The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it

Watch this.

If the results of a recent public awareness survey are any indication, then we appear to be losing our collective knowledge of the Holocaust. Julie Zauzmer reports for the Washington Post:

Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is, according to a study released on Holocaust Remembrance Day that found that knowledge of the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II is not robust among American adults.

Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

. . . Asked to identify what Auschwitz is, 41 percent of respondents and 66 percent of millennials could not come up with a correct response identifying it as a concentration camp or extermination camp.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted the study, which interviewed 1,350 American adults.

Granted, it’s only one poll. But if the results are even close to representative of the overall population, then we should be filled with alarm and despair. As I wrote in 2014:

Over the weekend I read Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958; new translation 2006), a defining personal account of life and death in Nazi concentration camps. . . . As an amateur student of history, I’ve read a lot of books and watched many films and documentaries about the World War II era, including the Holocaust. However, what should’ve been so self-evident to me beforehand finally sank in as I read Night: We need to understand the Holocaust because there is no more documented, memorialized, and analyzed chapter of widespread, deliberate, orchestrated human atrocity in our history. If we want to grasp how human beings in a “modern” era can inflict horrific cruelties on others  — systematically and interpersonally — then the Holocaust is at the core of our understanding.

Yes, to know about the Holocaust is to look into the darkest side of humanity. And if we don’t understand that side, then we cannot build a world that knowingly resists and opposes those instincts and behaviors and opts for something much better.

Relevance to the workplace

In previous articles I have made my case for why an understanding of the Holocaust can help us to comprehend the worst instances of bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. I have stitched together pieces of two past blog posts (here and here) to reiterate that position:

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Do the individual and collective behaviors of the Holocaust help us to understand severe, targeted, personally destructive workplace bullying? . . . I am well aware of the casual overuse of references to Hitler and the Nazis in our popular culture, especially in today’s overheated political discourse. . . . Nevertheless, I have steeped myself in the experiences and literature of workplace bullying, and I have read many works about the Holocaust. Although the two forms of mistreatment are hardly equivalent — even the worst forms of workplace bullying are a world away from genocide — there are real connections between them.

***

Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work also has extended into the general realm of human rights. She recounts in her 2007 book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide how she used a talk at the University of Rwanda to explain “how it was a short walk from schoolyard bullying to criminal bullying (hate crime) to genocide,” invoking the roles of aggressor, bullying target, and bystander.

***

Kenneth Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose case studies of mobbing in academe are worth the concentrated study of any serious student of workplace abuse, uses the term “elimination” to describe the process of removing targeted professors from their jobs. Ken also draws comparisons between severe mobbing behaviors at work and perpetrators of larger-scale eliminations and genocides, including the Nazis.

***

I subscribe to the theory that most cases of severe, repeated, targeted workplace bullying originate with a nasty individual. Whether that person can be clinically classified as a psychopath, sociopath, or narcissist matters less than whether he possesses the simple capacities to treat someone abusively and to enlist others to be of assistance. More often than not, the abuser needs others to help with the dirty work. For example, if the intended coup de grâce is to eliminate the target from the workplace and perhaps to destroy her livelihood and career, the bully typically requires assistance to manipulate the employment record of a competent, even outstanding worker to make her look like a miscreant.

***

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.

***

When, say, human resources officers and employment lawyers knowingly — or perhaps with a sort of deliberate ignorance — side with the abusers to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target, they play institutional roles very similar to the bureaucrats of the Nazi regime. These professional handmaidens are more than simple bystanders looking the other way. They are complicit in the abuse; often they are among the key enablers leading to the final elimination of the target.

It’s about people and systems

In other words, we’re talking about a blend of individual actors and systems that enable them. The Holocaust may have been driven by Hitler and the smaller circle around him, but they needed the active cooperation of thousands of others to create a systematized killing machine, not to mention millions of others willing to look the other way.

The same applies to toxic workplaces. Here’s what I wrote last year:

***

. . . (W)orkplace 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.

***

Let’s educate ourselves

The possibilities are many, but let me offer a few recommendations for those who wish to learn more about the Holocaust.

I just finished watching the 2005 BBC mini-series, “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’,” a six-episode mix of dramatizations, historical footage, and interviews. It masterfully pulls together the broader historical contexts and the often shocking, heartbreaking narrative details. It requires less than five hours of your time, and right now you can stream it on Netflix.

In terms of short memoirs, Wiesel’s Night comes out to less than 150 pages and can be finished during an evening or two. Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning also recounts his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and examines how they fueled his pioneering work as a psychiatrist.

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both the epic novels and the lengthy mini-series adaptations, are compelling fictional portrayals of the WWII era, with a heavy emphasis on the Nazis and the Holocaust.

I confess that I’ve read only parts of these books, but for those who want to go deep into the details, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust are among the many favorably reviewed historical treatments of the era.

There are plenty of other good sources, but regardless of how we learn about this signature event in human history, the important thing is to comprehend and remember.

Coping with an abusive boss: That voodoo that you do

If you’re angry about being treated like dirt by a terrible boss, then you may want to take it out on a voodoo doll. At least that’s what a study published earlier this year in The Leadership Quarterly suggests might be helpful.

In “Righting a wrong: Retaliation on a voodoo doll symbolizing an abusive supervisor restores justice” (abstract here), a team of researchers led by Dr. Lindie Liang (Wilfrid Laurier U, Canada) sought to measure whether “symbolic retaliation” might help to reduce feelings of being unjustly mistreated by an abusive supervisor.

They started with the common sense understanding that directly retaliating against a boss for perceived injustices at work might not be the best idea for many reasons. Next, they hypothesized that engaging in “symbolic retaliation,” such as taking out frustrations on a voodoo doll representing an abusive boss, might nevertheless help to reduce those feelings of injustice.

It turns out they were correct in their hypothesis. In a study involving 229 subjects, taking out one’s anger on a voodoo doll reduced feelings of workplace injustice by one third.

The research article itself is not available without subscription or library access, but reporter Sarah Knapton provides a nice summary in The Telegraph newspaper:

For the study, the participants were asked to recall and visualise a workplace interaction which had involved abuse from a supervisor. Some were then asked to retaliate using a voodoo doll . . . . Those who had been allowed to stick pins in their virtual boss were far less likely to still feel bitter . . . .

The article quotes Prof. Liang:

“We found a simple and harmless symbolic act of retaliation can make people feel like they’re getting even and restoring their sense of fairness. . . . Symbolically retaliating against an abusive boss can benefit employees psychologically by allowing them to restore their sense of justice in the workplace.”

And in related news, retailers report that sales of voodoo dolls have jumped 1,000 percent…just kidding, I think.

Pioneering trauma researcher terminated for bullying behaviors

Pioneering trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk, whose bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) has been highly recommended by this blog, has been terminated from his position at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, for alleged bullying and mistreatment of staff members. Liz Kowalczyk reports for the Boston Globe:

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a best-selling author on trauma whose research has attracted a worldwide following, has been fired from his job over allegations that he bullied and denigrated employees at his renowned Trauma Center.

Van der Kolk was removed as medical director of the Brookline center in January, according to several accounts…. His firing capped a tumultuous three months at the center that van der Kolk founded 35 years ago.

Executive director Joseph Spinazzola, like van der Kolk a longtime advocate for abuse victims, was removed in November over his alleged mistreatment of female employees, executives said.

Andy Pond, president of the Trauma Center’s parent organization, told the Globe that van der Kolk had “violated the code of conduct by creating a hostile work environment. His behavior could be characterized as bullying and making employees feel denigrated and uncomfortable.’’

Van der Kolk has denied the allegations and has filed a lawsuit challenging his termination.

This is enormously disappointing news to report. Van der Kolk has earned his reputation as one of the world’s most influential trauma researchers, and The Body Keeps the Score remains, in my opinion, the best book on psychological trauma and its treatment for both general and specialized audiences.

However, I also feel obliged to share this development, even as I struggle to process it. At the very least, it is a head spinning reminder of human fallibility and imperfection. As for the decision to terminate van der Kolk, it reminds us that doing the right thing in a management context can sometimes be enormously difficult. Within the community of researchers and practitioners addressing psychological trauma, the repercussions will be considerable.

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”

Disconnects

Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect”

Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, first published in 2007, has just been reissued in paperback for 2018 with a new Introduction. Especially for those interested in more manipulative forms of workplace bullying and abuse, this is a very useful and important book.

Dr. Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

According to Stern, gaslighting is a “mutually created relationship” involving a gaslighter who wants “the gaslightee to doubt her perceptions of reality,” and a gaslightee who is “equally intent on getting the gaslighter to see her as she wished to be seen.”

For those who are new to the term, gaslighting draws its inspiration from a 1944 film, “Gaslight,” in which a husband is trying to drive his wife insane, including the periodic dimming of gaslights in a house where her aunt was murdered years before.

Stern has played a major role in popularizing the concept of gaslighting, with her main focus being on such behaviors in interpersonal relationships, especially as experienced by women. This emphasis remains in the re-issued edition, but the new Introduction explains how gaslighting is now being applied to additional scenarios, including bullying. In fact, I was flattered to read a reference to this blog:

Meanwhile, an increasing number of blogs linked gaslighting to bullying, both in personal relationships and at work. “Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying?” asked David Yamada on his blog, Minding the Workplace, while numerous dating and self-help blogs talked about the importance of identifying and standing up to your gaslighter. 

I’m happy to recommend The Gaslight Effect. In addition, you can check out past blog posts about gaslighting at work and in society:

Gaslighting at work (2017)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

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

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012)

Telling stories about work abuse

Lots of folks have shared their workplace bullying stories with Massachusetts legislators

The #MeToo movement challenging sexual harassment and assault has been built on the stories of (mostly) women who have courageously shared their experiences in a public way. Some have gone into considerable detail, others have not. Some have named their harassers or abusers, others have not. Regardless of the choices they have made about what and how much to disclose, the stories themselves are driving this movement and empowering those who have faced identical or similar types of abuse.

Just as our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing has been informed by the dynamics of sexual harassment and other forms of mistreatment, we can learn from movements such as #MeToo about how to confront all types of abuse at work. The concept of storytelling is at the heart of this. Although facts and figures about workplace bullying are helpful in painting the picture, the human impacts and costs are more vividly illustrated by the growing body of individual stories.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog pieces about storytelling and workplace abuse. I’ve gathered links to five of them here because they continue to be relevant, and I’ve included snippets to give you an idea of what I was writing about. (There’s some overlap in points made, but that is the nature of blogging.) I hope you will find this collection helpful and enlightening. 

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017) — “Countless public speaking appearances about workplace bullying have taught me that covering the essential basics about work abuse is doable in about 15 minutes or so. . . . However, what I can’t do in the typical short presentation is adequately convey the twisted, sick, and utterly disturbing narratives of the worst individual bullying and mobbing experiences, where the abusive behavior has been ongoing, targeted, malicious, multidirectional, and often suggesting an absence of conscience on the part of the main perpetrator(s).”

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries (2016) — “But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.”

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (2016) — “Why is it that some targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing have difficulty telling or jotting down their stories in a straightforward, chronological manner? And why do they often launch into what sounds like a War and Peace version of their story, when all that’s needed (for now) is the quick elevator speech? It can make for a long, rambling account, laden with emotion. We should not blame this on the target. Work abuse situations are often complex and hard to summarize. Equally significant, the effects of psychological trauma may have a lot to do with the ‘word salad’ narrative.”

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016) — “Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment. But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.”

Storytelling for social change (2015) — “The best stories, including those intended to drive positive social change, are natural and authentic, not contrived and formulaic. That said, stories need planning, shaping, and editing in order to connect with others. After all, raw, scrambled recitations of events, experiences, impressions, and facts are much less likely to hold someone’s attention in any medium. That’s why I was pleased to stumble upon A Changemaker’s Eight-Step Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change (2013), published by Ashoka Changemakers. It’s freely accessible as a 14-page pdf booklet.”

Top 2017 reads

image courtesy of gallery.yopriceville.com

Hello dear readers, here are the top posts published here during 2017, as measured by “hits” or page views. I’ve divided them into two categories, in recognition of the fact that the overwhelming share of online searches that lead to this blog are about workplace bullying and related topics.

Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

  1. Gaslighting at work (March)
  2. Trauma-Informed Legal Perspectives on Workplace Bullying and Mobbing (June)
  3. Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue? (March)
  4. How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (April)
  5. Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief (April)
  6. Male targets of workplace bullying (June)
  7. “Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers (November)
  8. Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (April)
  9. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability (February)
  10. Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (July)
  11. When workplace predators silence and intimidate their targets (November)
  12. Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations (January)
  13. Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR (May)
  14. Passing workplace anti-bullying laws during the Age of Trump (January)
  15. Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying) (January)

Other Topics

  1. Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist? (August)
  2. “First world” ethics of the Amtrak Quiet Car (March)
  3. Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (January)
  4. Work, savings, retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (August)
  5. “The rules don’t apply to me” (February)
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