We are as we think
We’re told we are as we think.
Perception can have a dramatic impact on wellbeing but the reality is far more complex.
We are as we are treated
Mostly we believe we are as we are treated.
When we’re treated well, we presume that who we are and what we do is okay and can withstand a bit of ebb and flow.
But when we’re treated badly we worry that we caused it, deserve it or even worse – are fundamentally bad.
This is particularly true for those who are mistreated young and do not understand that adults are flawed.
Abusers know this intuitively and depend on it.
It’s ironic that an attack elicits shame in the person who experiences it rather than the perpetrator.
We have insights but no clear theory on why this happens.
It could be that victims bond with abusers as an act of self-preservation, or transfer difficult emotions.
- Who should carry the shame of abuse? The abuser.
- Who carries that shame in our society? The person who is harmed.
That must shift.
We are an extension of our environment
The environment shapes us.
Known and unknown, seen and unseen influences impact the way we behave.
This doesn’t absolve personal accountability. What we do is also a matter of choice and character. But culture matter hugely.
Zimbardo’s experiments showed ordinary people willing to hurt others if ordered to do so. He demonstrated the power of authority – perceived or real – to influence action. The power conferred by position is real.
It’s not an excuse, but an explanation. It doesn’t suggest we sit back and blame the environment, rather, that we actively contribute to changing it.
This is hard if an abuser is at the top of the tree establishing a culture, or when they are charged with enforcing it – or both.
Here the failure of leadership is a double whammy that exonerates everything from unpleasantness to criminal behaviour at the extreme end.
Culture at work
When Orica CEO Ian Smith was accused of bullying staff he was reported in The Australian Financial Review as saying “when I got up at the start of the week I knew I would end the week with a new head of IR. I would push her so hard she would give up or I would sack her.”
This was the boss.
Apparently his aggression was a known problem. Although criticised for being late to act, at least the Board acted. This is not always the case.
Compare this with an article in the same edition on GPT Group Chief Michael Cameron, advocating for equity.
He is quoted –
“It’s no use me saying to the ladies in the organisation or the senior men ‘I don’t mind you dropping the kids off at school each day. And by the way, we’ve got a meeting at 7.30am that you have to attend.’”
Both CEOs are under pressure to perform but creating very different environments. Who would you rather work for?
Once we tolerated and even reframed aggression as ‘hard-nosed’ or ‘can-do’.
This allowed people to intimidate or lash out and control others by shaming or blaming rather than dealing with personal demons.
Don’t waste time listening to reasons or offering insights on bad behaviour. Many bullies don’t want to deal with their issues and may enjoy keeping others on edge.
We shouldn’t put up with it.
At the extreme end the failure to deal with perpetrators creates significant social issues.
Let’s look at rape.
In some countries and under some circumstances, it’s not considered criminal.
But even when it is, it appears to be a crime in which the victim is somehow the criminal.
- When an armed robber breaks into a house and steals valuables do we attack the owner for making the robber break in? No.
- When a driver is wiped off the road by a drunken hoon do we turn on them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? No.
And yet when it comes to personal or sexual abuse the victim is seen as fully or partially responsible for what occurs.
Domestic violence abusers fore example will rationalise their actions – angry, stressed, s/he deserved it. This is rubbish.
It’s not simply poor impulse control. A man who throws his wife down the stairs does not and would not do that to their boss regardless of mood or provocation.
Most have control, most are aware of the consequences.
A person becomes fair game because an abuser can position it better – they might feel sanctioned socially – or shame their victim and so further entrench control. When it comes to understanding their motives, you cannot be too cynical.
Abusers distance themselves from accountability by demeaning any attempts to label and manage their bad behaviour.
“Oh you’re such a whinger, poor so and so,” they say (usually sarcastically) when people pull them up.
See this for what it is – a controlling strategy.
The last thing they want is for someone to clearly name what is going on.
Abusers blame and make us feel bad because it serves them, because it’s easier, because they like it, because they’ve been able to get away with it.
We don’t understand enough yet about how we are wired or how the environment impacts us.
We spend too much time reflecting on what we did wrong and not enough identifying the classic abuse strategies going on and putting accountability where it firmly belongs – on the perpetrator.
Once we do this, psychological and cultural factors will shift.