U.S. Presidential candidate, Donald Trump has hooked some unlikely followers including conservative women, who haven’t been turned off yet by claims he has sexually harassed women. One explanation proposed by both the ultra-left and mainstream conservatives is Stockholm syndrome, the condition in which a captured victim develops a bond and sympathy for his or her abusive captor. So this led me to consider whether this type of leadership is present in businesses around the world. Why is it that some employees continue to be loyal even though their bosses abuse them either by constantly undermining them, verbal teasing them or in more severe cases abusing them either physically or emotionally? Is the real truth that large swathes of workers are really under the spell of their captor?
As a syndrome it is worth noting that there is severe reservation among mental health professionals about whether it actually exists but there are some high profile examples where it could be said that it applies. A famous case is Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Shortly after having been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), she announced she was joining the terrorist organisation and their cause. She was eventually sentenced to 35 years in prison for her involvement in an SLA bank robbery. In 1979, President Carter commuted her sentence after only 22 months, and in 2001, President Clinton gave her a full pardon just two hours before leaving office. Of course this is an extreme example but it does illustrate the point.
The risk of Stockholm Syndrome creeping into the corporate world is very real too. Part of the reason for this is that much about who we are, our identity and our self-worth is defined by work and importantly what our colleagues, our boss and those around us say about us and how they treat us. Similar to the situation in which a hostage controls its victim’s food, drink allowances as well as freedom is the oppressive boss who has the power of controlling the employee’s pay check not to mention emotional wellbeing.
I have many friends and ex-colleagues that have all experienced this to some extent or another – the boss that constantly teases them for their attire, arrival or departure time, their accent, what they eat at their desk etc. the list goes on. Some say it is just ‘harmless banter’ others are clearly worn down by it and whilst it may seem trivial the impact over time on employee wellbeing can be telling and damaging. Yet these employees who are free to jump ship, continue to stay, continue to be verbally abused and sometimes physically so. Why do they do it? Why do they rationalise to themselves and to others their employer’s poor treatment of them as necessary and defend their boss, bad-mouthing colleagues and oppressive organisation to anyone outside of the organisation that asks? Why do they continue to go back for more, day in day out?
Often there is a honeymoon period in which at the start of the employment, the boss or abuser puts on a façade of kindness and dupes their victim into a false sense of security, an induction is friendly and professional, everyone is welcoming but over the weeks, months and years that follow tensions build up and slowly like a leaking tap the true identity of the abuser comes to the surface.
For those caught in the midst of the Stockholm Syndrome, it is a question of first realising it and then doing something about it. Yet this is the real challenge because many of the victims aren’t actually ready to admit or perhaps don’t actually realise what is happening to them until the trauma is so great they reach tipping point. The anxiety and damage that can be felt is akin to soldiers suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a situation that can occur in any organisation, in any sector and to any person, male or female at any age or stage in their career. Noticing the signs early on is the best way of protecting employee wellbeing – because put up and shut up is a really bad option, speak out and get out really is the only way to stay healthy at work.
By Annie Hayes, HR freelance writer and expert.
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