Abuse can be intentional harmful behaviours directed at employees over a prolonged period of time. This kind of mistreatment negatively affects the targeted individuals work life. It can lead to negative consequences such, as depression, sleep problems and burnout. Employers also bear the brunt of these consequences, including increased absenteeism, higher healthcare costs, legal issues and an unstable work environment. Research even suggests that employees who experience bullying tend to arrive leave and take more frequent breaks. To effectively address this problem it is important to gain an understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved. In this article we present a model that combines insights, from neuroscience research and clinical psychology to shed light on the dynamics of workplace abuse.
When examining employee abuse it becomes necessary to explore intelligence or empathic capacity which varies among individuals and exists along a spectrum. Studies indicate that individuals who engage in bullying or mistreating their co-workers usually have levels of empathy while those who become targets of behaviour tend to have higher levels of empathy (Namie & Namie 2009). Insights, from psychology provide understanding of the roles played by individuals involved in workplace abuse.
Neuroscience research has identified two forms of intelligence; intelligence, which is associated with reasoning and memory and social intelligence which is connected to empathy and compassion. These two types of intelligence are associated with regions of the brain (Lieberman, 2013). General intelligence is located on the surface of the brain while social intelligence is situated in the midline region. This distinction suggests that a person can possess low levels of each type of intelligence independently or in combination.
Individuals with intelligence meaning they have high levels of empathy excel at understanding the thoughts and intentions of others – often referred to as mindreading or mentalising. They are skilled at interpreting the intentions and emotional states of those they interact with; this ability is known as affect matching. Empathic individuals also exhibit motivation – a desire to assist someone, in distress or acknowledge their success (Lieberman, 2013).
It’s worth noting that people who have social intelligence or a complete lack of empathy often show a lack of conscience and an inability to feel shame or remorse. They don’t have boundaries except when it comes to self preservation. The absence of a conscience is a characteristic that sets these individuals apart and plays a role, in understanding different forms of cruelty (Baron Cohen, 2011). It’s important to highlight that this lack of conscience or below average intelligence is a major factor behind workplace mistreatment and holds more relevance than other factors like general intelligence, race or gender (Stout, 2005). It is estimated that approximately one, in every 25 individuals falls into the category of having zero empathy (Stout, 2005).
The lack of a conscience, which is sometimes referred to as sociopathy or psychopathy helps us understand the nature of employees who engage in behaviours with the intent to cause severe harm (Babiak & Hare 2006). People, with no pleasure from others suffering a concept known as schadenfreude. They struggle to process emotions unless they approach them from an intellectual standpoint. Although brain scans may not directly identify individuals with no empathy the concept helps us acknowledge the presence of employees who thrive on causing distress.
At one end of the social intelligence spectrum are individuals with zero intelligence who find satisfaction in harming their colleagues. At the end of this spectrum are those highly sensitive to others mental and emotional states. Employees with no empathy usually divide their colleagues into four groups; (1) productive individuals, (2) those who can be coerced into participating in mistreatment towards targeted -colleagues, (3) individuals who enjoy gossiping about co-workers and (4) those who are inconsequential, to their plans.
Typically individuals who are targeted for mistreatment are those who stand out as competent, respected, intelligent, popular or attractive (Stout, 2005). These employees become victims of what Stout refers to as ” vengeance” because they pose a threat, to individuals who lack empathy. Usually competent employees who are targeted for abuse have social status within their groups. They are well liked people who genuinely care about the well being of others when they themselves are in distress. It is precisely their empathy and competence that make them targets for individuals lacking empathy. These individuals seek to create distress for the employees diminish their status and establish conditions that may eventually lead them to leave the workplace.
The people involved in these situations often form a group around leaders lacking empathy. These leaders tend to surround themselves with employees who either feel insecure about their positions or lack a conscience themselves (McGregor & McGregor 2013; Stout, 2005). The phenomenon known as “mobbing ” described in literature occurs when multiple participants join forces to mistreat a colleague (Davenport et al. 1999; Duffy & Sperry 2012). In cases of abuse dynamics (Babiak & Hare 2006) these participants can be organised and directed by a leader. They tend to be individuals who follow the leader out of fear due to their lack of self confidence and aversion, towards conflict.
New employees or individuals who are not well suited for their roles often become targets, for mistreatment. In situations where employees face evaluations they may join the mistreatment as a way to seek protection from the person in charge believing that this individual has control over the workplace and fearing that they themselves might become targets (Maarit & Vartia 2001; Namie & Lutgen Sandvik 2010). Some participants in this mistreatment may hold grudges feel jealous, angry or disappointed which further fuels their willingness to engage in behaviour. They are attracted to a lifestyle where employees lacking empathy provide them with protection and a sense of security.
People are naturally sensitive to how they fit into a group and this significantly influences their behaviour (Wohlforth, 2009). Leaders with no empathy exploit this sensitivity to cause distress. Those who’re targeted experience increased stress when they lose friends experience a drop in status and can no longer demonstrate their skills and competence at work. This workplace stress not affects the employee but also raises stress levels among other employees who witness the mistreatment. This has consequences, on job satisfaction and work quality (Namie & Namie 2009).
When inexperienced employees become part of a group that operates like a mafia their work often suffers more due, to the influence of leaders who lack empathy. These leaders feel no need to encourage improvement, which ultimately leads to a decline in the quality of work for the employee. The negative effects of mobbing can also push the targeted employee into a state of depression. The zero empathy leaders assert their dominance by diminishing the standing of competent and respected employees. As these valuable employees are driven away from the organisation due to mistreatment it reinforces the perception that the mob leaders have control.
One effective form of abuse involves initiating a whisper campaign against the employee surpassing traditional bullying in terms of its detrimental impact. Employees lacking empathy actively seek out. Nurture co-workers who eagerly participate in spreading rumours and gossip. They carefully observe how other employees respond to this gossip and recruit those who listen or contribute as participants in their campaign against the individual. This whisper campaign is relentless with abusers taking pleasure in perpetuating it whenever they find an audience to engage. Similar, to how advertising saturates our minds this campaign gradually influences employees perception of the individual sometimes on an unconscious level. Victims may not even realise that their reputation has been tarnished (Babiak & Hare 2006).
This malicious campaign generates its content through two methods. Initiating comment fishing involves starting conversations, with an employee and mentioning the name of another colleague. The employee with a lack of empathy then proceeds to make disparaging remarks about that colleague with the hope of provoking comments from the employee. In response the targeted employee may react mildly. Show agreement on a topic. The person initiating this behaviour then informs the mentioned colleague about these comments potentially exaggerating them. Other effective techniques include labelling the targeted employee with names based on their appearance or behaviour implying shortcomings or a lack of alignment with values. Those lacking empathy often test these labels to see who embraces them enthusiastically (as cited in Babiak & Hare 2006).
Consequences for targeted employees
Employees who are targeted in this manner are characterised by their levels of empathy and sensitivity towards how others perceive them. Consequently they become particularly vulnerable to the distress caused by mobbing (as discussed by Namie & Namie 2009). They may internalise this distress as a reflection of weakness when it is actually a result of increased cortisol levels due to prolonged stress. Striving to maintain high performance standards they may view their reaction, as excessive which can lead to self confidence.
This interpretation worsens their distress. They try to demonstrate to the members of the mob that they don’t see themselves as superior or intend to cause harm thereby unintentionally supporting the harmful plan of the abusers.
As the abuse continues employees who are targeted may experience panic attacks, reduced abilities and, in cases overwhelming anxiety that leaves them emotionally paralysed and unable to carry out basic tasks (Namie & Namie 2009). The stress induced shift from thinking to memory patterns can impair problem solving skills (Sabrina, Marcel, & Wolf, 2005). Employees who are subjected to abuse and cannot leave their positions may witness a decline in their job performance. The leaders lack of empathy towards underperforming employees further contributes to a deterioration, in work quality. Fearful employees who worry about becoming the target suffer from levels of stress that negatively impact job satisfaction and work performance (Emdad et al., 2012). Moreover such deteriorating working conditions can lead to health problems as prolonged exposure to abuse increases the risk of heart disease and other health issues.
The devastating consequences extend beyond the workplace. Affect the families of targeted employees. The aftermath of abuse can have a lasting impact, on individuals leading some to seek therapy before re-entering the job market. It is crucial for the psychiatric community to play an role in addressing this issue considering the psychological harm it inflicts (Kemp, 2014). It’s worth noting that supervisors often struggle to recognise abuse due to its nature, which often goes unnoticed (Babiak & Hare 2006).
Those who experience mobbing at work are also at risk of developing depression, which can leave them paralysed. The employees thoughts are consumed by their tormentors and former friends due to the brains default network intensifying their distress (Lieberman, 2013). In time they may start experiencing panic attacks that become noticeable to others. These visible signs of distress serve as a source of satisfaction for individuals lacking empathy.
In conclusion workplace abuse is an issue with reaching consequences for targeted individuals as well, as organisations and their clients or customers. Understanding how social intelligence and empathy play into this dynamic offers insights. It can also guide efforts to prevent and address such harmful behaviour. Ultimately promoting more work environments becomes possible through this knowledge. Learn more with additional articles in our blog section, or contact our team for a tailored training session to suit your team leaders and managers.
David Alssema is a Body Language Expert and Motivational Speaker. As a performer in the personal development industry in Australia he has introduced and created new ways to inspire, motivate and develop individuals.
David Alssema started his training career with companies such as Telstra and Optus Communications, and then developed Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) within workplace training as principal of Paramount Training & Development.
As an author/media consultant on body language and professional development David has influenced workplaces across Australia. He contributes to Media such as The West Australian, ABC Radio, Australian Magazines and other Australia Media Sources.