Ruminating, problem solving, and coping in the midst of work abuse

In an article recently published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (abstract here), researchers Abbas Firoozabadi, Sjir Uitdewilligen, and Fred R. H. Zijlstra pose their key question in the title: “Should you switch off or stay engaged? The consequences of thinking about work on the trajectory of psychological well-being over time.”

Basically, they wanted to explore how taking our jobs home with us affects psychological well-being, especially when it comes to how we deal with work-related problems. Their focus was the distinction between ruminating (in this context, repeatedly thinking about the negative emotional aspects of a work experience) vs. problem-solving (analyzing potential responses and solutions). As some readers can already see, this study has significant implications for those experiencing forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work.

Study details and findings

As explained in the article abstract, the study was conducted with “123 participants with full-time and primarily mentally demanding jobs,” using the following methodology:

We conducted a 3-wave longitudinal study with a time lag of 6 months between each wave. At the first measurement moment, participants filled out a survey over 5 consecutive working days assessing work-related affective rumination and problem-solving pondering during evenings. Exhaustion and health complaints were assessed at the first measurement moment as well as after 6 and 12 months.

The researchers found:

The results showed that affective rumination is a significant predictor of increase in exhaustion over time. Problem-solving pondering was not found to be a significant predictor of change in psychological well-being over time. These findings demonstrate that work-related rumination during evenings may lead to health problems over time depending on the type of rumination. It suggests that unlike affective rumination, problem-solving pondering during evenings has no influence on psychological well-being over time.

Bottom line, slightly boiled down: Ruminating about work challenges will likely have negative health effects, while thinking about work challenges in problem-solving mode is a typically a break-even proposition in terms of health.

Applied to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Over the past 20 years, I’ve heard or read hundreds of stories about severe work abuse. I’ve concluded that for targeted individuals, ruminating over these terrible experiences is one of the most common and debilitating thought patterns. It is a form of ongoing re-traumatization.

Researchers Firoozabadi, Uitdewilligen, and Zijlstra were not specifically studying the psychological health effects of bullying-related behaviors, but their research has significant implications for those who are experiencing work abuse. Their study results dovetail with what many have observed or experienced: Ruminating about workplace mistreatment can create and exacerbate health problems, while operating in problem-solving mode is less likely to have such impacts. In fact, the latter may even improve psychological well-being by injecting needed doses of hope and empowerment.

If one could easily flip the switch from rumination to problem-solving, well then, a lot of problems would be solved, right?! However, in many cases of work abuse, it’s more complicated than that, especially when psychological trauma enters the picture. All too often, trauma and rumination go hand-in-hand. Targets of work abuse often ruminate about what happened and how it has affected them. It’s harder for them to shift the focus toward potential responses and solutions.

This may very well be a neurological effect, not necessarily a personality trait. As research has found, traumatic experiences can cause the side of the brain governing emotions (the so-called right side) to go into hyper-active mode, while the side of the brain governing logic, communication, and decision making (the so-called left side) shuts down. As I’ve written before, this understanding helps to explain why many targets of work abuse ruminate about the experience of that abuse and its effects on their emotions, while finding it difficult to develop an ordered narrative of relevant events and engage in problem-solving.

(As a side note, I’ll offer some unscientific, indirect evidence of this dynamic, drawn from writing this blog since 2008: Blog posts on workplace bullying that validate the experiences of being abused at work tend to attract a lot more search engine hits and Facebook “likes” than those that are problem-solving or solution-oriented in nature.)

The ruins of rumination — and potential coping responses

In a 2010 Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Edward Selby provides a useful primer on rumination and its effects:

Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Basically, rumination means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting.

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What’s so bad about rumination though, it’s all about problem solving right? While it’s true that problem solving and planning are essential to overcoming a difficult problem, people who ruminate tend to take these activities too far and for too long. . . . Sometimes people will ruminate about the problem so much so that they never even develop a solution to the problem.

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The research is extremely consistent. People who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety, and those problems are hard to overcome for someone who fails to change ruminative thought patterns.

Fortunately Dr. Selby suggests how people break out of their cycles of rumination. He strongly recommends pursuing a genuinely enjoyable, distracting activity:

So how do you overcome rumination? Well have you ever heard the phrase, “get your mind off of the problem?” The answer is simple, to overcome rumination you need to engage in some kind of activity that fully occupies your mind and prevents your thoughts from drifting back to the problem.

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There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, and the best one to use is one that is personal for you. For example, some good activities include reading a book, playing a game, exercising, talking to a friend (but not about the problem!), or watching a movie. Of course you are only limited by your creativity and access to different activities. Importantly, you have to enjoy the behavior for it to work.

Losing one’s self in something good

Selby’s advice is congruent with pieces that I’ve written in this blog about the importance of immersive hobbies and pastimes, especially for those who are dealing with toxic work situations. In a 2015 blog post, “Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job,” I wrote:

For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business.

. . . Therapy or counseling, and mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation, may be helpful for coping with bullying at work. In addition, consider the possibility of a meaningful, life-affirming endeavor in which you can lose yourself in a good way.

I emphasize words such as meaningful and immersive. I am well aware that this is not as simple as picking out a hobby or pastime from some random list. (In this context, “Why don’t you try collecting coins?” is about as helpful as “You need to get over it.”) Rather, it’s about connecting to a positive activity decoupled from work. It will not address the bullying itself, but it may well provide a safe and enjoyable space away from it.

In that post, I told a story about Dr. Shelley Lane, who was experiencing workplace bullying at a college where she had previously worked:

When Dr. Shelley Lane was experiencing severe bullying at the community college where she worked and recovering from foot surgery that limited her mobility, she retrieved the personal journals she wrote during a formative year spent studying abroad as a young undergraduate and turned them into a book project.

In the Preface to her eventually published study abroad memoir, A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-Of-Age (2010), she wrote:

Soon thereafter fate provided me with two reasons why I should read them [her personal journals] again: a new president at the community college where I worked who made Attila the Hun appear weak and timid, and foot surgery that had me in crutches for four months. I finally returned to the journals to keep my mind away from the workplace bully and to forget that I wasn’t easily mobile.

In Dr. Lane’s case, there were good outcomes on multiple levels. First, she left that college for a better job at a better school. Second, as I wrote last year, she would later author a book, “Understanding Incivility: Why Are They So Rude?,” for which I was privileged to write the Foreword.

Not the last word, but hopefully of help

Dear readers, this obviously isn’t the last word on rumination and how to deal with it, but I hope it is of assistance to those who are experiencing it. Moving from rumination to problem-solving can be an important step toward healing and recovery. May it be so for you if you are in this difficult place.

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Additional relevant posts

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016)

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

Themes of work and employment in “The Americans”

FX’s “The Americans,” the one-hour drama series featuring a husband-and-wife team as deep-cover Soviet spies operating out of a Washington D.C. suburb during the 1980s, came to the close of its superb six-year run last Wednesday.

If you’re unfamiliar with “The Americans,” here’s the brief rundown: On the surface, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings are juggling everyday suburban life, raising their two kids (Paige and Henry), and managing a travel agency. However, they are really Soviet plants, deeply involved in espionage and intelligence activities, which often require them to assume new identities in order to gather information and fulfill mission directives. To make things more complicated, their new neighbor across the street is Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent who does intelligence work. The relationships between the Jennings and Beeman families help to frame the entire series.

Indeed, “The Americans” is very much about relationships, however fraught with Cold War intrigue. And as I’ve written before, it’s also a show about managing one’s work life, under the most trying of circumstances. I’d like to build on that theme here, while keeping spoilers down to a minimum!

Raising their games

As I recall, early reviewers regarded “The Americans” as a very good cable drama, but most stopped short of tagging it as brilliant. However, it would finish as one of the most widely hailed series on TV today. Some pundits are rightly calling it one of the best ever on the small screen.

As I see it, this evolution in the show’s reviews goes much beyond its discovery by a more appreciative audience. Rather, from season to season we become witnesses to everyone raising their games, including the cast, directors, producers, writers, and crew. This final season, in particular, had an edge-of-your-seat genius to it. For some time it was known that this would be the show’s last run, and the ability to work within that timeframe paid off completely.

Call this a lesson in how to go from good to great.

Creating art

Last week’s episode ranks as one of the best series finales ever — perhaps the best in terms of beautifully resolving (or not resolving) multiple story arcs — and I’m guessing that it will be studied in acting and film school classes for years to come.

In particular, the critics have already gone gaga over the parking garage face-off scene featuring Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, and Stan. Yeah, it was that good. If there’s such a thing as an Emmy award for a single scene, then this gets it, hands down.

As for Rhys, Russell, and Emmerich, please give them Emmys for their overall performances this season.

Love at work

Romance between co-workers can be full of risks, challenges, and dramas. So it was with Rhys and Russell, on screen and off. Soviet intelligence authorities paired Philip and Elizabeth as a couple before they were planted in the U.S.; this was an arranged marriage purely for purposes of spycraft. They grew into love during the course of their working relationship.

Offscreen, Rhys and Russell became a couple too, and they remain together. This is a common occurrence in Hollywood, but one made more interesting because of the evolving relationship between Philip and Elizabeth.

From nostalgia to immersion

Especially for late Boomers and early Gen Xers, “The Americans” grabs us from the start by playing to our nostalgia for the 80s. You have the 80s music, clothing, hairdos, cars, gadgetry, and all that stuff.

To me it seemed a little over the top at first. But whether it was a crass strategy to reel us in via constant product placement or a deliberate use of commercial and cultural markers to establish the historical context, it did draw us back to those years. Once there, the nostalgic button-pushing would soon give way to the rich, ongoing drama and developing storylines. 

Masks at work

“The Americans” is about putting on masks at work, literally and figuratively. Here’s what I wrote about that aspect of the show four years ago:

The other day, it hit me that “The Americans” is, at least in part, about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.

In their work, they take on different roles, identities, and personalities. . . . Elizabeth and Philip have no purely authentic selves in terms of their structured lives.

Granted, most of us cannot relate to the lives of deep cover spies. But many of us have been in jobs where we couldn’t quite be ourselves. In fact, most jobs require putting parts of our personalities on the shelf. And in the cases of jobs done largely for a paycheck, big chunks of our personalities may be buried while at work.

At the same time, we may be expected to show qualities of friendliness, courtesy, or deference, even when we don’t honestly feel them. Organizational psychologists call this “emotional labor,” and it can be taxing.

Suffice it to say that Philip and Elizabeth expended more emotional labor than any ten regular people could provide in their aggregate lifetimes!

Moral and ethical decision making

With the Jennings, especially ice-in-her-veins Elizabeth, the moral and ethical code boils down easily to the ends justifying the means. The possibility of violence, of course, is an ongoing presence in many of the show’s story arcs, and the show has piled up a lot of dead bodies, often with ruthless dispatch.  But what sets “The Americans” apart are the many ruses, lies, and deceptions that constitute enormous interpersonal abuses, all in the name of duty. Good, decent people are swept into the web and changed forever.

Still, is this really any different from a well-paid CEO saying that we regretfully had to cut jobs of longtime employees to ensure the financial health of the company, when in reality the company simply chose to put shareholder earnings first? And don’t virulent displays of workplace bullying, mobbing, gaslighting, and harassment mirror the heartless psychological cruelties of Philip and Elizabeth?

Work-life balance

Folks, if you want a prime example of the obliteration of work-life balance, then Elizabeth and Philip serve it up grandly! Put simply, they have no balance. Almost everything is about duty and responsibility. For both, the job often comes first, followed by parenting. I don’t know if I can recall a single genuine vacation or trip, or even a movie and dinner, that didn’t involve their spy work.

Of course, the opportunity to make a difference sometimes requires personal sacrifices, including the loss of what we might call free time. With the Jennings, however, the sacrifices increasingly reach into their souls. 

Institutions as employers

Throughout the series, the relationships of individuals to larger institutions are significant.

Elizabeth and Philip seemingly have leeway in how they fulfill their orders, but they and other Soviet operatives must answer to their superiors in Moscow. In the land of the free, Stan, too, has wiggle room as an agent, but he must answer to the vertical, bureaucratic structure of the FBI.

Ultimately we have two sharply contrasting political ideologies, but when it comes to employment, top-down power relationships often prevail under both.

Politics and work

The Jennings are driven by political ideology, especially Elizabeth, whose commitment to the Soviet ideal remains strong through the heart of the series. Philip’s wavering has consequences for his work and their relationship.

In America, the business, public, and non-profit sectors certainly have their own true believers who bring a sense of mission to their jobs, grounded in ideological commitments. “The Americans” invites us to think hard about how rigid political and social beliefs can inform what we do for living, how we go about it, and the limitations of working in this mode.

Start at the beginning

If you haven’t tried “The Americans,” then the only way to do so is from the beginning. To be honest, I wasn’t immediately addicted to this show. As I suggested above, I think it started out as a very good drama before it grew into something spectacular. It took me a while to get sucked into its world, but once that happened, I was hooked for good.

Given that television binge-watching tastes are so individual, I won’t presume that “The Americans” is for all readers here. But if you want to give it a try, then it’s available on various streaming platforms and season DVDs, and I’m sure a series box set is in the works, too.

 

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Recommended book list

It’s time for an update. Back in 2011, I wrote up a list of 20 recommended books on workplace bullying and related topics. A lot of valuable work has appeared since then, and so I’ve revised and expanded the list to 30 books. Some books from the 2011 list do not appear here, but they will reappear in future lists.

A few explanations before we jump into the new listing:

  • First, this list emphasizes books that are primarily about workplace bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors, as well as the organizational cultures that fuel them. During the coming months, I’ll be sharing additional lists of recommended books, including those that focus on incivility at work and those that examine the dynamics of abusive behavior and trauma generally.
  • Second, I have not included several valuable books that look at bullying in specific occupational fields, such as education and health care. Those works, too, will be part of future lists.
  • Third, there is a strong U.S.-based focus here, with a healthy sprinkling of international perspectives. That said, important work on this subject continues to expand on a global scale, and I won’t even try to capture all of it here.
  • Finally, I have not covered the growing number of self-published titles on these topics, including first-person accounts of those who have experienced severe workplace mistreatment. There are important insights and stories in some of these works, but regrettably I have not been able to evaluate them for this list.

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Andrea Adams, with Neil Crawford, Bullying at Work: How to confront and overcome it (1992) — A pioneering work by a BBC journalist whose investigations helped to launch the workplace anti-bullying movement.

Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (2006) — Informative and gruesomely entertaining look at the very worst types of workplace abusers, by two leading experts in psychopathic behavior.

Judith Geneva Balcerzak, Workplace Bullying: Clinical and Organizational Perspectives (2015) — Written by a clinical social worker and published by the National Association of Social Workers, this book is helpful to anyone who wants to understand workplace bullying and is especially useful for those in the social work field.

Emily S. Bassman, Abuse in the Workplace: Management Remedies and Bottom Line Impact (1992) — Excellent examination of the organizational costs of emotional abuse at work.

Carroll M. Brodsky, The harassed worker (1976) — Perhaps the earliest book to document and analyze these behaviors, this out-of-print and hard to find volume is worthy of mention for serious researchers and scholars.

Carlo Caponecchia & Anne Wyatt, Preventing Workplace Bullying: An Evidence-Based Guide for Managers and Employees (2011) — Brisk overview with thought-provoking case studies, and applying research and analysis to practices and responses.

Duncan Chappell & Vittorio Di Martino, Violence at Work (3rd ed., 2006) — One of several treatments classifying bullying and mobbing under the rubric of workplace violence, this one published by the International Labour Office.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, Workplace Bullying and Harassment: New Developments in International Law (2017) — A very handy and thorough global compilation and summary of laws and regulations pertaining to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment.

Lynne Curry, Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge (2016) — Authored by a management and human resources consultant who has experienced workplace bullying, this book takes a helpful, systematic, coaching-based approach for those who are dealing with bullying at work.

Teresa A. Daniel & Gary S. Metcalf, Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal, & Risk Management Professionals (2nd ed., 2016) — An “inside the fish bowl,” management perspective on preventing and responding to workplace bullying, with valuable guidance for different levels of organizational leadership.

Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz & Gail Pursell Elliott, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (2002) — An early, important work built around the European conceptualization of mobbing and the vitally important research of the late Heinz Leymann.

Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018) — A two-volume, encyclopedic, multidisciplinary examination of workplace bullying and mobbing from an American perspective, featuring over two dozen contributors. As a co-editor and chapter contributor, I’m obviously biased in recommending this title, but I believe it’s very good. It’s also pricey, however, and thus most likely an investment for researchers, practitioners, and academic and professional libraries. You can learn more about it here.

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012) — A thorough, scholarly examination of mobbing behaviors and dynamics and how to respond to them, co-authored by two leading authorities on the subject.

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014) — For both a comprehensive examination of workplace mobbing and valuable guidance for individuals, employers, and other workplace stakeholders, this is the best one-volume treatment of the topic.

Stale Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf & Cary L. Cooper, eds., Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed., 2011) — Second edition of the best one-volume, multidisciplinary, international collection of research and commentary on workplace bullying, with contributions from leading authorities. I contributed a chapter on international legal responses to workplace bullying. Note: A third edition of this volume is in the works.

Tim Field, Bully in Sight (1996) — One of the first works on workplace bullying by an early U.K. anti-bullying movement advocate, it remains an important commentary for serious students of this subject.

Suzi Fox & Paul E. Spector, eds., Counterproductive Work Behavior: Investigations of Actors and Targets (2005) — Very useful collection of chapter contributions that includes considerable research and commentary on bullying.

Marie-France Hirogoyen, Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity (English ed., 2004) — Important analysis of emotional abuse in private lives and in the workplace by a French psychiatrist and therapist.

Randy Hodson, Dignity at Work (2001) — Broad examination of dignity at work, including bullying behaviors, from a sociological perspective.

Harvey Hornstein, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey: How to Identify and Overcome Abuse in the Workplace (1996) — This work by a social psychologist examines bad boss behaviors, with especially relevant research findings and commentary about abusive supervision in the midst of difficult economic times.

Sheila M. Keegan, The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) —  An important book by a British consultant and psychologist that links the experience of fear at work to organizational cultures, and suggests solutions for moving forward. Includes a chapter on workplace bullying.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Adult Bullying: A Nasty Piece of Work (2013) — A leading researcher on workplace bullying and related topics has gathered her journal articles, many of which are co-authored with other experts, into a single volume helpful to both scholars and those dealing with bullying at their workplaces.

Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (2nd ed., 2009) — A seminal work by the individuals most responsible for introducing the concept of workplace bullying to a North American audience. It remains the most readable, accessible book for targets of workplace bullying. (Disclosure note: I have worked with the Namies and their Workplace Bullying Institute on a pro bono basis for almost two decades, and my work is discussed in this book.)

Gary Namie & Ruth F. Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011) — The Namies’ step-by-step program for employers that want to pro-actively address workplace bullying, drawing upon many years of research and consulting.

Charlotte Rayner, Helge Hoel & Cary L. Cooper, Workplace Bullying: What we know, who is to blame, and what can we do? (2002) — An early, foundational book by three leading authorities on bullying and stress at work.

Peter Schnall, Marnie Dobson & Ellen Rosskam, eds., Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures (2009) — Occupational health experts analyze the psychosocial aspects of work, public health impacts, and possible stakeholder responses.

Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007) — While the title alone guaranteed this book a fair amount of attention, its discussion of bullying and incivility at work is noteworthy in its own right.

Noreen Tehrani, ed., Workplace Bullying: Symptoms and Solutions (2012) — A thought-provoking collection of chapter contributions from an international group of scholars and practitioners, with an emphasis on European perspectives.

Kenneth Westhues, The Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High Achieving Professors (2006) — Centers around a thorough case study of how a well-known theologian was mobbed out of his teaching position, full of insights about individual and organizational behaviors in mobbing situations. This is part of an excellent series of books on academic and professional mobbing by Westhues. (Disclosure note: My work is discussed and critiqued in this book, and I contributed an invited responsive essay to a followup volume.)

Judith Wyatt & Chauncey Hare, Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It (1997) — One of the earliest books about psychological abuse at work, this is an important piece of the literature.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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. . . (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….

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