This article originally featured in Entrepreneur under the title 6 Ways to Cope With, or Maybe Escape, Corporate Stockholm Syndrome.. It also appeared in Seattle News.
The workplace is full of incidents where people are terrorized by their boss but kowtow to them and even justify and defend their dissonant behavior. Psychology Today and others view this form of workplace hostage-taking through the lens of the Stockholm Syndrome (sometimes called Corporate Stockholm Syndrome).
The Stockholm Syndrome is named after a hostage-taking incident that took place in Norrmalmstorg Square, Stockholm on Aug., 23, 1973 where an attempted robbery at Kreditbanken resulted in four people being held hostage for six days. The striking feature of this crisis was how the hostages started to bond with their captors; showing sympathy, empathy and even sexual attraction toward them. An extreme example of this occurred in the recent hijacking of an EgyptAir flight, where British hostage Ben Ines posed for a selfie next to a sedate looking hijacker Seif Eldin Mustafa who had a fake suicide belt strapped to his waist.
I have personal experience of Corporate Stockholm Syndrome. I was working for an international corporation where my recruiter was my boss and my main champion and support. After three years in the department, I felt it was time for a change and I started signaling that I was ready for my next internal move. My boss did not take kindly to this and a hostage situation developed as my boss banned me from looking for other internal roles, isolated me from senior management, micromanaged my performance as a way of asserting control, openly discredited me in front of colleagues and threatened to kill my future career if I showed disobedience. My response was to try to appease and accommodate my hostage-taker.
Effectively, I was being infantilized by my boss. In an interview with Frank Ochberg, who helped define the nomenclature Stockholm syndrome, he theorizes what he terms the infantilization of the hostages where the captor controls every aspect of the captive’s existence during a crisis from permission to use the toilet to the distribution of food and water and decisions concerning death and punishment. This relates back to the workplace. Bosses who hold their staff hostage are infantilizing them — they are controlling every aspect of their work. This can be advantageous when you are new to a role and need your hand held but it can go dreadfully wrong if you displease the boss or want to break away from the parental nest — it can trigger a hostage crisis where the boss seizes, isolates, monitors and brings the infant back to a state of dependency and parental control.
Of course, there is a world of difference between being held captive in the workplace and being held captive in a real-life hostage scenario — your boss is not literally heisting you on the second floor photocopying room threatening to kill you. In the workplace, we oftentimes hold the gun to our own heads — we allow ourselves to be infantilised, manipulated and threatened and we fail to acknowledge the choices we have. Victor Frankl talks of the “last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” There are a number of choices open to us when we are held hostage in the workplace:
1. Sit it out.
Choosing to do nothing and hoping to outlast it is an option. The problem with following this strategy is that you could be seen to be colluding with the hostage-taker which could reinforce and prolong the dissonant behavior.
2. Get on their good side.
This is classic Stockholm Syndrome territory. Accommodating, sympathizing and seeking to understand your abductor will validate their controlling behavior and you will spend your entire assignment in a reinforcing loop: seeking approval from the parent boss who is infantalizing you by controlling every aspect of your working day.
3. Enlist the help of others.
The thing about controlling bosses is that they intentionally isolate you from others; they want to manage everything about you, including your reputation. It is important to understand the political dimension of what is happening to you and build powerful allies and mentors. Michael Chang Wenderoth considers the importance of managing politics through network and alliances in his recent article. Be aware, your abductor will seek to block any alliance building.
4. Talk them out of it.
One of the lasting regrets of people held hostage by their boss is the fact that they never spoke up. This regret can last many years. An effective strategy is to schedule a private meeting and have an adult-adult conversation, an honest dialogue with the boss detailing their behavior and the impact it is having on you. Directly naming the observable behavior and its impact is high risk but can lead to a cessation of hostilities.
5. Fight back.
You can always make a formal complaint to senior management or the HR representative. In large organizations, the hierarchy tends to side with the supervisor so invest time in looking into the organizational track record of dealing with such complaints. There is always the option for formal legal proceedings if things cannot be resolved to your satisfaction but that should always be a last resort.
6. Walk away.
Remember that nobody is holding a gun to your head. You always have the choice to resign, but do this after careful thought and planning and always have an exit strategy. The key is to maintain a dignified and professional attitude.
Being held hostage by your boss is not a pleasant experience and many accommodate and even defend the abuse a la Corporate Stockholm Syndrome. It´s important to remember that there are always alternative choices such as negotiation, retaliation or resignation. Such strategies, though not without risk, can lead to an early release.
by Ric Kelly PhD.