Workplace bullying is all too common, and it leaves a permanent negative impact on both the victim and the company's culture. Here's a look at the psychology behind power abuse – and why it persists.
Power abuse is an issue that most of us have experienced at some time, whether we acknowledge it publicly or not. Controversy and debate around this subject continues to gain ground and interest, especially in the workplace.
According to a VitalSmarts study on workplace bullying, 96 percent of us say we’ve experienced it, and 54 percent of bullies have been at it for years. If you are part of that 96 percent, you know it hurts, it harms, and it leaves a permanent impression, even though the wounds may not be physically obvious.
Abusive people gain and maintain power over their victim with controlling or coercive behavior, and proceed to subject that person to psychological, physical, sexual or financial abuse. As we have seen from the media coverage of high-profile cases, abuse can go on for years, often ignored, and worse encouraged by those who surround the abuser. Inaction to stop abuse, is a form of abuse itself.
The psychology of power abuse
Understanding the psychology of abusers is important as well as understanding why it may continue and possibly even increase.
Psychological studies in behavioral trends indicate that narcissism is on the rise: "Approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissist scales than 30 years ago." Research has found that narcissism inversely correlates to empathy. The higher the score on the scale of narcissism, the lower the empathy exhibited.
Lack of empathy is considered one of the most telling narcissistic traits and one of the most striking features of people with narcissistic personality disorder. As Dr. Les Carter writes in his book, "Enough of You, Let's Talk About Me," (Jossey-Bass, 2008) narcissistic individuals "do not consider the pain they inflict on others; nor do they give any credence to others' perceptions." As narcissistic behaviour increases, we may see increases in power abuse cases.
Why does it continue?
Victims of abuse are often stressed and confused about their situation. This confusion can block the person’s confidence to report the issue, or they ignore it, thinking it will go away in time. It doesn’t.
Often the channel to address the issue leads to the legal department, but law firms can be a breeding ground for bully protection. Those with money or positions of power often have the greater access to lawyers. They can exhaust the victim’s ability to afford legal support very quickly, and they know it. The power abusers are often in a position to control the legal outcomes.
As a result, these cases often go unreported, undetected and unchallenged, because the victim feels that the threat of action could be worse than the original form of abuse. This creates a vicious cycle where the perpetrators feel that by getting away with the crime, they are empowered to continue their abusive behavior.
Silent supporters and 'group shun'
Abusers like to have support for their cause, and because of their social skills and positions of power can often compound the issue by enrolling others in what I will call the "group shun." The group – made up of the abuser and those who are weak enough to fear that if they don’t join in, they will be the next victims – acts as a pack to ostracize an individual. Bullies often seek to remain hidden behind a veil of secrecy and cowardice and try to influence others to join in to take a part so that if detected the blame is removed from them through deflection of the behaviour onto others, the group.
This issue is rarely addressed in bullying training programs in any depth. Often the individuals involved are not entirely sure what is going on. It can creep over time and because of its stealth nature, it can be hard to describe to others so that they can see it. Where this occurs, the individual may be paranoid or delusional, leading to a double whammy of victimization where they feel everyone else has deserted them.
When you see colleagues being shunned and ostracized by peers and organizational leaders, do not enable the abuser by being complicit in your silence, or support. The silent witness is as guilty as the perpetrators, allowing the psychological torture to continue. The enablers are perpetrators by accomplice. Cowardice and lack of courage remain the motivation for this. Remember, if the vicious cycle is not stopped, logic would say you may become the next victim.
What can we do about it?
Putting a stop to power abuse and bullying in the workplace means ensuring education and a system support at an organizational level. Simply having a policy in place doesn’t always help: Where policies do exist, they are often ignored or ineffective. The Vital Smarts report showed that only 7 percent of respondents know of someone who used the policy, and 6 percent say that it didn't work to stop the bully.
When regulation fails, we need to revert to character, and herein lies the ethical challenge. Character is borne out of moral virtue, courage and honor. In this case we need to ensure we are building employees of character – those who have courage to stand up for others, and themselves, and courage from organizations to reward those who do.
The culture of an organization must have systems in place to encourage employees to be aware of behaviors or influence that may not be acceptable, as well as speak up about those behaviors. Organizational leaders, regulators and business schools need to step up, enforce policies, be aware and understand the implications and risks of what is going on in their own organizations and the liabilities that they face. Individuals need to show courage not to participate, to call out bad behavior, and when faced with the situation themselves, have the language to articulate what is going on clearly.
Character is an undertaught and underrepresented ethical trait in our executive education programs. It is the foundation of good leadership. Bring back character, and the need for articles like this may diminish. It’s my hope they do.