Emotional Abuse At Work Fosters Questions

Our recent column on the toll emotional abuse takes on staff, and how people cope with it, elicited thoughtful responses from many readers. Here are some answers to some of the most frequently asked questions we received:

How can emotional abuse happen in organizations that seem to take an explicit stand against bullying and harassing behaviour?

The tone of an organization is set by administration and management. If an organization nurtures mutual respect, the staff will follow suit. If an organization allows abuse, passive aggressiveness, incivility and manipulation to fester, the workplace becomes toxic. It seems contradictory, but toxic organizations can still have anti-harassment policies. In the worst-case scenario, the policy lacks clout. In the best-case scenario, management doesn’t know how to implement it. That’s when managers need training to understand emotional abuse and the company’s response to it. Sometimes, even when an anti-emotional abuse policy exists, nothing is done because a boss may benefit from the bullying supervisor’s ability to instill fear. The boss can seem like to good guy while the abuser terrorizes staff into silence and submission. Bosses who rely on an enforcer so that they can bully staff from afar, make it difficult to implement policy.

Other times, the supervisor builds himself or herself up at others’ expense , cultivating favourites and promoting an atmosphere of exclusivity quite unconsciously. And some policies have no provisions for incidents when the person receiving the complaint has no idea about the role he’s played in it. That can confuse those investigating incidents.

Lastly, organizations with psychological harassment policies or those targeting emotional abuse can flounder when bravado is a part of company culture. If the mores of the company are about being cool under pressure, there can be an implicit directive not to complain. It’s seen as petty, whining or being difficult. Once this is evident, the organization has a built-in mechanism for ensuring that it doesn’t receive complaints, the epitome of emotional abuse.

Why do organizations retain the abuser while letting the victim leave.

Emotionally abusive people in positions of power are adept at hanging onto their positions. They have honed skills that make them seem indispensible through a combination of seemingly good performance and self-aggrandizement. One company ended up finally letting an emotionally abusive salesman go who appeared to be a top performer. It turned out that sales improved even more after he left, as he had alienated other customers and suppliers with his behaviour. The mystique surrounding abusive people can be compelling and it takes a cold hard look to see beneath the façade.

Abusive managers end up costing the organization, yet these people are retained while hard-working victims pay the price. Organizations might be under the mistaken assumption that the abusive leader is responsible for the business results. This defies logic in today’s workforce when it takes a team to create profit. What about the damage to self esteem caused by being emotionally abused on the job? It’s common to think that if you’d been stronger or more sure of yourself, emotional abuse could have been avoided. Self doubt and self blame can easily occur because emotional abuse erodes your sense of self worth and dignity. It is important that people who have been poorly treated remember that the organization is tacitly sanctioning the behaviour or is overwhelmed and unable to decide what to do. Either way, it is not the employee’s fault that it happened or that they were a target. Many model employees are the target of abuse and it’s their conscientiousness and caring about their work that makes them prone to believing that if they just try harder, everything will be okay. Ironically, the very traits that make staff model employees make the toll taken even heavier. In most situations, their values and beliefs lead to high performance. Yet in emotionally abusive situations these attitudes lead to self doubt, self blame, disbelief, bewilderment, and sometimes depression. When all the effort made to fix the situation comes to naught, conscientious staff sometimes hit bottom. Recovering from emotional abuse means recognizing it cannot be controlled or changed through individual action alone. It means changing one’s personal goal from resolving the issue, to living one’s values. Resolving emotional abuse (e.g., discussing the issue with a willing colleague, obtaining recognition for harm done, an apology, resuming a working relationship, and the like is almost impossible). Recognizing that a good day is when one stayed true to one’s values be they – remaining collaboratively oriented, compassionate, calm and assertive is victory. The lesson learned in surviving emotional abuse is staying true to oneself no matter what else happens. It is important to remember that abusive situations assail your dignity as a human being so maintaining vigilance against this outcome is important. Chipping away at someone’s sense of self, their value and confidence and their ability to assess situations accurately, are all part of the campaign waged in difficult workplaces

What are the risks of making a complaint?

Making formal complaints can be a good way to register your concerns about how you are being treated. Complaining will also help you to maintain your sense of dignity and psychological well being. It’s common to try to keep things under wraps for fear of it making it worse. Some say that making a formal complaint causes more anxiety, which can be true. However, in the long run, standing up for yourself is often the best approach. Be prepared for ongoing slights and denigration. Many who begin to fight back are hoping for a quick resolution in their favour. The benefit will probably not come in this form, if it does, it’s a bonus. Mainly, the psychological gain will be in knowing that in the end you didn’t let the abuse go by.

And finally – why do people emotionally abuse others in the first place?.

To abuse someone emotionally can be a psychological survival tactic for the abuser. If he is threatened, he will seek to reduce the perceived stature of the “threatening” individual. Those who abuse like this can be passive-aggressive individuals who are insecure and question their own competence. When they spot someone who is competent, diligent or intelligent, the urge to tear them down is strong. Also, abusive staff will target conscientious people because they are the staff members who experience the greatest pain when things go wrong at work. Targeting someone who couldn’t care less would be unsatisfying and would not meet the abuser’s need for a sense of superiority or esteem at another’s expense. They sometimes like to see people get upset.

There are three types: those who want power, those who take pleasure in hurting others and those who are unconsciously abusive (they don’t see what they are doing as noxious). You can have a combination of all three types but regardless, the effects are the same. In the end, it is important to remember that this kind of behaviour is, in many cases, tacitly sanctioned by the organization and if the organization is not willing or able to address it, it is not the individual employee’s fault.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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