Thursday, June 14, 2018

The goal of workplace harassment

When my book Blindsided--Recognizing and Dealing with Passive Aggressive Leadership in the Workplace was first published in 2008, I was contacted by a woman who worked in conflict resolution. She had read the first edition of my book and wrote to me to tell me that she liked it, but that she wished I had provided more tips and advice on how to deal with such behavior in the workplace.

At the time she contacted me, I found it hard to envision a day when I would be 'free' of the passive aggressive workplace environment in which I found myself (nearly a decade ago). I myself was stuck in a place that caused me to question my capabilities and my sanity. I dealt with leaders at that time who 'knew' my weaknesses and exploited them. They may not have had that as their initial goal, but over time, it moved in that direction because they knew they could 'get to me'. I was subject to their whims and harassment for about a year, during which time I learned (the hard way) how to deal with them. Essentially I learned to 'go around' them. It is a tactic that served me well in grammar and high school with the (very few) teachers I didn't like (or who may not have liked me). I could sit and look directly at them, in rapt attention (or so it seemed), but in reality I was miles away, planning my next move or how I was going to pursue what I wanted to pursue, no matter what. I forgot that tactic over the years, or suppressed it for one reason or another. But I tried this tactic on some of these leaders, and found that it worked. I did not have to overtly fight them; there would have been no point since they 'ruled' and complaining to management above me would not have led to a satisfactory resolution. Sometimes in this life you're on your own and you've got to figure it out for yourself. I did. Through writing and many discussions with other long-suffering colleagues, I learned about workplace behaviors to which I and many colleagues were subjected unwillingly.

When I published the second edition of Blindsided in 2009, I included a chapter called Fighting Back--Survive and Thrive by Being More Assertive, the title of which was suggested to me by the woman who worked in conflict resolution. Her suggestion about including more tips and advice was a good one, and when I re-read them now from this vantage point, I am surprised that I had the presence of mind to expand on some of them. However, I still disagree with her on one major point. She felt that all conflicts could eventually be resolved through listening and good communication. I do not agree. There are some conflicts that cannot be resolved. If all conflicts could be resolved, we would live in a perfect world, and we do not. I felt that way in 2009, and I still feel that way. This doesn't mean that we cannot try to resolve conflicts, just that we should not be overly-disappointed if resolutions are not forthcoming. This applies to conflicts in both our personal lives and our work lives. Sometimes the other party does not want to extend the olive branch, other times it may be us who do not want to do that. Sometimes we just have to walk away from conflicts, or wait until we've become savvy enough to deal with them. I have chosen a new tactic for myself the past year or so. It comes down to this--I do my job and I do it well. I dig deep and find the motivation I need to get the job done. I don't take things personally anymore, and if the goals shift and new priorities overtake the old, I've gotten better about letting go of the old goals and priorities faster. I've learned to let go without suffering the grief that used to accompany having to give up a beloved project to focus on something else. But as luck and fate would have it, I now work for good leaders who respect their employees. A win-win situation, because I work for people who support rather than harass others. That makes it easier to find motivation again.

What I didn't discuss in my book was the goal of the harassers, at least not in detail. After watching the video about trolling, I realized that their behavior had a distinct purpose, and that was to disrupt my focus on my research work. By blindsiding me, they riled me up, slowed me down, distracted me, and pushed me off course. They, and my reaction (taking their behavior personally) cost me at least two years of productive research work. They took away the possibility for me to be the best self I could be at that time. And that was the point. They were/are narcissists, only interested in themselves and their research work. Perhaps they considered me a competitor, or perhaps they were envious of my good relationships with my students. By dismantling the self-confidence of others, they could reduce the number of competitors on the playing field, because competition for research funding is tight. There's something to be said for keeping a cool head when those about you are not doing so. It gives you the power to make informed and common-sense decisions. The fear and anxiety of a decade ago are long gone. A new confidence has taken their place, and it is firmly rooted in a strong belief in self. I am grateful for the lesson learned, and for the fact that I did indeed learn it.

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