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)

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.

Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, the best definition that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Dr. Martha Stout describes the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect (2007), offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Intentional, but not necessarily maliciously so

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

However, in a smaller share of situations it may be used to fight back against injustice, mistreatment, or abuse, to basically keep the other side guessing. Why a smaller share? Because gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting”….Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involve serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant) and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When human resources announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

Genetic testing for workplace wellness program participants: Coming soon to a company near you?

Ten jumping jacks and a blood sample, please

It sounds like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel, but Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are advancing a bill that would allow employers to require employees to undergo genetic testing in order to participate in voluntary workplace wellness programs. Workers who refuse may face significantly higher health care premiums as a penalty. Lena Sun reports for the Washington Post about the proposed Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act:

Employers could impose hefty penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programs if a bill approved by a U.S. House committee this week becomes law.

…Under the Affordable Care Act [a/k/a Obamacare], employers are allowed to discount health insurance premiums by up to 30 percent — and in some cases 50 percent — for employees who voluntarily participate in a wellness program where they’re required to meet certain health targets.

…But the House legislation would allow employers to impose penalties of up to 30 percent of the total cost of the employee’s health insurance on those [wellness program participants] who choose to keep such information private.

Currently the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers and ensurers from using genetic information for discriminatory purposes. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of a recognized disability, which could be identified through genetic testing.

As Sun reports, the dozens of organizations that oppose this bill — which include “the American Academy of Pediatrics, AARP, March of Dimes and the National Women’s Law Center” — argue that the proposed legislation would substantially undermine the basic privacy protections provided by GINA and the ADA.

The bill has passed through the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no.

If enacted into law, this means that if you want to participate in a workplace-sponsored program to stop smoking, lose weight, or learn mindfulness practices, then you can be required to give your genetic information to your employer as a condition for doing so. If you don’t want to provide a genetic sample but still want to join the wellness program, then your employer can boost your health insurance premiums by up to 30 percent.

The bill itself is alarming enough, but the door it opens is positively frightening. Even if it doesn’t become law, the fact that it has been quickly ushered through a House committee by a pure party line vote sends a disturbing signal about the kind of policy proposals that are holding sway in Washington D.C. today. These are not normal times, and we should all be paying close attention.

After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races

When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically divided into two races:

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.

This passage comes from Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 86, Beacon Press 2006 ed.), which I have praised in previous posts. It’s an extraordinarily gripping and perhaps odd book. Part 1, covering the first 90+ pages, is a compelling account of daily life in the concentration camps, punctuated by Frankl’s observations about human nature in such horrifying settings. Part 2, covering the remaining 60+ pages, is a more detached description of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl, a clinical psychologist. Logotherapy, as Frankl describes it, focuses the patient “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future,” while defocussing the patient on “all the vicious cycle formations and [negative] feedback mechanisms” (p. 98).

Some may quarrel with Frankl’s binary separation of humanity into categories of “decent” or “indecent” people. In fact, I reacted this way when I first read the quoted passage, thinking that human beings are way too complex to be placed into one of two big groups. Furthermore, Frankl’s own narrative of concentration camp life describes how people who have lived good, moral lives can be driven to self-preserving behaviors that may, directly or indirectly, hurt others. But then I tried to put myself in Frankl’s shoes, imagining what he saw and experienced in the camps. It makes sense to me that he ultimately drew this dividing line, however subjective.

Frankl’s description of concentration camp life and explanation of logotherapy may resonate with those who are experiencing psychological trauma due to nightmarish work situations. As I have written before, the eliminationist instinct is not limited to large-scale horrors. It can manifest itself in seemingly everyday settings such as our workplaces, too.

***

A sidebar: In sharing Frankl’s words about the “races” of decent and indecent people, in no way do I want to diminish important, challenging discussions taking place over race and ethnicity in contemporary society. We can and should face the tough questions raised by our various diversities and strive to find ways to build acceptance of those differences in our workplaces, communities, and social groups. Rather, I wanted to share how someone who faced good and evil every day at the most fundamental levels came to look at groupings of human beings in a simpler way than we might today.

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

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