“Rage-aholic” behavior and intermittent explosive disorder

Mayo Clinic webpage

Mayo Clinic webpage

Informally, we might call them “rage-aholics.” You know, those persons who dial up their anger from 0 to 90 miles per hour in a split second, seemingly at the slightest provocation. They account for many instances of negative and abusive workplace behaviors: Bullying, incivility, and physical violence. We also see plenty of them in domestic violence situations.

Some of these individuals may have a clinically diagnosable condition called intermittent explosive disorder. The Mayo Clinic describes IED this way:

Intermittent explosive disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder.

These intermittent, explosive outbursts cause you significant distress, negatively impact your relationships, work and school, and they can have legal and financial consequences.

Intermittent explosive disorder is a chronic disorder that can continue for years, although the severity of outbursts may decrease with age. Treatment involves medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses.

IED appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the current 5th edition of the DSM now recognizes verbal aggression as a qualifying behavior. The National Institute for Mental Health has estimated that some 16 million Americans may be affected by IED during some point in their lives.

I’ll offer my hypothesis that online communications, especially e-mail and social media, are fueling behaviors that might be dubbed rage-aholic and could reflect the presence of IED. We’re certainly seeing a lot of that rapidly dialed-up anger online these days, and it’s adding to our stress and anxiety levels. Alas, the comments following many an article or Facebook posting about the current political season might suggest an epidemic.

The NFL and domestic abuse: An evolving case study in horrific leadership

Before our very eyes, the National Football League — notably Commissioner Roger Goodell and various team executives and owners — is putting on a show of horrific leadership in the midst of domestic violence allegations against certain NFL players. The current wave of media attention followed the public posting of video footage showing now former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice delivering a knockout punch to his then-fiancee (and now wife) and then dragging her body out of an elevator. Days later, Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges. More stories involving other NFL players are now popping up.

The Ray Rice story is the most factually developed, at least for now. If you want a sense of the culture of the NFL’s front office and the character of some of its leaders, start by reading this excellent investigative report by ESPN’s Don Van Natta, Jr., and Kevin Van Valkenburg, “Rice case: Purposeful misdirection by team, scant investigation by NFL“:

Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens’ director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video — shot from inside the elevator where Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious — the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.

Sanders quickly relayed the damning video’s play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 94-year history.

“Outside the Lines” interviewed more than 20 sources over the past 11 days — team officials, current and former league officials, NFL Players Association representatives and associates, advisers and friends of Rice — and found a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.

I submit that this story carries relevance far beyond the world of professional sports. In particular, the actions of Commissioner Goodell and Baltimore Ravens executives mimic those of countless other organizational leaders when presented with allegations of domestic violence, sexual harassment or assault, school bullying, or workplace bullying lodged against people they wish to protect due to personal ties or business interests. Whether the claims are directed at a powerful senior executive, a “rainmaking” business partner, a team’s star quarterback, or a golf buddy, they simply choose not to do the right thing.

How workplace bullying bears similarities to domestic abuse

Recently making the rounds among folks in the workplace anti-bullying community was a news summary of a 2009 study by Kansas State University doctoral graduate Meridith Selden (now a professor at Wilkes University) and her KSU dissertation adviser, prominent organizational psychology professor Ronald Downey, documenting the reluctance of employees who have been subjected to ongoing workplace hostility to leave their jobs.

Here is what Keri Forsythe said about the study on Office Arrow (link here):

According to a . . . study conducted by researchers at Kansas State (K-State) University, many workers would rather stay in hostile environments than seek employment elsewhere. Case in point: 45 percent of employees who report regular victimization by their coworkers and supervisors have no intention of leaving their jobs. Also, despite the constant emotional abuse they endure, 59 percent of respondents said that they either liked or “did not dislike” their jobs. A sign of the failing economy and workers’ lower career expectations? Not so, says Ron Downey, PhD, a psychology professor at K-State.

Since the research took place before the economic downturn, something else explained this phenomenon. Downey’s take: People would rather work in an oppressive environment than exert themselves to find a new job. “They might like their job, just not certain elements of it,” he says. “That really surprised us; that people weren’t ready to jump ship. We talk about the new workplace where people don’t stay at the same job forever, but getting a job is difficult and people don’t like to do it.”

I have speculated on the “Should I stay or should I go” dilemma and realize it can be a complicated decision. Of course, since the economic meltdown, many have no choice but to remain in a bad job. However, some people who do have options, or at least who could generate some possibilities, choose to stay.

Comparisons to domestic abuse

I’m veering off a bit from the focus of Drs. Selden and Downey, but I can’t help but ponder why people remain in work environments that have become downright abusive or bullying on a recurring basis.

Such scenarios often resemble all-too-common domestic abuse situations where the abused party stays in the relationship, either hoping that things will change or otherwise feeling trapped and without options. Looking at her choices “objectively,” we can see how she could remove herself from the relationship. However, there are complex psychological and economic reasons why she might remain.

Similar patterns often appear in severe workplace bullying situations. The abuse continues, and some targets keep enduring it, sometimes for years. Eventually they’re so psychologically beaten up that they lack the self-confidence and judgment to move on to a hopefully healthier work setting — or at least to remove themselves from the abusive one. On occasion, they become so consumed with the bullying situation itself that their “fight or flight” instincts break down and they become embroiled in a game they can’t win.

Workplace bullying resembles domestic abuse in another way: As a society, we have been too willing to deny its destructive impact and to dismiss it as a personality conflict or a bad match. It took us many, many years to recognize the harm wrought by domestic abuse, even in the face of mounting evidence. We’re still fighting that uphill battle with workplace bullying, despite real progress over the past decade.

When people ask me if workplace bullying is a lot like schoolyard bullying, I typically respond, yes, in a way, but that domestic abuse is the more apt comparison. These are among the reasons why.

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Hat tip on Kansas State study: Drew Mitchell

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