As an employer, it’s natural to want your workplace to be safe and supportive. Not only is it better for business, but it’s better for your employees’ mental health and happiness, too. Most companies recognize that duty of care. And have policies and training in place to manage negative behaviors or attitudes (such as bullying, harassment, aggression, and discrimination) that threaten that equilibrium.
But, some toxic workplace dynamics can still thrive undetected—despite your best intentions.
Known as “corporate Stockholm syndrome”, there are employees who keep quiet about abuse and exploitation in the workplace. And even defend colleagues’ threatening and harmful behavior. So, what steps can you, as an employer, take to prevent this from happening? Or, identify and address a toxic case of corporate Stockholm syndrome that’s gone undetected.
Let’s take a look.
What is the corporate Stockholm syndrome?
Understanding what Stockholm syndrome is, why it exists, and how it might manifest itself in the workplace, is the first step to preventing it from becoming “a thing” in your organization. So, before we leap ahead to solutions, first some background.
Stockholm syndrome isn’t new. But it was formally recognized in the early 1970s after a hostage incident that took place in Stockholm. Held captive for a week by a bank robber, the four prisoners, who were threatened and terrorized by their captor, ended up defending him at his trial and even paying for his lawyer. Seemingly irrational on the surface, the feelings of loyalty (even love) experienced by the victims towards their abuser stem from fear, threat, and a gut instinct to survive.
But how does this translate to the workplace? What toxic behaviors exist and why do employees accept and even welcome abusive behavior at work?
Well, when it comes to toxic behaviors these could take the form of a damaging drip-feed of “smaller” slights—verbal abuse, belittling comments, and unreasonable demands and tasks. Or, more forceful and overtly threatening conduct, such as excessive control, coercion, oppression, intimidation, bullying, and harassment.
And there are a number of reasons your employees may hesitate to speak up. Or even defend and form a strong attachment to their abusive colleague.
Survival is a big factor. For most employees, work fuels their existence. And the fear of job loss, being passed over for promotions and bonuses, or the threat of bad performance reviews all represent tangible threats to an employee’s livelihood that could trigger corporate Stockholm syndrome.
Then, there’s mental health. Some of your employees may have been in abusive or controlling relationships before, either at work or in their personal lives. Experiencing this trauma again could spark familiar feelings of self-doubt, blame, and worthlessness and result in a pattern of behavior that typifies Stockholm syndrome.
Feelings of hopelessness are also linked to Stockholm syndrome in the workplace. Often (not always) the abuser is higher up the corporate hierarchy. And this disparity in status can make employees feel powerless and vulnerable. So, rather than challenging and reporting their abuse, they find a way to justify (and live with) it.
Combating corporate Stockholm syndrome: The role of employers
Abuse thrives in silence. And when that abuse takes place at a workplace, breaking that silence rarely happens unless the right culture’s in place. If an employee believes that their concerns won’t be listened to or taken seriously, they simply won’t talk.
After all, they risk losing everything—their job, career, health benefits, and financial stability as well as their emotional resilience. Not only that but their abuser has already got them emotionally dependent too. Which is why it’s so important for employers to:
- Become informed and educated about corporate Stockholm syndrome
- Look out for (and train others to recognize) the signs of Stockholm syndrome, a toxic workplace, and workplace abuse in general
- Create a safe, supportive, and understanding environment and culture that encourages everyone (whatever their status or position) to open up about anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
But what does that look like in practice? Simply saying that you care about employee wellbeing or delivering a generic course on the topic won’t be enough. You can show your commitment and make a tangible difference by doing the following:
Introduce and promote strict policies to prevent bullying, abuse, and other unaccepted behaviors. These policies should clearly define how employees can report incidents:
- who they can go to
- what steps will be followed
- how investigations will be carried out
- what support is available
At the same time, be open (and consistent) about the behaviors you want to see in the workplace. Set a good example by publicly recognizing and rewarding behaviors like teamwork, respect, and empathy. When you show that you stick to your values, you encourage more and more people to act upon them—and reject behaviors that don’t fit in.
Educate your people
To be able to report abusive behavior, you need to know what constitutes abusive behavior. Often, terms like harassment or mobbing create confusion. But you need to make sure that they mean the same thing to everyone in your company. And that will happen with proper training.
Offer targeted courses on topics around workplace harassment and toxic behaviors at work. This way, people will be able to identify such behaviors—without worrying that maybe “they’re exaggerating” or “misunderstood something.”
Then, move on from the theoretical part to more practical advice. For example, you can run an internal comms campaign that highlights the issue of corporate Stockholm syndrome. As part of this, use fictional (or real life, if you can get them) case studies to illustrate how it might manifest itself and how victims can find a way out. These stories will help employees who might be experiencing Stockholm syndrome in the workplace recognize the signs, apply them to their own situation, and gain the confidence to challenge them.
Whether you’ve noticed some toxic behaviors in your workplace or you simply want to be proactive, taking measures to help your people is essential.
First, give people the tools to identify and address (or even prevent in the first place) abusive behaviors. These tools could be courses and workshops on resilience, emotional intelligence, and being brave.
You could also expand your benefits package to include mental health and psychological support as and when they might need it. This goes for people who have exhibited toxic behaviors, too. For serious offends, like harassment, you need to take drastic measures. But, if they’re occasionally being rude, for example, you could dig deeper and find a solution. In some cases, employees who exhibit toxic behaviors have been abused in the past and need help to overcome this.
Prevention is better than cure
Any employer who takes the duty of care they have towards their employees seriously should take steps to understand and identify signs of Stockholm syndrome in the workplace. But that’s just the start.
Once you’ve spotted those signs, the process that follows is undeniably tough—for everyone, but particularly the victims. Investigating and addressing the issues and then attempting to resolve the situation is complex, emotionally draining for all involved, and a diversion (albeit an essential and unavoidable one) from “business as usual”.
Which is why the best tactic is to stop those bullying behaviors before they start. Easier said than done, yes. Particularly if you’re running a larger organization. But worth aspiring to.
Tips? Carry out due diligence when hiring by looking at cultural fit and testing out behaviors and attitudes. Make sure your training program is robust and supports your values and behaviors. And then reinforce these through internal communications campaigns and performance management objectives.
You might not eliminate toxic behaviors entirely from the off, but you’ll be on the right (and only) path.
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