To abuse someone verbally is to treat him or her with cruelty, especially regularly or repeatedly. Verbal abuse in the workplace is a special case, though, because most employers have policies banning such behavior, and many even prescribe punitive or disciplinary action. So at work, verbal abusers often undertake their abusive acts at times, in settings, and with tones that afford them safety from organizational discipline. Executed in this way, verbal abuse is actually a kind of covert bullying. Abusers generally choose from three common approaches.
- Abuse conducted in private is more readily denied than abuse conducted before witnesses. Private settings are more common than one might at first believe. Beyond the closed-door office, there are otherwise-empty hallways, elevators, rest rooms, stairwells, the grounds around the building, and telephone conversations. And the privacy needed by abusers isn't the airtight one-on-one kind. All that's required is that there be no witnesses who are fellow employees. By this standard, restaurants, airline flights, and public spaces of all kinds can suffice.
- Abusers who depend on privacy for safety sometimes forget that the same privacy also affords safety to the person abused — the target — if the target chooses to respond forcefully. This safety is useful for protecting targets who choose responses that witnesses might regard as unnecessarily harsh or insubordinate, even though the target might regard the response as appropriate and necessary.
- Some abusers are content with protection against disciplinary action. That is, they feel comfortable engaging in abuse so long as they're certain that there will be no disciplinary action. A typical scenario: the supervisor abusing a subordinate in an emergency meeting called to deal with a product recall or data breach. In such situations, there is an organizational tendency to place mission over manners and legalities.
- If the abuser's perception of protection from disciplinary action is accurate, organizational policy isn't relevant, and the target is in real danger. In such circumstances, appeals to Human Resources — rarely of much use to targets in any case — are almost certainly dangerous to the target. Voluntary termination or transfer is more likely to afford protection for the target. Transferring to the domain of someone more powerful than the abuser or the abuser's protector is an especially attractive option for targets.
- If the actions Verbal abusers often undertake their
abusive acts at times, in settings,
and with tones that afford them
safety from organizational disciplineof the abuser are at all ambiguous, then if questioned, the abuser can deny that any abusive behavior took place. That is, the abuser can assert that no abuse was intended and that the target is being "overly sensitive," or that the abuser was "only joking and <the target> took it the wrong way." In espionage and politics, this ambiguity strategy is called "plausible deniability."
- Targets must examine carefully the tone and wording of the abuser's attack. If the attack can plausibly be interpreted as inoffensive by someone who's unfamiliar with the context of the relationship between the abuser and the target, the ambiguity strategy might be in effect. This is especially likely if fully grasping the intensity of the offense in the current attack requires special information about past attacks.
Knowing why the abuser considers himself or herself safe enough to engage in abuse is helpful to targets as they formulate powerful responses. We'll look at responses next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
Are you being targeted by a workplace bully? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Hurtful Clichés: I
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- On Being the Canary
- Nobody else seems to be concerned about what's going on. You are. Should you raise the issue? What are
the risks? What are the risks of not raising the issue?
- When the Chair Is a Bully: I
- Most meetings have Chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the Chair "owns"
the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some Chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This
view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both
enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps
to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
- Look Where You Aren't Looking
- Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can
also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve
our ability to prepare for adverse events?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.