Her statements re: courage, daring greatly and vulnerability bring me strength and courage when I stand infront of many professionals and share parts of my story, and teach about WPB and recovery.

    Recently I taught 75 social workers many with Masters, Ph’D level and workplace supervisors and managers. During this 6 hour workshop about workplace bullying we shared many excellent discussions however, two female managers demonstrated bullying behaviours towards myself and my co-facilitator througout the day. This consisted of rolling their eyes at our comments, laughing, whispering, speaking negatively about us, and attempting to recruit others. I am grateful for this experience for I now have and an excellent example to share about the insidiousness of bullying. Many were sharing painful pieces of their stories and these two ladies where lost in a world that is very mysterious to me. We wondered why they attended?

    I believe that some targets do not give others time, patience, empathy for a few reasons but mainly because they are either “not in recovery at all, or it is too soon for them”. Some are just unable to step out of their own pain/trauma, and as you mentioned possibly experiencing compassion fatigue, stuck in rumination, or suffering symptoms of PTSD. When raw from one war zone it is hard to be present in another. Some targets are grieving the loss of safety, love of a their job and more. I do believe prior to a full recovery some targets become self absorbed as they are busy trying to make sense of what happened, and sometimes obsessive about their experience. I provide treatment for those who have been affected by bullying and I sometimes see a common theme in that people tend to feel their story is much worse than others. Or their workplace is much worse than all others. We are all in our different professional worlds yet all are so very similar.

    It is difficult for targets of bullying to remain present and be mindful when in early recovery. Self insight/awareness is key for all. Recover is essential.

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