January 1st, 2013

False equivalence and workplace bullying

We just finished a general election with more lying by candidates than usual. The news media did not brand them liars. Instead, they treated all candidates as if they were equivalent, even if one side uses facts. This is implying an equivalence that is not real; it is false.

A similar tactic is when one person whose opinion denies climate change (backed by 24 published articles) is shown on TV split screen during an interview with one person discussing the science of climate change (backed by 13,950 published articles). Just appearing side-by-side implies that the two “experts” are equivalent. But only one side is backed by facts and evidence. Treating opinions and facts as equal defines false equivalence.

And so it is with workplace bullying, a phenomenon characterized by an imbalance of real, effective power at work, leaving one person much less powerful than the other. By the time the targeted person realizes what has happened, she or he is severely compromised.

First, employers, primarily through their HR reps, impose a false equivalence on bullied targets when they mandate mediation as a solution to bullying. Mediation assumes two parties with relatively equal power. The condition is not met. Mediation further shames, humiliates and disempowers targets. Bullies emerge stronger than ever. And the more sadistic among them get the additional thrill of watching the well-intentioned mediator (if the professional is external to the org), act as an unwitting accomplice for the bully.

Also, business writers, biz school professors and other apologists for bullies who know little to nothing about the experience of being a target also promote a false equivalence. They do this by suggesting that “there are two sides to the story.” That is true, but the implicit assumption is that “and the two sides are equally fact-based.”

The reality is that bullying, as we at WBI define it, is indefensible. The “justifications” for it include distorted perceptions — the target asked for it, the abusive mistreatment was merely correction of performance deficits by a fair manager, and worst of all, if the behavior was unwanted, the target should have simply told the aggressor to stop. Bullies and their apologists have opinions, all designed to retain organizational power for abusers.

Targets typically have the facts. They document the unsolicited assaults. Witnesses see the incidents, too. Unfortunately, witnesses are paralyzed with fear that they will next be targeted so they remain silent and do little to intervene. (See the WBI study about witness behaviors.) The facts are known by those cowed into silence by the phenomenon.

If targets enjoyed a real equivalence with their bullies, targets’ accounts of their horror would be treated as credible as are the bullies’ versions of reality. In fact, targets are not believed. They are denigrated as “disgruntled,” “emotional,” or “hypersensitive.” Employers don’t want to hear that bullies, frequently seen as indispensable by their executive “sponsors,” are actually cruel, divisive, destructive and a source of preventable financial losses.

Finally, bullies and targets are not equivalent from the perspective on both having equally important needs and interests. At WBI, we constantly draw the analogy between domestic violence and abusive, violent interpersonal misconduct at work (a.k.a. workplace bullying). What are the needs of abuser? To express his or her violence frequently without constraint. Needs of the abused? To live free from violence and the constant threat of inflicted violence.

Let’s extrapolate. What are the needs of workplace bullies? To be able to free manipulate the psychological safety and security without risk of being held accountable or suffering punishment. Done and accomplished.

What are the needs of bullied targets? To be left alone to do the job they were hired to do. To work free from fear and the risk of humiliation. Not even close to being accomplished in America.

So, the two sides of the story, as lived and perceived by the two primary actors in workplace bullying situations, are not close to being the same. No matter how you score equivalency, bullies and targets are unequal.

To say otherwise is to draw a false equivalence. Maybe when workplace bullying has been addressed by state laws and employers are compelled to stop treating it lightly as if bullying is a reflection only of personality quirks, targets will approach equality with their perpetrators.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 1st, 2013 at 1:50 pm and is filed under Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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