How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing

A compelling 2016 Thought Catalog piece by Shahida Arabi on manipulative, diversionary tactics in abusive relationships periodically makes the social media rounds among supporters of the workplace anti-bullying movement, prompting me to consider how such insights inform our understanding of psychological abuse at work.

Titled “20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You,” the article sets out and explains these tactics in chilling detail. From this list, these are among the tactics most relevant to bullying and mobbing situations:

  • “Gaslighting”
  • “Nonsensical conversations from hell”
  • “Nitpicking and moving the goal posts”
  • “Changing the subject to evade accountability”
  • “Covert and overt threats”
  • “Smear campaigns and stalking”
  • “Triangulation”
  • “Control”

Yes, we can learn a lot about abusive work situations from examinations of toxic relationships. However, lest we blithely assume that the carryover is seamless, I think it’s worth raising at least three caveats in applying these insights:

First, a close focus on interpersonal dynamics should not divert us from looking deeply at organizational cultures. Work abuse typically occurs with institutional sponsorship or ratification. It seldom thrives without being enabled or empowered by the organization’s leadership and practiced values.

Second, work relationships are rarely as ongoing, intense, and intimate as interpersonal relationships. Thus, it may be harder, or take longer, to get an accurate read on a situation. This is especially the case in terms of tagging individuals with labels such as psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist. Surely these people exist in the workplace — I’ve seen and heard of too many examples to say otherwise. But unless you’re working up close and personal with someone for days and weeks on end, it may take a while for their actions to become clarifying from a psychological standpoint.

Third, especially if the abuser is in a superior position on the organizational chart (underscore that if they are your direct boss), it may be much harder to get a read on what’s happening than doing so in an interpersonal relationship. Don’t get me wrong — abusers can be very effective at cloaking their activities in personal situations as well — but in the workplace, these actions can be diffuse and multidirectional, with less access (for the target) to the abuser’s communications network.

4 responses

  1. Has anyone ever identified these tactics being advocated in management literature, memo’s, recommended practice, opinion pieces, etc.? Perhaps by another name. I have always called these types of weapons against staff as “management book of dirty tricks. I can really relate to gaslighting as it has been described. I also remember instances of good cop bad cop among many other “tricks.”

    • There are books out there that do describe these tactics. Snakes in Suits, Dark Psychology 101, there’s plenty of books out there on Covert Emotional Manipulation, Without a Conscience, and my favorite is Psychopath: Manipulation, Con Men, and Relationship Fraud which mentions gas lighting, triangulation, and many interesting points. There’s also books that go extensively to show you about their linguistics and body language and how you can use that against these types of people. We are in an era where we cannot rely on HR to help us fight off this sort of behavior, we would have to use our own wit and diplomacy to handle these type of people with tact and a high level of intelligence to control the situation, neutralize, and to avoid disasters. To them, its like a chess game and we are nothing but their pawns. To outsmart them, you at least have to be 40 moves ahead, know their weaknesses, and know how they think and speak. The books I mentioned will answer your questions. I love books by former FBI agent Joe Navarro, those are pretty helpful and resourceful. Work environments are so transparent to prison settings….so many manipulators, liars, Corruptor’s, immorality, egotism, and unethical behaviors.

  2. David, I think your point about the influence of organizational culture is a really important one. That’s a flaw in the Thought Catalog piece as well – it doesn’t pay a lot of attention to how the abuser’s behaviour might be validated or excused or written off as inconsequential in their social circles or by society as a whole.

  3. I realized we live in a world where everything must be measured from success, to our careers, our wealth and even our lives in general. A world where egotism and dogmatic figures thrive through manipulative and devious tactics at the expense of another’s happiness and wellbeing. I realized that many organizations lack HR Personnel with background knowledge and degrees on psychology and psychiatry which is extremely important especially in discerning sociopaths, psychopathic, and people in general who may pose a risk to a healthy work relationship and environment between others. I came through this thought as I read Jeffery Dawson’s 2nd Edition Psychopath: Manipulation, Con Men And Relationship Fraud which spoke of the many personality disorders, their descriptions, tactics, and who are these people as well as an elaboration of who they may be to us. There is nothing psychologically normal about a person deploying harassment, threats, manipulation, stalking, or recruitment of others to cause you misery, and to the point that it drives you to commit suicide. It is important that organizations around the world change their perception about these types of situations and individuals and take full action regardless of position or power. The book hit the nail on the head with my situation of workplace mobbing. Psychopaths aren’t necessarily serial killers, terrorists, or pedophiles; they can very well be anyone in particular. These people when found in politics, schools, religions, or even work environments pose a risk and a hazard to those who cross paths with them. As quoted by Jeffery Dawson…”they don’t stop at the destruction of careers, but extend to the destruction of human lives.” In being more socially aware and educating myself extensively on handling these types of people with tact and diplomacy, I regained a large part of my life back. Another great book to read is Without a Conscience and Snakes in Suits.

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