One phenomenon I’ve observed is that the workplace creates precisely the right type of circumstances for individuals to get all of their old feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy triggered. Some individuals in these circumstances lash out and become aggressive as a tactic for trying to restore their worth. Whereas workplace violence is a significant problem, physical attacks are much less frequent than relational aggression: gossiping, intimidation, demeaning. When we consider how commonplace these behaviors are in organizations, and how they impact both the victim and the organization as a whole, we can begin to understand the nature of this problem, and how they really are the adult link to playground bullying behaviors among children.
Consider the following: Cassandra came from a lower income background, and while growing up, was frequently targeted as “the poor kid in school.” Although she performed well academically, she was not a high enough achiever to later earn college scholarships of substantial amounts, nor could her family could not afford to send her to college. Cassandra had to rely completely on student loans and worked two jobs to support herself through school. At times, she had to skip a semester when she ran out of money. With the themes of Otherness that she’d experienced as the poor kid during childhood continuing to present themselves in her college years, Cassandra came to resent people in her age group who came from more affluent backgrounds. This was particularly true when she identified that she was working harder than they.
This resentment carried through into her professional life, where she moved into middle management in her company. Her colleague, Cecille, whom Cassandra believed “came from money,” was in fact a very productive worker; however, if Cecille was ever delayed in an email response or missing some details in a report she furnished, Cassandra would immediately attribute these lapses to Cecille’s background of privilege. Cassandra would create gossip with other colleagues and even her subordinates about Cecille’s behavior, referencing “the princess on the 8th floor” in describing Cecille. Her communications to Cecille contained veiled aggression, couched in terms such as “If you can find it in your heart to send the report today, the rest of us would appreciate it.”
In truth, Cecille came from a middle class background and had worked hard, just as Cassandra had, to land her position in the company. In addition, Cecille had her own history of Otherness in addressing learning disabilities that sometimes did create additional challenges in proofreading and other tasks. Cassandra knew none of this about Cecille, and simply saw things through her own lens of Otherness in which Cecille was clearly exerting a level of privilege that Cassandra had never known. Cecille, meanwhile, found Cassandra intimidating and cruel, which created greater anxiety, and thus, more errors and delays when needing to furnish Cassandra with a report or office communication. As a result, she at times came to purposefully delay responding to Cassandra’s needs or ignore her requests all together.
When we consider the dynamics in this relationship, we see a very definite pattern emerge in which each person’s experiences in her past were very present in their current working relationship. In the next blog, I’ll talk about the impact that this dynamic has for each of these women in her professional life.
Stacee Reicherzer is a counselor, a faculty member at Walden University, and a private consultant with special interests that include: transgender issues in counseling, lateral (within-group) marginalization, and sexual abuse survival.