Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it?

(Image courtesy of Clipartpanda.com)

As I wrote earlier this year, workplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. 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;

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Countervailing power

On previous occasions here, I have invoked economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power. In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over the division of profits with the titans of business and investment. Today, some labor unions help to safeguard their members against bullying and mobbing; others get a failing grade in this regard. In any event, with less than 12 percent of the American workforce currently unionized, few workers can even theoretically turn to unions to protect them from mistreatment on the job.

Accordingly, most workers who face bullying at work today do so without any kind of protective system to stand up to the forces that are abusing them. Sure, they can retain a lawyer, seek counseling and health care, and otherwise attempt to create a “loose parts” network to help them, but the organized, countervailing power to which Galbraith referred isn’t present. If their employer doesn’t take work abuse seriously, they’re basically looking at a lonely fight.

I don’t have any easy answers at this point. Instead, I’ll simply say that we need to (1) revive the labor movement in the form of strong, pro-member unions that understand the harm wrought by work abuse; and (2) create other entities that can help bullied workers in a more powerful, assertive way. We also need plenty more public education about workplace bullying and mobbing in order to build widespread objection to these forms of interpersonal abuse. 

Bad bosses: The consistent jerk vs. Jekyll & Hyde

Workers of the world, given your druthers, would you rather have a boss who is a jerk all of the time or just part of the time? Believe it or not, it may be easier to deal with the full-time version.

Jena McGregor, writing for the “On Leadership” column of the Washington Post, reports on a research study by Fadel K. Matta, Brent A. ScottJason A. Colquitt, Joel Koopman, and Liana G. Passantino published in the Academy of Management Journal, finding “that employees are less stressed and have more job satisfaction when their bosses are always unfair than when their boss is unpredictable.”

One part of the study involved a lab experiment with college students getting feedback from a boss in simulated work environments:

To no one’s surprise, those who got the consistently nice feedback fared best when it came to the heart rate monitoring. But those who consistently heard how much it sucks to work with them did better than those who sometimes heard compliments and sometimes got burned.

The second part of the study surveyed actual workers in a variety of work settings and found the same thing:

Again, employees who had unpredictable managers were more likely to be stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and emotionally exhausted than those who said they were always treated unfairly.

The Jekyll and Hyde boss

These research findings dovetail with what we’ve heard for years about bad bosses, workplace bullying, and workplace incivility, namely, that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde bosses may cause higher levels of stress and uncertainty than those whose behaviors are predictable and consistent. We tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, perhaps even to the point of opting for a reliably jerky boss over one who offers kudos one day and rants the next. After all, many of us exercise such a preference in other human interactions, ranging from personal relationships to dealing with authority figures such as police officers.

So what lies beneath these Jekyll and Hyde behaviors? In a blog post earlier this year, business school professor Joel Brockner discusses a study by Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson that offers two possible explanations. The first is “moral licensing”:

One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

The second is personal resource depletion:

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether too many employers hire too many bosses who have low levels of ethics and self-control to begin with, leaving a very thin margin of error in terms of everyday treatment of subordinates and peers. As I have mentioned frequently here, research indicates that the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more we find leaders who demonstrate anti-social and psychopathic qualities. Accordingly, the presence of bad bosses probably means that some employers are drawn to the wrong kind of people as potential managers and leaders in the first place. In such instances, they’re more likely to see Dr. Jekyll at the interview, with Mr. Hyde showing up for the first day of work.

Psychopath CEOs, organizational culture, and workplace bullying clusters

“Okay, bosses, count off by fives…”

When talking about abusive work environments, it’s natural to focus on individual aggressors, bullies, and harassers — especially if you’re on the receiving end. However, we also know that bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically enabled by organizational cultures that promote, defend, and/or allow such mistreatment. In attempting to understand these two perspectives, it helps to go straight to the top: Look for a CEO, president, or executive director who embodies the worst of these qualities.

On this note, I’ve been meaning to write about a study conducted by Nathan Brooks (Bond U.), Katarina Fritzon (B0nd U.), and Simon Croom (U. San Diego), suggesting that roughly one in five corporate CEOs demonstrate psychopathic personality traits. As reported last fall by Michael Arria for AlterNet:

According to a new study, one out of every five corporate bosses is a psychopath.

The study surveyed 261 corporate professionals and determined that their “clinically elevated levels of psychopathy” were on par with the prison population. Nathan Brooks, a forensic psychologist at Bond University and researcher on this study, told ABC, “Their personality usually leads them to exploit every avenue open to them, whether it’s in a criminal setting, or within organizations.”

. . . According to Brooks, a certain “successful psychopath” has been allowed to rise in the corporate world, despite the fact that they’re more likely to break the law or engage in unethical activity.

In other words, it starts from the top. Good CEOs hire good mid-level managers and good HR directors. Toxic CEOs hire managers and HR staff who effectuate their abusive leadership practices. It rolls downhill from there, in either good or bad ways.

The bullying cluster hypothesis

For what it’s worth, the 1 in 5 figure makes sense to me. For example, in a 2013 post, I looked at various prevalence studies and assessments and concluded that “between 1 of 6 and 1 of 7 bosses may behave in a manner that causes underlings and other co-workers to think of them as psychopaths.” Close enough, yes?

The figure also may support a hypothesis I floated in 2012, namely, that some workplaces are “bullying clusters.” I suggested that “(b)ullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.” I further asked, “might the old chestnut, the “20/80 rule,” apply here? Could, say, 20 percent of our workplaces host 80 percent of the bullying?”

So…a 20 percent psychopath CEO rate…and a question speculating that 20 percent of our workplaces may account for 80 percent of workplace bullying. Maybe we’ve got something of a match here.

***

Related posts

Is the “psychopath boss” theme overhyped? (2013)

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012)

Is our psychologically ill economy fueled by psychologically ill business leaders? (2011)

Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition

Image of German Stuka dive bombers from MilitaryHistoryNow.com

Like all types of interpersonal mistreatment, workplace bullying and mobbing come in varying degrees of frequency and intensity. All are bad, but some are worse than others, and in some cases, much worse. For a long time I’ve been thinking about the right term to describe a particularly virulent form of all-out, coordinated or semi-coordinated, multi-directional work abuse, and I think I’ve found it: Blitzkrieg bullying or mobbing.

Blitzkrieg is a German term meaning “lightning war.” As defined by historian Raymond Limbach for Encyclopedia Britannica, blitzkrieg is a “military tactic calculated to create psychological shock and resultant disorganization in enemy forces through the employment of surprise, speed, and superiority in matériel or firepower.” He continues:

Germany’s success with the tactic at the beginning of World War II hinged largely on the fact that it was the only country that had effectively linked its combined forces with radio communications. The use of mobility, shock, and locally concentrated firepower in a skillfully coordinated attack paralyzed an adversary’s capacity to organize defenses, rather than attempting to physically overcome them, and then exploited that paralysis by penetrating to the adversary’s rear areas and disrupting its whole system of communications and administration.

I think it is wholly fitting to borrow a concept honed in practice by the Nazi regime to tag this form of intensive, targeted bullying or mobbing. After all, those who engage in this form of work abuse operate at a comparable level of morality: They are out to eliminate someone through aggressive, heartless, disorienting actions.

True, blitzkrieg tactics are historically associated with strategies to achieve fast, decisive victories, with a minimal expenditure of personnel and arms. In that sense, some might understandably respond that by comparison, bullying and mobbing campaigns may endure for months or years. I take the point, but blitzkrieg tactics also can be part of military campaigns that go on for some time.

In thinking about bullying and mobbing situations that merit the blitzkrieg label, I find that various combinations of following actions are often used:

  • Gaslighting behaviors meant to confuse and disorient
  • Eliminationist tactics such as blackballing
  • Electronic surveillance and hacking of electronic accounts
  • Using the legal system to abuse the target
  • Button pushing to trigger or provoke the target into making mistakes
  • Defamation and misrepresentation, often extending into the broader workforce or even community
  • Breaking and entering into a target’s premises
  • Vandalism, theft, and property destruction
  • Anonymous messaging and threats
  • Abusers claiming victim status

Bullying and mobbing motivated by retaliatory instincts can yield especially vicious forms of the above.

By using these tactics, abusers aim to disorient, confuse, frighting, weaken, and ultimately disable the target. As one can guess, it is very, very hard to fight this level of abuse. Sometimes it can be done, but it takes calculation, knowledge, and strategic smarts — qualities often in low supply when someone is being overwhelmed and their cognitive skills are frequently impaired. This is where friends, family members, and allies come in to provide support and assistance, but only if they understand that this form of blitzkrieg abuse is very, very real, even if the story at first sounds “crazy.”

As I see it, we need to understand more about blitzkrieg abuse and how perpetrators get away with it, for it surely captures the worst forms of bullying and mobbing. It also underscores the need for workplace anti-bullying laws that give targets a legal weapon to use in response. Such a law may well open the door to procedural discovery (document requests, depositions, interrogatories, etc.) that will help a target build an evidence trail, which, in turn, traces back to the main ringleaders.

Related posts

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (2016)

Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct (2015)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014)

Understanding the Holocaust (And why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014)

When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012; rev.2017)

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012)

Harvard study: The key to living a meaningful and happy life

So it took a bunch of smart people at Harvard to identify the single most important factor toward leading a meaningful and happy life: Good relationships.

Melanie Curtin reports for Inc. on findings from the multi-generational Harvard Study of Adult Development, spanning some 75 years:

  • “According to Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one thing surpasses all the rest in terms of importance: ‘The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.'”
  • “Specifically, the study demonstrates that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, helps your brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces both emotional as well as physical pain.”
  • “The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.”
  • “‘It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,’ says Waldinger. ‘It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.'”

Okay, there are big qualifiers here in terms of the study participants. The 75-year study is limited to white men from two cohorts. Obviously it’s not the most diverse of participant pools. However, the longitudinal nature of the study is unique and makes the findings worthy of our attention. (Those who want to read more about the Harvard study may go to its website.)

Piece of cake, right?

So, if you want to live a good life, then build good relationships. It’s that easy!

Or maybe not. You see, other studies, analyses, and commentaries are telling us that loneliness is a huge problem in our society and that the absence of quality relationships in individual lives is adding up to a big public health issue.

Billy Baker, a soon-to-be-40-year-old feature writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, opens his recent piece on loneliness and middle aged men:

I’d been summoned to an editor’s office at the Globe Magazine with the old “We have a story we think you’d be perfect for.” This is how editors talk when they’re about to con you into doing something you don’t want to do.

Here was the pitch: We want you to write about how middle-aged men have no friends.

Excuse me? I have plenty of friends. Are you calling me a loser? You are.

The editor told me there was all sorts of evidence out there about how men, as they age, let their close friendships lapse, and that that fact can cause all sorts of problems and have a terrible impact on their health.

Baker then appeals to some expert testimony:

Health writer Emily Gurnon, writing last year for Next Avenue, cites a major 2016 analysis indicating more of the same:

You may have heard that loneliness is hazardous to your health — and can even lead to an early death. Now, an analysis of 23 scientific studies gives us numbers that reveal just how sick it can really make you.

People with “poor social relationships” had a 29 percent higher risk of newly diagnosed heart disease and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke, according to the study, published July 1 in the British journal Heart.

That puts loneliness and social isolation on par with other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as anxiety and job strain, the researchers said. And it exceeds the risk posed by physical inactivity and obesity, said lead researcher Nicole Valtorta, of the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, England.

Relationships and work

The modern workplace is an incubator for social relationships of all kinds, ranging from casual friendships to romantic ties. When work is good and so are the people you’re working with, the possibilities for positive relationships are considerable.

But what happens when things at work aren’t so good, or they disintegrate? What happens when, say, some type of workplace mistreatment enters the picture?

In such situations, the quality of relationships may suffer greatly. When someone is experiencing a form of work abuse such as sexual harassment, bullying, or mobbing, supposed friends may abandon or distance themselves from the targeted individual or otherwise dive for cover, fearful for their own job security.

My very generic advice is that we shouldn’t base all of our friendships in the workplace. But it’s not easy to engineer where our friends come from; so many factors are at play.

Furthermore, at times I have not always practiced what I just preached. For example, when I was a young Legal Aid lawyer, we socialized together all the time. Currently, however, most of my friends come from outside my place of employment. Some happen to be professors and lawyers, but many are not. Overall, they hail from many different walks of life, and I am grateful for that.

Now that I am solidly into my middle years, these research findings about the quality of life being strongly shaped by our relationships resonate significantly with me. In terms of lessons, this means being more intentional about this important aspect of our lives, no small task when so many other priorities compete with it.

Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief

Catching my attention this week was an essay by religion professor Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College, Minnesota) on the experience of grief. Titled “On Becoming Grief Outlaws” and published in The Cresset (the journal of Valparaiso University in Indiana, my undergraduate school), the piece questions how our popular culture urges us to internalize our grief rather than to express it openly. Bussie herself did this when her mother suffered with Alzheimer’s:

For a long time, I extradited my grief underground. I didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer. I didn’t want to live in the jail of other people’s judgment (especially the colleagues, acquaintances, and church folks who thought I should “move on,” “get over it already,” accept “God’s plan,” and “not grieve as one without hope”).

But the life of lies and fake Barbie smiles wore me out. Eventually, I let grief back into its home country—my heart—and let my heart back on to my sleeve.

Now, Bussie is calling upon us to bring grief out of the closet:

As a theologian, teacher, and person of faith, I want us to talk about the hard stuff. I want us to air all the dirty laundry we’re taught never to air—questions without answers, anger at God, scars that cause us shame, doubt that wrestles us to the ground, sorrow we just can’t shake. All of it.

Work abuse and grief

Research studies and seemingly endless numbers of terrible stories have taught us that those who experience workplace bullying and mobbing can lose a lot, especially:

  • Jobs, careers, and livelihoods;
  • Health and well being;
  • Family and friendship ties;
  • Financial stability; and,
  • Reputations and standing in a community.

It is not unusual for someone to lose all of these things as the culmination of an extended campaign of bullying or mobbing.

We typically don’t associate grieving with losses that might blithely be tagged as “work-related,” but in this context (among others), it’s important that we do so. Work abuse exacts a significant toll on its targets. The sense of loss can be deeply palpable. Grief is an understandable response.

Healing, recovery, and renewal

We need to acknowledge grief, but we also cannot let it win. Yes, I know that’s a competitive sounding statement about an emotion that has nothing to do with conventional notions of victory and defeat.

It’s just that I want us to find ways to help people heal, recover, and renew after such terrible losses. There is no singular path toward this better place, but we need to recognize that many must overcome (or at least negotiate with) their grief in order to reach it.

For some, this time of year marks a holiday celebrating rebirth; for others, it’s about a holiday commemorating liberation. My own faith is non-denominational, but I’m happy if we borrow from these faith traditions to count rebirth and liberation from grief as worthy objectives for helping those who have been savaged at their workplaces.

Disposable workers

This is hard to fathom, but unfortunately the headline pictured above — “A maid begged for help before falling from a window in Kuwait. Her boss made a video instead.” — tells the heart of the story. Avi Selk reports for the Washington Post:

The floor looks clean in this high-rise apartment, seven stories above Kuwait City traffic. Not a smudge in sight on the picture window. On the other side of the glass, the maid is hanging on by one knuckle, screaming.

“Oh crazy, come here,” a woman says casually in Arabic, holding a camera up to the maid.

“Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid yells.

Instead, the woman steps back. The maid’s grip finally slips, and she lands in a cloud of dust, many stories below.

The maid — an Ethiopian who had been working in the country for several years, according to the Kuwait Times — survived the fall. The videographer, her employer, was arrested last week on a charge of failing to help the worker.

Selk adds that more instances of domestic workers falling off of buildings have been reported. Human rights advocates are sounding alarms about this horrible incident and others against the background of a system of servitude known as kafala, whereby foreign workers surrender basic labor rights in return for work visas.

The spectrum of workplace mistreatment runs from lighter instances of intentional incivility all the way to slavery and torture. This event in Kuwait, and references to the policy of kafala, remind us that forms of abuse tending toward, and falling squarely within, the latter still exist in this world.

Enter therapeutic jurisprudence

These concerns also raise the fundamental importance of bringing dignity at work into therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a school of legal theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal processes, and legal institutions.

As close readers of this blog know, I have been active in the TJ movement for many years, to the point of regarding it as my primary lens for examining law and policy. In fact, I’m part of a wonderful group of law teachers, lawyers, and judges who are forming a new international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence on a global scale. We will be launching this new entity at the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, to be held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.

To date, much TJ activity has been concentrated in legal areas such as mental health and disability law, criminal law, dispute resolution and the administration of justice, and family law. Laws and policies relating to work, workers, and workplaces, however, have not received as much attention. Along with other folks dedicated to advancing dignity at work, I look forward to playing an energetic role in changing that state of affairs.

You see, it’s important to remember that individual incidents of worker abuse, including this one in Kuwait, are enabled or validated by policies such as kafala, thus melding the mistreatment with the tacit approval of law. Changing laws does not necessarily change individual behavior, but it creates enforceable norms that can inform people’s decisions about how to treat others.

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