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:
- “Nonsensical conversations from hell”
- “Nitpicking and moving the goal posts”
- “Changing the subject to evade accountability”
- “Covert and overt threats”
- “Smear campaigns and stalking”
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.