Why do we like our bully boss?
Posted Apr 18, 2015
My father Hans Winter spent his childhood as a Jewish kid in pre-Nazi Germany and ran for his life to Palestine a year after Hitler took power. Until his last day the word "Nazi" was synonymous with ultimate evil, but when asked about his school teachers during this period he would be overcome with nostalgia and romanticism. When pressed, he would admit that most of his teachers supported the Nazi party and would even describe the parades they organized and the Nazi songs he was forced to sing along with the rest of the class – even before Hitler took power. When noticing my astonishment he often argued: "Yes, they were Nazis, but they treated me well." My father was not comfortable talking about it and he felt quite embarrassed as he wiped the small tear that ran slowly down his cheek. I believe he was affected by what I call the "Stockholm bias," a mild version of the better-known Stockholm syndrome.
On August 23, 1973, a group of burglars entered and commandeered a Kreditbanken bank branch in Norrmalmstorg Square in Stockholm, Sweden. Over the next five days, several bank employees were held hostage in a vault by the burglars, who eventually surrendered to the authorities. What happened next was a very peculiar phenomenon. Most of the bank employees who underwent the nightmare of captivity expressed support and sympathy for the hostage takers in press interviews. Some even offered to serve as character witnesses in their defense during the subsequent trial. The event prompted psychologists and psychiatrists to identify a new psychological phenomenon termed “Stockholm syndrome.”
The Stockholm syndrome is an excellent example of “rational emotions.” A hostage who develops empathy for his hostage taker substantially increases the chances that he'll survive the ordeal. A genuine empathy is safer and more effective than a fabricated one, but it may persist even after the hostage has been released. The “Stockholm bias” is a mild version of the syndrome, and most of us experience it on an almost daily basis. Its most prominent occurrence is in the workplace, where we interact with peers, bosses, and subordinates. When the balance of power is especially unfavorable for us, our emotional mechanism cooperates with our cognitive mechanism to moderate our feelings of insult and anger. This is again a rational behavior, which in proper measure can reduce damageable friction. In extreme situations, however – as in the case of battered women – that same behavioral pattern can be extremely detrimental to us. Our emotional mechanism also exaggerates the extent to which we feel gratitude towards figures of authority in return for making small and insignificant positive gestures. This can lead us to attach too much importance to such gestures and to develop unsubstantiated trust in the kindness and decency of the authority figure – precisely as happened to my dad vis-à-vis his Nazi teachers. The success of the good cop/bad cop tactic of interrogating police suspects builds precisely on the same human weakness: after the bad cop has played his part and failed to elicit a confession, the good cop suddenly appears, like an angel who has the suspect’s best interests at heart, offering coffee or cigarettes. The most likely circumstance to elicit the Stockholm bias is our relationship with our boss. The benign effect of this bias is, say, the fact that a joke told by our boss in a relaxed meeting generates more laughter than a similar joke told by our peer. But the bias can easily be harmful. A disillusion about our relationship with the boss can take its toll later down the road when reality forces itself into our consciousness in the form of a denied promotion or a denied pay raise. Overlooking an offensive behavior by our boss may encourage such behavior in the future, damage our status vis-à-vis our peers, and might have a major effect on our mental health. Heinz Leymann, a pioneer Swedish researcher on workplace bullying, estimated in 1992 that one out of seven adult suicides in Sweden were a result of workplace bullying. In the 2014 survey of the Workplace Bullying Institute based on 1000 US employees 72% of the workers reported witnessing workplace bullying. 27% were personally and directly affected by bullying (mostly by their bosses). But the most interesting and alarming finding of this survey provide a clear indication for the Stockholm bias: 72% of those questioned deny, discount, encourage, rationalize or defend bullying at the workplace.
Can we protect ourselves from the Stockholm bias? The first question here should be whether we necessarily should. If we like our boss in spite of him or her failing to reciprocate with a similar sympathy and we wish to avoid conflict, then the Stockholm bias can be a blessing. The only alternative to avoiding a conflict might be letting insult and anger eat at us from the inside. But wanting to avoid even a mild conflict at all costs is a rare and extreme scenario. In most cases when we experience the Stockholm bias we would be better off correcting it towards reality and deal with it. Several detection strategies present themselves to this effect.
(1) Get some help from peers. They would be able to offer a more objective and unbiased assessment of the boss's behavior and of the overall relationship. Even when your peer has not been witnessing your discussions with the boss, a brief description together with his/her acquaintance with the parties involved will allow your peer to interpret the interaction more realistically than you can.
(2) If you work in a hierarchical organization and have a boss, you are also likely to have a subordinate who might be Stockholm-biased vis-à-vis you. If you realize (often in retrospect) that you have displayed an offensive behavior towards your subordinate, this may be an indication of a "bully ball" that rolls down the rungs of the hierarchical ladder causing each worker who is frustrated about his/her boss's bullying to adopt a similar behavior towards his/her subordinate.
(3) Often our own behavior provides us with indications for things we aren't aware of. If you feel miserable on Sunday evenings thinking about your work week, or if you try to avoid seeing your boss, don't immediately conclude that something is wrong with you.
The Stockholm bias is one of many situations where our rationality shapes our emotional state. But often when emotions take over we tend to leave rationality behind. To avoid the grim consequences of this bias we ought to make sure that our rational brain and our emotional one always walk hand in hand.
This article on mine appeared in Forbes in April 8, 2015