A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
October 3rd, 2013 by William

The Stockholm Syndrome

On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. The two robbers held four hostages for 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.

After their rescue, many of the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude toward their captors. Despite the fact they had been threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days, when interviewed it became clear that they showed support for their captors. Some even expressed they felt fear of the law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors. This surprising behavior on the part of the victims has come to be known as “The Stockholm Syndrome.”

The Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages ultimately will develop feelings of empathy and sympathy toward their captors. Studies show that in hostage situations roughly 27% of victims will show evidence of the Stockholm Syndrome.

The Stockholm Syndrome has also been described as “traumatic bonding.” The key here is that this “bonding” does not necessarily require a hostage scenario. Traumatic bonding is the development of “strong emotional ties between people where one person intermittently harasses, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.”

Along this same vein, another commonly used explanation for the Stockholm Syndrome phenomenon is based on Freudian theory. It suggests that the bonding between a victim and his/her captor is the individual’s response to the trauma of becoming a victim. They then begin to identify with the aggressor and believe the same values as the aggressor. According to Freud this is the way that the ego defends itself. In the mind of the victim the aggressor stops being a threat.

Of course this all sounds ridiculous when you think about it but the sad fact is that any of us who’ve been stuck in a dysfunctional job environment have probably experienced many of the feelings that victims of real hostage situations feel–we all exhibit some degree of the Stockholm Syndrome when we stay in a bad job environment.

Research has found that there are four situations or conditions present that serve as a foundation for the development of the Stockholm Syndrome. These four situations can be found in many abusive relationships and below I annotate them so as to show how they can relate to the workplace experience. They are:

  • The presence of a perceived threat to your physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat – does your workplace practice blamestorming? Do you dread going to meetings afraid that someone, including your boss, is going to throw you under the bus? Do you fear getting fired based on management’s constant hints to that effect? Do you and your colleagues feel like you’re walking on eggshells? Do you live in fear?
  • The presence of occasional kindness from the abuser – even sociopaths are nice to their victims once in a while−it’s part of the game they play−they build you up before they hammer you so as to intensify their satisfaction
  • Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser – are you brainwashed into thinking the organization is less dysfunctional than it really is−brainwashed into thinking that the “grass isn’t any greener on the other side of the fence”
  • The perceived inability to escape the situation – you have been belittled and beaten down so long you begin to lose all self-respect and begin to question your own abilities

If you’ve ever been in a “bad job” you recognize the above feelings. They are exactly the conditions faced when in a dysfunctional command and control work environment. There’s a level of psychological abuse, intermittent kindness on the part of the oppressive management, isolation from the outside world and a perceived feeling of being “stuck” in your current situation.

When the Stockholm Syndrome sets in what ends up happening is that we start rationalizing our predicament by telling ourselves “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” or that the situation is “character building.” We feel trapped in our job, we don’t think that there is any way of escape and we wish that we were working somewhere else−yet we don’t do anything to change our situation. We resort to making excuses for our inability to move on in our career by telling ourselves “it pays the bills,” “I don’t have time to look for a job,” or worse yet, we start believing we’re not worthy of a good job and “no one will hire us anyway.” So we just stick it out and by doing so aid and abet our captors just as the Stockholm Syndrome would predict.

And yet when the chance comes to do something else with our careers, we will be incapacitated with hesitation and second thoughts. We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling of being unappreciated, underpaid, or used and we all have phantasies that things will magically get better despite any clear evidence of that happening. We rationalize this “hopeless” feeling by convincing ourselves that the job market is a scary place and that perhaps a dream job is just that, a dream. On top of that, and just as the Stockholm Syndrome would predict, we begin to defend our dysfunctional employer when anyone questions why we stick it out in a bad workplace environment.

If you find yourself agreeing with anything in this article it’s time to rethink your job situation and break free of your captors. After all that’s exactly what dysfunctional management is–your captor.




2 Responses to “The Stockholm Syndrome”
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