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.

Therapeutic jurisprudence group on bullying, mobbing, and abuse across the lifespan

If you’ve been following this blog regularly, then you may know that I have been closely involved in the creation of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a global, non-profit learned organization dedicated to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence, “an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions.”

The ISTJ will be conducting many of its activities through Interest Groups organized around substantive topics of law and public policy. As part of that effort, I’ve joined with a small group of fellow members to form an Interest Group on Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse Across the Lifespan. The group will examine and address these behaviors from an interdisciplinary perspective, emphasizing the intersection of psychological trauma and law & public policy. Here are among the group’s possible activities:

  • Creating and improving trauma-informed public education programs and workshops about bullying/mobbing/abuse in all settings;
  • Examining how we can support targets and victims in litigation, such as providing information to attorneys and planning expert witness testimony and analyses;
  • Examining different approaches to legislation and public policy, i.e., differences and commonalities in dealing with abusive behaviors across the spectrum; and,
  • Organizing writing projects, programs, etc.

I should note that this group will not be able to provide individual counseling, coaching, or legal advice for those who are experiencing any of these behaviors. However, in the future we may be able to develop resource listings like that on this blog for workplace bullying to guide those experiencing abusive mistreatment in other contexts.

If you are interested in becoming a member of this group, then you’ll first need to join the ISTJ (memberships run calendar year, Jan-Dec; $25 regular; free for currently enrolled students). After joining you’ll either want to indicate your interest in this topic of the TJ Forum page and/or e-mail me at dyamada@suffolk.edu.

“Because you asked….”: How to support victims of interpersonal abuse

One of this blog’s recurring themes has been interpersonal abuse across the life spectrum, and with it the importance of understanding of trauma in different contexts. My dear friend Mary Louise Allen, a psychology professor and activist, has become an emerging voice for trauma victims, and I’d like to share a compelling piece that she just published.

Mary Louise has experienced abuse and assault, as well as repeated institutional stonewalling and legal irregularities in her efforts to obtain assistance and justice in her home state of Ohio. Recently, she was asked how someone could support abuse victims who are dealing with ongoing trauma. This prompted her to write “Because you asked….,” and post it to her Unapologetic Civil Rights Activist site. It’s a brave, heartfelt, and intelligent statement. I’m excerpting parts of it here, and if you want to learn more about her experiences and those of others, then please read the full entry.

1. VOICES
Listen to our voices.  The one thing that I can conclusively say is that silencing me and allowing a network of corruption to define my story with no ability to correct the fallacious version did me a grave disservice – ultimately causing my dire health conditions and current daily struggles. . . .

***

2. CRAZYMAKING
Don’t dismiss us as crazy. While our assertions appear, on face value, to be so outrageous that they must be fictitious, rest assured that most of us possess recordings and documentation that validate our allegations. . . .

***

3. VICTIM-BLAMING/SHAMING
Be cautious of victim-blaming/shaming questions. While I would like to think that the proverbial “why did you stay” interrogatory has dissipated in our society, it has not.

***

4. POLITICAL ACCOUNTABILITY
I implore you to consider your votes.  If these officials remain in office, your daughter, your sister, or your mother could be a future victim. . . .

***

5. MEDIA ACCOUNTABILITY
Tag your local newspapers/news stations asking them if they have covered our stories, via links to our publications. . . .

***

6. BOARD MEMBER ACCOUNTABILITY
Hold board members accountable.  As seen in the case of [Olympic gymnast doctor Larry] Nassar, how many children would have been protected had the board taken action? . . .

***

7. ATTORNEY ACCOUNTABILITY
While I understand that everyone is entitled to representation and false reports exist (approximately 3%), I do take issue with law firms who are knowingly involved in harassing a victim, sustaining the chilling effect, and/or neglect their due diligence of representing the victim. . . .

***

8. NONPROFIT ACCOUNTABILITY
Do not contribute to nonprofits who cooperate with the system. . . . Every single nonprofit organization in the state of Ohio whose mission was to assist me and my situation configured asinine excuses as to why they could not help . . . .

***

9. HOSPITAL ACCOUNTABILITY
Ask hospitals of any statistics of mysteriously lost rape kits. . . . Often, the alleged assailant is a police officer, an attorney, a high-profile business official – but most assuredly, a well-connected man. . . .

***

10. ACCOMPANY VICTIMS
Don’t assume that justice prevails. Consider accompanying victims to court hearings. I was treated with an entirely different demeanor when I had supporters present – as opposed to attending by myself where I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening. . . .

***

11. STATE LAWS
Oppose mysteriously passed state statutes abusively used to oppress and silence victims/witnesses. These statutes are often masked in an apparent attempt of genuine propriety but often abused to silence victims, witnesses, and Whistleblowers. . . .

***

12. BASIC ENCOURAGEMENT
Sadly, an entire system has directly and indirectly informed me, and so many others, that we don’t matter. . . .  I came to terms that I could never contact the police for any safety assistance – no matter what the situation. . . . The only way for victims to interpret this inaction is that we don’t matter. Our last names and familial lineage are not prominent enough to be considered worthy. Our lives aren’t important enough to warrant therapeutic jurisprudence.

In addition to being instructive on a personal level, Mary Louise’s statement highlights the social responsibilities of institutions to respond to abuse and trauma. When public and non-profit agencies that are supposed to help abuse victims don’t step up, when victims cannot obtain needed legal representation despite a surfeit of available attorneys, when the justice system fails them, and when media sources ignore their stories, that community has failed as a moral organism.

When Mary Louise posted her piece on Facebook, Dr. Maureen Duffy, a leading expert on workplace mobbing behaviors and trauma, left this comment for her, which I share with Maureen’s permission:

Mary Louise, this is a profoundly thoughtful, moving, and practical response to the question of what others can do to help victims. I appreciate the clarity and depth of your responses and that you took the time to put them together and publish them. Since a lot of my work is in the area of workplace mobbing, your account reminds us all again of the power of professional, workplace, and other kinds of social networks, both formal and informal. These networks can have a very dark side that is often ignored. Thanks for calling this form of abuse of power to our attention.

I wholeheartedly concur. And I’m guessing that readers who have experienced workplace abuse, only to find their employers and the legal system looking the other way or even complicit in the mistreatment, will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of Mary Louise’s observations and insights.

What are the roots of cruelty at work?

In a November 2017 New Yorker essay reviewing books that examine cruelty and evil in their historical contexts, Paul Bloom questions the common assumption that dehumanization is the underlying dynamic when violence, aggression, and exclusion come into play:

The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal. Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.

After combing through recent works that examine a wide variety of extraordinary and sadly ordinary events, including genocide, slavery, sexual assault, social exclusion, and others, he concludes:

As the scholar of warfare Johannes Lang has observed of the Nazi death camps, “What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.

Cruelty at work

Yes, I’ve used the term dehumanization (or variations of it) to describe various instances of work abuse, including bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of mistreatment.

But Paul Bloom’s conclusions make more sense to me, including when applying them to the workplace. At the core, work abuse is about exercising power and control over other persons, which may involve marginalizing them (maybe considerably), but still regarding them as human. For example, we now understand that sexual harassment is very much about power and control. Those who have been bullied or mobbed at work comprehend this reality all too well. (For those who want to ponder this subject further, Bloom’s full review essay is worth your time and attention.)

These varying forms of work abuse constitute denials of human dignity, marked by the fear, humiliation, and embarrassment that often accompany them. Cruelties at work are deeply human acts, with profoundly human impacts.

Celebrating a community that affirms human dignity

Last week I participated in one of the highlights of the year for me, the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, sponsored by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies. HumanDHS is a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at our host organization, Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, and immerse ourselves in highly interactive exchanges amidst a spirit of fellowship.

The workshop is built around the general theme of “Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict,” joined by a major sub-theme, this year’s being “The Nature of Dignity and the Dignity of Nature.” Previous sub-themes have included “The Globalization of Dignity” (2016), “Honoring Alfred Nobel’s Message” (2015), and “Work that Dignifies the Lives of All People” (2014). Over the course of two days, upwards of 60-75 people participate in this workshop, including a fair number who travel from outside the U.S.

A defining characteristic of these events is a series of interactive “dignilogues” using these two formats: (1) groupings of short presentations on a wide range of topics by individuals invited to discuss their work, followed by questions and discussion; and, (2) break-out sessions on topics chosen by participants, followed by short presentations to the full conference from each break-out group. Addresses, talks, music, artistic work, awards, and an open public event are also blended into the workshop.

I’ve been sharing my participation in this workshop every year since starting this blog. This gathering is a source of hope, fellowship, insight, and refueling for me. My role with HumanDHS has grown substantially since my original contact with this remarkable group of people. In addition to sitting on the HumanDHS board of directors, I help to facilitate workshop sessions and participate in the dignilogues. And during the last few years, I’ve added my singing pipes to the mix, helping to lead the group in a closing rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” doing my best to channel my inner Louis Armstrong!

To learn more about HumanDHS, check out its fulsome website. It is very heavy in content and not much for graphics — more of an archive than a fancy showpiece! You can also read this piece that I wrote in 2014, “Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity,” which describes the core activities of the network.

The “me too” campaign as both voice and trigger

When the New York Times broke the story that powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has quietly settled numerous sexual harassment claims against him going back decades (per this article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey), it unleashed an ongoing storm of similar allegations against Weinstein and stories of the “casting couch” practices of the filmmaking industry. Not since the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas centering on Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment has this topic been so prominently in the mainstream news.

And now the forces of social media are weighing in, especially with a meme/hashtag campaign of “me too,” whereby (mostly) women are posting these two words on Facebook and other sites to proclaim that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed over the past couple of days has conveyed a powerful message about the frequency and pain of these behaviors.

For some, it hasn’t been a difficult decision to type in “me too” and click “post.” But for many, many others, the “me too” campaign has been a triggering event at the same time it has provided an opportunity to be heard, causing them to relive their own experiences, which in some cases have been deeply traumatic.

There’s more that I want to write about the Harvey Weinstein story, but because it’s still developing, I will wait a bit. For now, however, let’s acknowledge that for many women, the question of whether to post two simple words to their Facebook page or Twitter feed has triggered conflicting emotions about voice, outrage, abuse, and victimization. Their ultimate decision is not ours to judge, either way. But if we care about dignity and equality in the workplace and in society overall, then we must understand why so many are saying “me too.”

A Labor Day with too few union members

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. labor union membership rate is rough half of what it was in 1983, when the government began keeping comparable data:

The union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions— was 10.7 percent in 2016, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

If we go back to the 1950s, we see that roughly one third of the American workforce was unionized.

During this stretch of time, giant wage and wealth gaps have opened up and the middle class has been giving way to economic extremes of the top 10-15 percent doing very well and so many others barely hanging on, if that. The accompanying dynamics include virulent, corporate-fueled on-the-floor and political opposition to organized labor. And let’s also acknowledge that too many unions don’t serve their members well and retain leaders who act like the worst CEOs.

The labor movement has been the most effective force in American history for raising wages and benefits to livable, sustainable levels and keeping them there. So long as the union membership rate continues its decline, I don’t have much hope for the fortunes of the average American worker. Hopefully people will wake up and realize that they’ve been sold a bad bill of goods over the past few decades and come to embrace what good unions do for our society.

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