A lot of deniers are simply playing a sick, sociopathic game

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Denier behavior occurs at many levels and in many situations.

There are those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, claiming that millions of souls never perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Those are those who deny that innocent children were gunned down at Sandy Hook, claiming that the victims’ parents are participating in a big ruse.

As we are witnessing at this very moment in America, there are those who deny the realities of sexual assault, claiming that the victims are making it all up.

In my own work, I see those who deny that people can be bullied out of their jobs and livelihoods, claiming that the targets (not the aggressors) were the problems, or chalking it up to “personality differences.”

Truth is, I think that many of these deniers don’t actually believe what they’re saying. They know what’s going on.

However, they wish to perpetuate vast power differentials and dismiss suffering, abuse, and injustice by claiming that nothing happened.

For some, it provides a sort of sick, sociopathic satisfaction in watching victims, survivors, their loved ones, and bystanders experience even more anguish when their realities are denied and even mocked. It’s a next-level form of abuse.

Abuse survivors can draw inspiration from John McCain’s life story

Here in America, the death of U.S. Senator John McCain is dominating the news, and rightly so. He has been a major political figure for several decades, marked by a penchant for outspokenness and independence that formed his trademark public image. Most of the McCain remembrances are looking at the broad arcs of his life and career, but upon reading Robert D. McFadden’s feature-length obituary for the New York Times, another thing hit me: He was a trauma survivor.

It’s a well-known part of McCain’s story that he survived more than five years as a POW during the Vietnam War. McCain was a fighter pilot, and during a mission over Hanoi in July 1967, his plane took a missile hit. He managed to eject, but he suffered two broken arms and a shattered knee in the process. He was quickly captured by the North Vietnamese, who immediately set upon him. McFadden writes:

Mr. McCain was stripped to his skivvies, kicked and spat upon, then bayoneted in the left ankle and groin. A North Vietnamese soldier struck him with his rifle butt, breaking a shoulder. A woman tried to give him a cup of tea as a photographer snapped pictures. Carried to a truck, Mr. McCain was driven to Hoa Lo, the prison compound its American inmates had labeled the Hanoi Hilton.

There he was denied medical care. His knee swelled to the size and color of a football. He lapsed in and out of consciousness for days. When he awoke in a cell infested with roaches and rats, he was interrogated and beaten. The beatings continued for days. He gave his name, rank and serial number and defied his tormentors with curses.

After two weeks, a doctor, without anesthesia, tried to set his right arm, broken in three places, but gave up in frustration and encased it in a plaster cast. He was moved to another site and tended by two American prisoners of war, who brought him back from near death.

This was only the beginning of years of continuous torture and beatings, including two years of solitary confinement.

McCain had chances for early release, thanks to his father’s status as a high-ranking U.S. Navy admiral. He refused:

When Admiral McCain became the Pacific Theater commander…, his son was offered early repatriation repeatedly. Commander McCain refused, following a military code that prisoners were to be released in the order taken. He was beaten frequently and tortured with ropes.

(Think about it: How many of us would decline repeated chances to jump the line while facing ongoing torture?)

With the Vietnam War coming to an end, McCain was finally released in March 1973. After a long convalescence, he would return to active duty in the Navy. Eventually, of course, he decided to enter politics.

Trauma survivor and critic of torture tactics

When John McCain was convalescing from his years as a POW, our knowledge of psychological trauma was in its infancy. Among other things, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would not enter the psychiatric nomenclature until the 1980s — informed strongly by the experiences of Vietnam veterans.

Thus, it’s fair to surmise that much of the focus of McCain’s recovery was on his physical health. But make no mistake about it, he was also a trauma survivor. Despite the horrific physical and psychological abuse that he endured as a POW, he would go on to lead a full and rich life, including long, distinguished service as a U.S. Senator and the Republican Party nomination for President in 2008.

It is worth noting that throughout his political career, McCain was an outspoken critic of the use of torture tactics to interrogate prisoners and those suspected of engaging in terrorist activities. This criticism did not sit well with many people during the post-9/11 era, but McCain persisted. He knew damn well what it felt like to be on the receiving end.

Standing up to a bully at the U.S. Naval Academy

Stories of McCain’s rebellious streak at the U.S. Naval Academy are apparently the stuff of legend. He piled up a mountain of demerits and disciplinary measures as he resisted the strictures of officer training. Tucked into that colorful history of barely escaping expulsion is a story of standing up to bullying, as recounted in an Arizona Republic profile of McCain by Dan Nowicki and Bill Muller:

It’s 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, and Midshipman John McCain and his roommate, Frank Gamboa, were eating lunch at the mess hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. A first class man, a “firstie” in Navy parlance, began dressing down a Filipino steward.

Gamboa hardly noticed the exchange, but young John McCain was paying close attention. Since the steward was an enlisted man, he couldn’t fight back. The firstie was being a bully, a no-no at the Naval Academy.

The man outranked everyone at the table. McCain and Gamboa were barely past being plebes, the school’s lowest rank. Fearing trouble, other underclassmen ate quickly and left. The browbeating continued.

Finally, McCain could take no more.

“Hey, why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” McCain blurted.

There was a moment of silent shock at the table.

“What did you say?” replied the firstie.

“Why don’t you stop picking on him?” McCain said. “He’s doing the best he can.”

“What is your name, mister?” snapped the firstie, an open threat to put McCain on report.

“Midshipman John McCain the Third,” McCain said, looking straight at the upperclassman. “What’s yours?”

The firstie saw the look in McCain’s eyes. And fled.

Today we’d call it “bystander intervention.” Back then it was simply standing up to a person who is picking on someone else. I don’t know if McCain’s life story includes other instances of intervening in bullying situations, but this one account shows that even as he resisted the disciplinary conventions of Naval Academy training, he was guided early on by something more than simple youthful rebelliousness.

Summing up

Surviving severe, ongoing abuse. Recovering from that abuse to lead a full, meaningful life. Standing up to a bully on behalf of someone being targeted. 

Regardless of our respective political beliefs, there’s something that we all can learn from these chapters of John McCain’s story.

Psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists: What’s in a label?

In countless discussions about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we often speculate on whether the chief aggressors may have narcissistic, psychopathic, or sociopathic tendencies. These conversations may be informed by some clinical knowledge of the symptoms of, and differences between, these personality disorders. Other times, they’re based on bits of information picked up from the media and popular culture. In any event, given the relevance of this general topic to workplace mistreatment, I thought it might be useful to appeal to some experts in taking a closer look.

For starters, if you have 12 minutes for an informative and fascinating video, check out MedCircle‘s interview of Dr. Ramani Durvasula (Cal St U-Los Angeles), “Narcissist, Psychopath, or Sociopath: How to Spot the Differences.” Here are a few highlights:

  • A lot of people “are using these terms interchangeably,” but they shouldn’t.
  • “One rule of thumb to remember right off the bat. Every psychopath is narcissistic, but not every narcissist is psychopathic.”
  • A narcissist “lacks empathy, is grandiose, is entitled, is constantly seeking validation, is arrogant . . . it’s a disorder of self-esteem.”
  • Narcissists do feel shame and guilt when they do bad things, but psychopaths feel no shame or guilt when doing the same, they “don’t care who gets hurt.”
  • The “sociopath is a lot like the psychopath: They do bad things and they don’t care. . . . Here’s the key difference: A psychopath is born, and a sociopath is made.” However, Dr. Durvasula recognizes that the influences of genetic and environmental factors may be difficult to distinguish.
  • Unfortunately, psychopaths and sociopaths rarely seek treatment, unless it is court-ordered.
  • “Psychopaths and sociopaths and narcissists make great chameleons.” Psychopaths and sociopaths, in particular, “view the world as an instrument to fulfill their desires.”

Narcissistic personality disorder

In a piece for PsychCentral, Dr. Steve Bressert summarizes the symptoms of “narcissistic personality disorder” this way:

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include: grandiose sense of importance, preoccupation with unlimited success, belief that one is special and unique, exploitative of others, lack of empathy, arrogance, and jealousy of others. These symptoms cause significant distress in a person’s life.

Dr. Bressert reports that research studies on the causes of NPD are inconclusive, leading him to suggest that biological, genetic, social, and psychological factors may all play a role. As to treatment of NPD, it “typically involves long-term psychotherapy with a therapist that has experience in treating this kind of personality disorder.”

Antisocial personality disorder

PsychCentral‘s founder, Dr. John Grohol, echoes and expands upon much of what Dr. Durvasula says about the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths, and explains how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) combines psychopathy and sociopathy under the single clinical category of “antisocial personality disorder”:

The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis — antisocial personality disorder. The DSM-5 . . . defines antisocial personality as someone have 3 or more of the following traits:

  1. Regularly breaks or flouts the law
  2. Constantly lies and deceives others
  3. Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
  4. Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
  5. Has little regard for the safety of others
  6. Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
  7. Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt

Two peas in a pod?

Can antisocial personality disorder be treated? Read between the lines of this PsychCentral piece by Dr. Donald Black and you may reach the same conclusion as I did, namely, that psychopathy and sociopathy do not easily respond to psychological and psychiatric treatment. In fact, Black concludes:

Incarceration may be the best way to control the most severe and persistent cases of antisocial personality disorder. Keeping antisocial offenders behind bars during their most active criminal periods reduces their behaviors’ social impact.

The “almost psychopath”

I’ve periodically referenced Dr. Ronald Schouten’s (Harvard Medical School) work on the “almost psychopath,” i.e., individuals who fall short of a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy, but who demonstrate some of the most disturbing psychopathic behaviors. In their co-authored book, Almost a Psychopath (2012), Schouten and attorney James Silver acknowledge that although they have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, whom they describe this way:

Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.

. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.

Almost is bad enough

Relevance to workplace abuse

Well, I’m now stating the obvious: We’ve known for a long time that, on an individual level, psychopathic, sociopathic, or narcissistic traits are associated with bullying, mobbing, harassment, and other forms of workplace mistreatment. They also fuel the organizational cultures that enable such abuse and protect the abusers.

Among the bottom-line points that resonate most strongly with me are that narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths are (1) unlikely to seek treatment; and (2) treatment may not make much a difference anyway. A good number of these folks occupy positions of power in society and thus significantly impact working conditions for millions of people.

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers

If you’re interested in whistleblowing and gaslighting behaviors, then I strongly recommend a piece by Retraction Watch, “How institutions gaslight whistleblowers — and what can be done.” It features an interview with Dr. Kathy Ahern (U. New South Wales, Australia), author of a new journal article on how whistleblowers are traumatized by institutional betrayal and gaslighting.

I’m going to share some snippets of the Retraction Watch interview with Dr. Ahern here, but it’s definitely worth a full look:

Whistleblower gaslighting entails officers of an institution using their authority to deceive a whistleblower so that he stays engaged in a process designed to harm him.  Employees have an expectation of support derived from social norms regarding workplace interactions and formal policies. Whistleblower reprisals have a sting of betrayal that is largely imperceptible to outsiders because gaslighting institutions use deception to exploit the employee’s trust in his employing institutions.  

***

One gaslighting strategy is to use this trust to force the whistleblower to repeatedly defend himself against bogus disciplinary charges presented as genuine complaints.  Eric Westervelt describes whistleblowers at the U.S. VA who were subjected to investigations of unspecified charges such as “creating a hostile work environment” or “abuse of authority”, although subsequent FOI requests yielded no details of the charges.  As a gaslighting strategy, the dual purpose of false charges is to both discredit and exhaust the whistleblower.

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Descriptions of whistleblower experiences and outcomes in the literature show a constellation of symptoms that are very similar to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) typically found in survivors of child abuse.  It is hypothesized that the abuse by a trusted, more powerful adult leads to a general distrust of self and others. Adults with C-PTSD have trouble regulating intense negative emotions, and feel disconnected to other people. 

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The other symptom I see in targets of whistleblower gaslighting is a desperate urgency to be believed.  This looks a lot like an “obsession,” but as with the “paranoia,” it is not the result of a mental disorder.  It is more like the normal response of someone who spent 10 years in jail for crime he didn’t commit. Such a person is indefatigable in pursuit of having his name cleared, as are targets of whistleblower gaslighting who also are intent upon clearing their names and reputations. 

Folks, there’s so much here that will resonate with individuals who have experienced or witnessed institutional responses to whistleblowing. For those who want to read Dr. Ahern’s scholarly take on this, please look at her journal article, “Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting: Why Whistle-Blowers Are So Traumatized.”

In short, this is very important work.

If you’d like to read more about gaslighting behaviors generally, Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro) is the best general treatment of the topic.

And here are some of my previous entries on gaslighting:

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

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

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Hat tip to Dr. Kenneth Pope for the Retraction Watch piece.

Forthcoming article: “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy”

Dear readers, later this year the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, will publish my article, “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy.” Here’s the abstract:

This article asserts that when policymaking processes, outcomes, and implementations stoke fear, anxiety, and trauma, they often lead to denials of human dignity. It cites as prime examples the recent actions of America’s current federal government concerning immigration and health care. As a response, I urge that therapeutic jurisprudence should inform both the processes of policymaking and the design of public policy, trained on whether human dignity, psychological health, and well-being are advanced or diminished. I also discuss three methodologies that will help to guide those who want to engage legislation in a TJ-informed manner. Although achieving this fundamental shift will not be easy, we have the raw analytical and intellectual tools to move wisely in this direction.

If you’d like to read my author’s draft of the piece in a pdf, you may download it without charge from my Social Science Research Network page, here.

The Trump effect on productivity (including mine)

I read the news today, oh boy

My confession: I am so appalled and alarmed by Donald Trump that he has had a negative impact on my productivity. It positively galls me to admit that this man has had that kind of influence on me for over two years.

Yesterday was a prime example. The momentous story that Trump chose to credit Russian president Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, while largely dismissing the opposite findings of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, left me stunned. It also meant that a chunk of my day was lost to reading news analyses online.

When it comes to Trump and my productivity, perhaps it doesn’t help that for nearly 20 years, I’ve steeped myself in research and commentary about bullying, dishonesty, bigotry, and abuses of power, especially in work settings. Some readers disagree with my assessment of Trump — every time I post negatively about him, I lose a few subscribers — but during the 30-plus years that I’ve been aware of him, I have yet to see any real evidence of empathy or kindness from the man. He is the consummate workplace bully and dishonest boss, and he is a master of gaslighting behaviors.

However, it’s not only a reaction to a certain personality type that pushes my buttons. I am alarmed by what I see transpiring on the national and international stages in terms of public policy. And I am deeply concerned that Trump is displaying a form of so-called leadership that others are emulating. He has been president for less than two years, yet I believe it will take at least a decade for us to recover from this.

Direct hit

Sometimes the Trump effect on my productivity has been about as direct as it gets, namely, on the very work I do concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

Two summers ago, when Maureen Duffy and I were working on our co-edited book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States, the unfolding presidential campaign was so distressing and distracting that I sometimes had trouble staying focused on the project. (How ironic is that!?)

In January 2017, I was still so dazed and reeling from the November election that it took me by surprise that it was time to reintroduce the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the new session of the Massachusetts legislature. I did manage to pull myself out of my numbed state, but I was shaken that the election had such a profound impact on my psyche. (That won’t happen again.)

What to do?

Trump does what other deeply narcissistic, abusive types do so well. He sucks up our energy and attention in disproportionate amounts.

For those of us so affected, what are we to do? For starters, we need to be consciously aware of this impact. It means repeatedly reminding ourselves that many other important matters deserve our attention.

It can also mean taking the events of these times and turning them into lessons on how to change things for the better. For example, I’ll soon be sharing a draft of a law journal article that discusses how the Trump Administration’s policies and practices on immigration and health care have had especially traumatic effects on those directly affected by them. My longer range solution is that therapeutic jurisprudence — a school of philosophy and practice that embraces human dignity and psychologically healthy outcomes in the law — should be a framing perspective for making public policy.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and publish this post. Then it’s back to other tasks, hopefully with fewer newsworthy distractions than yesterday. After all, bullies like it when others merely keep reacting to them. To advance human dignity in the face of contrary forces, we need to create our own agendas and pursue them.

On the dynamics of “puppet master” bullying at work

image courtesy of free.clipartof.com

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.

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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.

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