On the dynamics of “puppet master” bullying at work

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In 2012 I proposed a type of work abuse that fits somewhere between workplace bullying and workplace mobbing. I called it “puppet master” bullying and described it as a form of “multiple-aggressor abuse at work that may stand at the fault lines between common conceptions of bullying and mobbing.” Here’s more:

In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. For example, if the aggressor is a mid-level manager, he may recruit HR to help out with the dirty work and encourage the target’s peers to shun or bully her.

Even in cases of peer bullying, one aggressor can use intimidation and persuasion to turn others against a peer-level target.

One of the key indicators of puppet master bullying, all too infrequently realized, is what happens when the master is removed from the scene. Typically, much of the malicious energy that fueled the puppets fades away, and so with it much of the bullying behavior.

To be honest, my learned colleagues who are researching and theorizing about work abuse haven’t exactly jumped on board with this concept, so perhaps I should heed the silence. However, I see the puppet master dynamic playing out in so many situations — including organizations and communities — that I’m still using the term. As I often do with this blog, I’d like to take a few minutes to share how my thinking about it has evolved, drawing on ideas and authors that I’ve discussed in previous posts.

Who are the players?

As I suggested in a post last year, it’s important to think about workplace bullying and mobbing in the context of human and organizational systems, whereby the following players play their roles:

Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

This certainly applies to puppet master bullying. So let’s take a closer look at these players.

Chief abusers

Puppet master bullies are often pretty evil. Not only are they prone to treating others abusively, but also they are willing and able to enlist others to help do the job. The latter uses fear and intimidation, promises and incentives, or some combination of all.

When I envision the classic puppet master bully, I think of the opening to Dr. Martha Stout’s invaluable The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

Imagine — if you can — not having conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.

OK, I understand that not every workplace abuser is a genuine, clinically diagnosable sociopath. However, the key message of that passage seems to apply to so many people who mistreat or exploit others at work: They don’t have a conscience, or at least not much of one. In fact, in discussing with others the challenges of anticipating and responding to the hurtful actions of nasty, abusive employers, I often suggest: Think like a sociopath. Then you’ll get it. And so it is with comprehending many puppet master bullies.

The puppets: Foot soldiers, defenders, followers, and bystanders

Puppet master bullying necessarily involves the willing/coerced/incentivized participation of many others. In talking to bullying and mobbing targets, one of their most common, anguished laments runs along these lines: How could they have gone along with this? Don’t they have any sense of decency? They had to know this was terrible and unfair, and yet they went along or turned the other way.

It is on this note that I draw insights from philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, whose writings on the nature of Nazi Germany help us to understand abuse in many other settings, including the workplace. Here’s what I wrote in 2014:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

In puppet master bullying situations, the enlisted individuals typically go well beyond HR and the legal department. They are recruited from virtually any setting in which the target works and interacts with others. They are the puppet master’s everyday foot soldiers in conducting the bullying.

In addition, successful (I hate using that word in this context) puppet master bullying campaigns require co-employee bystanders who look the other way when they witness or otherwise become aware of the mistreatment. It’s a variation on see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. They may not be actively partaking in the bullying, but they’re not going to do anything about it either,

Target perceptions

Some may believe I’m exaggerating, but to be on the receiving end of puppet master bullying (or genuine mobbing) is to experience terrorism on the job. And that exactly is what many of the chief abusers want to convey. In either form, it looks and feels like a mob on the receiving end. As I wrote in my 2012 post on puppet master bullying:

From the standpoint of the target, the distinctions often matter little in terms of the experience of being on the receiving end. Whether it’s someone surgically directing or controlling her minions to bully an individual, or a true mob descending upon a lone target, it sure as heck feels like a mobbing.

For those studying these behaviors and trying to develop measures to curb them, however, the distinctions do matter. With puppet master bullying, removing the instigator(s) may be enough to stop the abusive behavior. With genuine mobbing, however, the remedy is even more difficult, because the emotional impetus to act has now infected an entire group.

In other words, with puppet master bullying, cutting the strings may be sufficient for the “puppets” to stop their onslaught of abuse. With genuine mobbing, however, the puppets are sufficiently enlisted to continue the mistreatment on their own.

***

Obviously we have a lot more to learn about comprehending and responding to bullying and mobbing in the workplace. I hope this has been of some help to folks who are experiencing or trying to understand this particular sordid brand of psychological abuse at work.

10 responses

  1. You have a high profile example right there in Boston. The management behaviors toward the victims is described in court papers as “hostile work environment…who’s actions are characterized as involving reckless indifference and evil motive.” The jury was so taken back by the facts of the case, they awarded the victim 28 million dollars. All you have to do is read the complaint in order to see how egregious it was and how far and wide the mobbing, how far up the leadership chain the complicentcy went. In an even more bizarre turn, the bullying behavior was overlooked by a national organization, who’s criteria for its highest award is the antithesis of what is described in the complaint. Has there been a breach of the public trust? Where are the watchdog groups and the media to call this out?

    “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch them and do nothing.” Albert Einstein

  2. I remain astounded at the sensitivity of your understanding of your research, a sensitivity one may only feel as a target of such abuse. Your words calm my soul and my sanity. I was forced out of the workplace, and recently the puppet master of my previous employment has been PROMOTED, yet removed from the workplace in which she was the puppet master. I am no longer there, but I have hope that the dynamic of the workplace will somehow heal, albeit too late for me. Cringe at the imagining of her new leadership role in another school.

  3. David — I have heard of this term before, and it is in the context that you are using it. I’ve had this type in my family. The puppet master often plays the victim to get the associates worked up over the supposed wrongs of the target. I see it as a type of gaslighting of the associates to get them to act out the evil the person is suggesting.

  4. I have been the target of workplace bullying and mobbing at two institutions of higher education where the president of both universities was the ‘puppet-master’. Finding the words to make sense of a situation of abuse – an unspeakable situation of hurt and wounding that you have never experienced or a story of which you have never before heard – takes time, reflection, and a high degree of self knowledge and discovery. Wounding is often silent because there are no words. The victim can not speak without understanding of the situation or of self. Grief, pain and suffering often impede the discovery process of coming to understanding. Without understanding there are no words. Harm caused and evil behavior are truly unspeakable until words are found to describe the experience and facilitate understanding.

    I am grateful for this article. Giving expression to the unspeakable is both a monumental and creative task requiring focus of attention into the dark and most unrecognized side of humanity. Not a pleasant endeavor but necessary to understand how things go wrong and how to prevent or solve this harmful occurrence. As the saying goes, you can’t solve a problem unless you know the scope of what you are dealing with. Heartfelt Thanks for creating and articulating a concept that legitimizes a situation that many of us have experienced.

  5. This is soooo on point I got emotional. It soooo hit home so hard I couldnt tell you. Ive been praying to be able to put into words (organize my thoughts) of all the years of all the bullying I’ve endured. This is one very excellent part. Amazing because I myself also noticed the ‘Puppet Master’ similarity when I was there. Also awesome and amazing are your descriptions of the other positions/pawns that would be part of the bullying. Bullying-by-proxy. God bless! 👍👍👍👍👍

    • I’m sorry this resonated so strongly with you because of such a terrible experience, but I hope that reading about this dynamic validates your judgment and instincts. Thank you for sharing this comment. David

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