Purpose And Limits Of The Article
People who are experiencing pain at work usually are isolated in their pain because talking about it with others may bring on blame or shame by those who are often fending off their own pain in their isolation. Individuals isolated in their experience need to be validated. Validation can happen only to a limited extent by reading the experiences of others in the work world and the way they react to work abuse.
This article is intended to help with the validation but realistically can't help with the isolation. No article could dissolve the reader's isolation. This article can only help by validating your pain, the pain of others, and explaining where the pain is likely coming from.
Work abuse is more than bullying or being bullied. It is any variety of ways people feel stressed at work without having a way to relieve the stress because of the limits imposed by the work system which do not allow sources of stress to be openly and fairly addressed.
People may feel the stress of work abuse mentally or physically in similar ways, but the actual stress or abuse may come from different sources and different ways in the work organization's system. Describing emotional or physical symptoms alone does not give accurate examples of people's experience of work abuse because how a person is viewing their situation (the "spin" they are repeating to themselves that bring on the emotional/physical symptoms) create the actual symptoms. People who are being mistreated in different ways may have the same emotional and physical symptoms. A person's failed expectations creates the pain.
Example: A person may be losing sleep at night, feeling stomach or headache pain for reasons as varied as the boss refuses to give enough information to allow a job to be completed, a fellow worker is repeatedly ignoring you, or you are forced to use your own money to buy educational materials for the children you teach in your class at school. Any number of other very common causes may bring about similar harmful emotions and physical symptoms. This means little is learned by focusing solely on pain. In this article examples given are examples of how and sometimes why a person may view a work abuse situation (the "spin" they put on it--their expectations) so that the situation may cause a variety of emotional or physical responses.
Before reading further it is important to be familiar with the article "What you Must Know About Where You Work" that describes authoritarian systems. The systems article tells why authoritarian systems are the only systems of work where work abuse can occur; essentially all workplaces are authoritarian systems. This means work abuse can happen at any workplace.
The information given here is from the author's experience with many work abused individuals and familiarity with their responses. The names are fictional, but the situations described are all too common.
The term "abuse" or "abuser" or the "abused" may seem extreme labels as used in this article. Use of these terms is not to assign blame but are strong to give emphasis and to match the abused persons experience. Some people may hesitate to use the term abused because although they are hurting badly, they believe wrongly that they are to blame for their experience. No blame is assigned in this article to anyone, abused or abuser as the article is describing systems of behavior that develop culturally and are culturally bound.
Responses That Come Out Of Lack Of Knowledge Of Authoritarian Systems.
**Those that are self blaming
People who are feeling physical and mental pain coming from mistreatment and are unaware of how authoritarian systems in every workplace create the environment for their mistreatment are very often self blaming. This is especially true for people new to the work world. If everyone around you seems to be handling the work situation, you may blame yourself for your problem. If you were blamed for your behavior as a child at home or at school (schools are authoritarian as are many families) then it is even more likely that you will feel at fault at work.
Teresa was a new teacher and started work her first year. She did not receive introductory instructions on rules she was expected to follow. When she unknowingly broke rules that other teachers abided by she was reprimanded for her errors. She felt nauseous, anxious and uncertain in her classroom. It was a repeat of childhood feelings. She felt "she should have known" when she broke a rule. Teresa was unaware that what she experienced happened to all new teachers in this school. It was the way teachers learned the rules, by breaking them. It was the norm in this authoritarian system for each person to fend for themselves.
First, Teresa like many new employees did not know about the authoritarian nature of work systems and did not know about learning systems norms except the hard way. Work world culture was not part of her teaching certificate training. In addition she was often told at home as a child "you should have known" when she made a mistake because her parents were distant from her and seemingly unaware that children need to be taught how to survive insecure situations. The combination of lack of education about work systems and coming from an unsupportive family make self blame likely.
**Those that know that they are not at fault
Tom worked for the social security administration. Like Teresa he knew nothing about authoritarian systems, but he worked for the government long enough to know he was not to blame for the verbal abuse he got from his boss because verbal abuse was common in his work group. He tried to transfer out of the work group and the agency, but his boss refused to support his transfer. Tom was anxious, felt nausea and lost sleep at night imagining how he could get out of this situation. He lost appetite and weighed ten pounds less than he did a year before. Tom's wife was tired of hearing the story and pressured Tom to find a job outside government. She, not knowing about work systems, thought, wrongly, that private sector jobs are not abusive because they are profit oriented and can't afford to treat people badly. Private sector workplaces are authoritarian; work abuse is just as common there as in government.
Tom's lack of knowledge of systems caused him to blame his angry boss for the verbal abuse he was receiving. He did not see that both he and the boss were limited by the lack of caring that was a norm in the agency and that verbal mistreatment is a common way people respond to neglect. Tom's lack of knowledge about systems was causing him to blame his boss rather than work on possible ways to join his boss by showing cautious caring toward him. This would require skill that begins with knowing the true nature of systems that Tom was unaware of. The verbal abuse was so overwhelming to Tom and Tom's blame was so intense that mentioning that his boss could be approached differently would seem ridiculous to him. Tom had no knowledge of systems and little skill in working with angry bosses. Tom's hurt was so deep he was unable to gain the knowledge and skill that would help him out of this abusive situation as well as help him survive a private sector job if his wife prevailed.
Although Tom was not self-blaming, his lack of knowledge about authoritarian work systems and his lack of skill in handling his bosses anger left him with emotional and physical symptoms not unlike Teresa's.
**Those that are involved as abusers
Ben was a tough task master to work for. He abused those below him by withholding information, giving poor performance ratings, expecting people to work beyond the normal eight hour day. He was rewarded for his leadership style by those above him by frequent promotions. It is true that when he was criticized by an employee leaving the company, the top executives did not confront him for his behavior.
Ben like Teresa and Tom did not consciously know about authoritarian systems. It was Ben's abrasive style and desire for power over others that made him an excellent match for his company. Ben did not see or feel the effect of his behavior on his fellow workers; he was intent on personal "success." Ben was absorbed in his drive for prestige with his bosses. Ben was receiving so much support from above he felt no desire to learn about work systems or skill in leading people in a caring way. Ben's self worth came entirely from his dependence on approval of his bosses. Ben used his position to displace downward any shame he carried from childhood. This is frequently the reason people aspire to high positions in the hierarchy.
It would be easy to blame Ben as those who were mistreated by him often did. But it is Ben's lack of awareness of his need for understanding work systems that makes blaming Ben a mistake. Ben is actually perpetuating the authoritarian system without his knowledge or awareness. The company he works for depends on people like Ben to keep the system stable. When Ben was offered a chance to attend a seminar on motivating employees he accepted the offer to show his seeming willingness to be open to change. But like others who attended the seminar, he dismissed what was said about authoritarian systems as rubbish. The seminar was unsuccessful because it did not confront the authoritarian nature of the entire company and was not fully supported by top management. The seminar was merely a showpiece. This is a very common story.
Responses That Come Out Of Partial Knowledge Of Or Intuition About Authoritarian Systems
**Those that blame the top management
Susan aspired to becoming a high level manager in a computer company. She was largely successful in her job and was given assurance that in time she would become a manager, maybe the first top women manager in the company. As years rolled by she was not promoted out of her position as a group leader. She supported and guided people in her group. Some, mostly men, left the group to ascend positions high in the company. Two women who Susan saw as abusive rose to powerful positions.
Over time it became clear to Susan that management was fearful of women who showed caring becoming leaders in the company. She blamed management for their attitude toward women who were collaborative with employees. She was not fully aware that being supportive of people below her was breaking the norm that was primary; members of top management considered themselves superior to those below them. Susan did not fully understand that she was working in an authoritarian system not a collaborative one. She wrongly blamed top management for their hardheadedness and fundamental discrimination toward women. Susan was unaware she could not rise in an authoritarian company where the norms dictated behavior of shame toward people at the bottom of the hierarchy. The company would have to radically change in order for Susan to become a top manager. Susan as one person could not change the norms.
**Those that try to change the system
Gary worked for a division of medium size machine tool manufacturing company as a designer. His immediate boss Harvey was a ruthless verbal abuser and picked on Gary routinely. Scouring the internet he came across our website and bought the book Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive it. From the book and books listed in the bibliography Gary learned the basics of how authoritarian systems function. He also began to review the way he was affected by Harvey and realized he was making himself too easy a target. He began to work on his own feelings of helplessness that attracted Harvey's attacks. Finally Gary carefully confronted Harvey and asked him politely to speak respectfully toward him. Harvey was suddenly taken aback by Gary's effective confrontation and the abusive language stopped.
Gary was encouraged by his success in changing his own behavior successfully to confront Harvey. He became interested in the way organizations function and began to research methods of changing organizations from authoritarian to collaborative. He read Robert Allen's books on normative systems change and believed his company could become more profitable by becoming collaborative with its employees. Gary became so interested in organizations that he took night study courses to learn the basics of organization change.
One lunch hour Gary was in the company's lunch room reading a book by Rensis Likert that was required reading for the course he was taking at night. The general manager of the division remarked casually to Gary about his reading at noon. Gary told the manager about his night courses and that what he was learning could be helpful to the company. The manager replied politely that he would like to hear about it sometime in the future when Gary had finished his course work. Gary was encouraged by the remark, but he was totally unfamiliar with the realities of the top management of the company and its divisions that were a mine-field of politics.
No matter how much Gary would learn about organization change, the likelihood of his ideas being accepted was slim. He was too low in the organization and naive to believe what he was learning would be anything but laughed at. When Gary finished his course work and made an appointment to speak with the general manager, he was asked not to bring up the topic of change again now or any time in the future. Several months after the meeting, Gary was asked to leave the company. He was told that there was no longer a need for a designer as the company's designs were well fixed. No new designs would be needed.
Gary was deeply affected by his firing. He did not know whether Harvey was behind his firing or if the general manager was genuinely disturbed by the idea of changing the organization. Gary had many physical and emotional symptoms that were not easily healed. He found another job, but never fully recovered from the effects of his firing.
Those that know they cannot change the system. They minimize their abuse via their intuitions about how the system works
Glenn lived a work life even before he was old enough to leave his family and begin a vocation of his own. Glenn was close to his father who lived an upwardly mobile career in a large corporation. Glenn followed every twist in turn of his father's fate as an eventual corporate manager. He built many intuitions about corporate life. Though he never read about or studied organizations he was very familiar with the rule: you must decipher and abide by the rules. Among those intuitions was that life was brutal when you tried to reach the top. His father was "retired" at age 55 because he did not fit the mold of a Vice President of his company.
Glenn took a job with the federal government and refused to aspire to a high level position. He focused on minimizing mistreatment by the system using the intuitions he had learned watching his father's actions and the outcomes that resulted. Glenn defined himself a family man and was satisfied to create a loving environment for his children. He completed a career in government with minimum emotional injury on the job. He was careful to decipher the rules and followed them to the letter.
Note that in all of the above cases, the expectations of the individuals involved was at the heart of their experience of abuse. It would be important to read the segment on beliefs, values, behaviors, experience, and expectations on page 225 in the book Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It.