Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Living on crumbs

It occurred to me this past week that perhaps abusive workplaces damage employees in more ways than we care to admit. After several recent conversations with colleagues and friends, I can only conclude that this seems to be the case. The type of abusive workplace I am talking about has little to do with physical abuse, although I know that occurs in some workplaces. The most common type of abuse is psychological and emotional, and I firmly believe that years of this type of abuse will damage the recipients, much as a psychologically abusive personal relationship does. And the damage may not be reversible. That is the frightening part. We don’t like to talk about this, but just because we don’t talk about it doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. The recipients of the abuse may carry their feelings of fear, shame, guilt and loss of self-esteem home with them, and take it out on the people with whom they live. Or if they live alone, they may take it out on themselves by living in unhealthy ways. Whatever the situation, the abuse leaves deep scars, and the employees who have experienced this type of abuse may not be able to leave their work situations, in the same way as an abused spouse may be unable to leave his or her situation. There may be no energy left to do so, or to fight back, or to deal with the situation.

What type of abuse am I talking about? Bullying, derision, grandstanding always at the expense of others, total disregard for the feelings of others, lack of emotional intelligence, verbal aggression, cursing, domination of meetings or conversations by the same people who flatten anyone who tries to get a word in, freezing out specific employees, being negative to what specific employees suggest no matter what the situation, deriding ideas during brainstorming meetings, making employees feel like crap, embarrassing or harassing them publicly (telling employees, ‘if you don’t like it, leave’ or telling employees that they’re lazy or mediocre in a public meeting). The list is endless. Have I seen such behavior in workplaces? Yes I have. What does an abusive workplace do to its employees? What are the scars it leaves on them? I would suggest that it creates a pattern of hope and disappointment that becomes cyclical. In the hope cycle, employees experience a feeling of being uplifted, perhaps because a boss has acknowledged their work for once. I call the experience being ‘grateful for crumbs’. In this case, the crumbs can be, for example, a very infrequent acknowledgment of employees’ work (or existence) in an environment that otherwise criticizes or ignores its employees. In the disappointment cycle, employees feel that their situation is hopeless and that there is little possibility of change. And then comes the hope cycle that brings with it that feeling that change is possible. This is very similar to an abusive relationship—between spouses, or between children and parents, between siblings, and so on.

You can imagine how children would develop in a home environment where parents were critical of and negative about most things they did, and only occasionally ‘threw a dog a bone’. That’s living on crumbs. Or parents who ignore their children, except to ‘show them off’ to others when it’s time to be politically correct. Children are highly sensitive to parental behavior, and they will work overtime to try to ‘read’ their parents. The appreciation of ‘crumbs’ becomes learned behavior after a while, but the recipients of abusive behavior are so focused on trying to ‘please’, that growth in other areas becomes stifled or stunted. They never completely learn self confidence, they become afraid of authority, or they became afraid to voice their opinions or ideas for fear of being derided, yelled at, or embarrassed publicly. The scars persist well into adulthood. The mistake we make as a society is to think that adults can tackle everything that is thrown at them, just because they are adults. The assumption is automatically that they have to tackle everything. What happens when or if they cannot? I’ve seen one example of that recently—someone who hit the wall big-time. There are bullies in the workplace, just as there were on the school playground. When the bullies get control of the workplace, the employees who get beaten up are often the ones who may not have had a lot of self confidence to begin with. Or they may be the ones who are living on crumbs in personal situations as well. Or they may have self confidence, but were raised to not question authority, to not stick their heads up. So if they are unfairly treated, there is no real recourse for them. They are not the ones likely to go over the boss’ head to complain to the higher-ups.

I have been told sometimes that I bring up problems but that I don’t discuss the solutions for them. That may be the case at times, but it may be the case simply because I don’t know what the solutions are. What do you do if you are an older man, for example, whose workplace bullies him, whose wife is sick, whose children depend on him, who knows that his chances of finding another job are next to null at his age? What then? What do you tell that person? Go find another job? Think positive and it will all work out? Blame him for his situation? And even if he is partly to blame, because he has let himself be satisfied with crumbs for many years, how does it help him if society blames him for his entire situation? We like to think that this is not a common situation; the fact is, in my father’s generation, this was a quite common scenario, at least where I grew up. It’s so easy to judge others, and in the end, ourselves. We are often as hard on ourselves as we are on others. The key word is hard. Maybe things would change if more people practiced being softer. Kindness is so underrated. We need more of it in society, in workplaces and in homes. Perhaps the next time a boss is abusive, we need to remind him or her of the value of being kind. That’s at least one solution I can suggest; I have no idea if it will work.  

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