The Modern Time Crunch

Finding peace in this whirlwind world.

Corporate Stockholm Syndrome

The phenomenon of “Corporate Stockholm Syndrome” is real, and is being seen more and more in the modern American workplace. But what is it, exactly? Read More

An answer to my question

I recently viewed a documentary (streamed, from either PBS or BBC) about Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Among the situations covered: Working for a boss with NPD. One employee spoke about a boss’ M.O. of tearing down a person, then building him back up; he said he was the current target. Another spoke of sitting, for long periods, in her car, dreading going into work. Yet another mentioned thoughts of suicide. However, none of the (several) people interviewed said anything about quitting . . . which would be my first instinct. Why on earth would they stay? I wondered.

Watching, I attributed their reluctance to leave to: Attachment to a particular job, within a particular organization. As you mention, I also thought of loyalty, a trait oft perceived as admirable. To me, loyalty implies: I’m doing something contrary to my best interest, out of some enmeshment with a person, place, or thing.

RE best interest: I don’t mean hedonism. It can be perfectly within one’s best interest to provide for a child, ailing parent, troubled sibling or friend . . . as well as performing to one’s utmost in the workplace. I do mean: Once any of the aforementioned becomes destructive . . . especially, willfully so . . . to a caretaker or worker’s own well-being, then a commitment needs to be reevaluated.

To my question of “Why stay?” perhaps Stockholm Syndrome provides an answer.

I've seen some pretty strange behavior

I once had a boss that after a couple of years working for him I realized that he was highly dysfunctional controlling, and most likely sexually abusing his own daughter. There was another employee that had worked for him for 30 years, a woman who followed him from company to different company, and even relocated several hundred miles to continue working for the man when he moved. This employee adored the boss and worked diligently to protect him and justify all his crazy dysfunctional and illegal behavior.

I did the right thing and quit, and so did most of the other employees once they got wise to what was going on. But not that one woman, she would have followed that boss off a cliff.

I thought that was normal corporate practice

Geesh, I've worked in the legal sector for over 25 years, and this sort of practice and behavior was pretty much the norm everywhere I ever worked. I never could get into that game, and was usually considered anywhere from a permanent outsider to a downright troublemaker, just for not buying into it.

This pattern is also the reason I preferred working freelance and temp instead of committing to regular employment. For some reason, if the company doesn't perceive that it owns you, you will be treated much, much better. Even if I was at a place for several years, if I remained in the temp/freelancer category, I was treated entirely different than regular staff doing the same job. In essence, I was allowed to skip on the brown-nosing and buying into accepting abuse etc. No one ever even tried those tactics with me as a temp/freelancer. Oh wait, I take that back; once one young associate did try. All I had to do was to inform the manager that the associate was causing problems, and I was promptly switched to a different team.

Companies know that an unhappy temp/freelancer will just go work somewhere else, because obviously that person is comfortable being freelance. People who are regular employees usually are not comfortable with that, and won't want to quit their jobs even if they are mistreated.

While I agree it is definitely true that companies and employees often fall into this syndrome, I think in fairness it should be acknowledged that many employees just assume that the grass won't be greener on the other side of any job fence, so they figure, why not just stay here, increasing vacation time and benefits? It's not like only a few companies engage in these kinds of practices; it is rampant in corporate culture.

I think this is happening to me!

This article described the precise situation I am in. I finally decided to put in my notice and I've spent the entire weekend hemming and hawing over whether I'm making the right decision. But I can't take the roller coaster anymore and if I stay, I will probably be fired or I will be hospitalized because I've had a mental break. Work-induced depression and anxiety have been a daily struggle for months and I stayed. I let my boss tear me down and make me feel like she's doing me a favor by being willing to work with me and provide additional training. I have never ever had any performance issues until I started working for her and now I'm quitting. All my friends and family told me to find another job, but no, there was so much work to do and I didn't feel right leaving her to do it alone. I passed up applying for a great internal position because of a huge project we were working on. Now I have nothing to show for it except a deteriorated relationship with my boss and the desire to run as far away as I can. It's amazing how much abuse a person will put up with.

Ok - we've defined the problem, what's the solution?

Yes, I know it isn't that easy. : )

I was a 'survivor' of such a situation. I was in IT contracted to a major 100,000 seat global sub-business of a 600,000 seat corporation. After 7 years, I was signing emails with 4 full time job titles including Exchange Administrator and IT Architect. With no raises since the 2008 debacle and management threats if I claimed to work more than 40 hours per week, regardless of the reality of global job responsibilities (still a contractor, never an employee!). I only left after my heath literally collapsed with an antibiotic-resistant, highly-infectious superbug eating a hole in my face. I spent several months effectively in quarantine before it was removed surgically. I was laid off as soon as it was legal to do so afterwards, and have spent the last year rebuilding my life. So far, I've managed to drop 2 of the 4 prescriptions and 50 of the 150lbs I'd acquired while having my life eaten away at a 24x7x365 global business: a more deadly, life-consuming threat than any measly flesh-eating microbe.

Looking back at my experience, I practically loathe myself for the >strategic< mistakes I made: the daily stress of management bullying, how terrified I was of losing a job that was grinding me to a back-bone-less blob, and the pressure of the 'whatever it takes' philosophy tucked in the doublespeak of every internal communication. Well, it took my health, most of my 30's, and pretty much all of my previous and current relationships. My earlier friends lost me to work, and the friends I made through work 'don't have the time', since I'm not 'part of the team' anymore. The personal injury is - glossing over it lightly - horrific. The professional-persona damage still shows clearly when I interview, and I make no bones about it whatsoever. I calmly inform interviewers that they will get the whole of my very skilled attention while working, but that I do have a life outside of work. The parts of me that are still bleeding inside rejoice to see the prospective bosses frown and turn up their noses at that comment; knowing that with that attitude, if I did accept the job, I'd be as exploited and abused as I was before - and never will be again. The rest of me wonders if there are any employers who still respect their employees mythical work-life balance.

In the near future, I can easily envision some hypothetical California court assigning megabucks in damage for some lucky, vindictive, and extremely-well-documented ex-employee. When that finally happens, I'll send the grandest bouquet I can mange to that plaintiff, and a better one to the lawyer! : )

Here's the question: What resources are available to employees currently in one of these corporate cultures? Who protects them? Who will advocate for them? What can an employee reasonably do to manage their own circumstances without risking the destruction of their professional life? How can a third party - spouse, family or friend - support such a person? Realistically, every such study I'm aware of (with adequate anonymity) has indicated that the most abusive management rate themselves wonderfully, while good management regularly underrate themselves; so the worst cultures are unlikely to ever acknowledge their behavior and are certain to retaliate.

How should an abused employee >realistically< handle a Stockholm syndrome corporate culture?

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Former journalist James Ullrich is a psychotherapist in Seattle.

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