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The Stockholm Syndrome in American Business Management - A Postal Scenario
I have never been held hostage at gunpoint. I was obviously not one of the Kreditbanken employees held prisoner in a Swedish bank vault in 1973 who later became strangely emotionally attached to their captors, leading to the coining of the phrase "Stockholm Syndrome" to describe this seemingly impossible phenomenon. But although the vast majority of us have never had our freedom restrained under the threat of violence and death, many of us have been held virtual prisoner in the workplace by cruel, oppressive, and capricious bosses, and have felt the same sort of empathy, sometimes even sympathy, with sadistic, power-hungry managers who hold us as virtual hostages through fear and psychological manipulation.
Since my mercifully brief stint as a supervisor for the United States Postal Service ended, I have often wondered if I experienced a sort of "traumatic bonding," the clinical term for Stockholm Syndrome, while serving in that role. For years I often looked back with peculiar nostalgia at the people who psychologically abused me and others, believing them to be good people who behaved badly because of the stressful environment we all worked in. Perhaps to a degree this is true, but to a greater degree I have now accepted that for the most part they were abusive, bullying jerks, and at this point of my life I have completely purged them from the place in my heart I reserve for those truly worthy of my affection.
In writing this article as a sort of final, no turning back catharsis for my own experience in management, I am in no way equating my own experience with that of people who have survived traumatic, life threatening hostage situations. Surprisingly enough, however, the research I conducted for this writing has demonstrated that there actually is a scientific, psychological basis for the Corporate Stockholm Syndrome that occurs in business environments. So even though I often glibly relate my own experience with the "Stockholm Syndrome" to others, it turns out to be a real condition that needs to be described and analyzed seriously, in an effort to forestall psychological terrorism in the workplace before it happens.
The Origin of Capture Bonding
The method that you, my captor used to achieve my unwavering loyalty was to alternate your threats and bullying with occasional uncharacteristic spasms of kindness and appreciation, like the dog owner who cruelly kicks his pet one moment and then scratches it lovingly behind the ears the next.
You often referred to me as the SME (Subject Matter Expert), before my peers, in reference to the skill set I gained while on a lengthy detail assignment shortly before I came to work for you.
One time you flattered me by having me share this knowledge at a supervisor's meeting where the Postmaster was present, which made me think you held my skills in high esteem. But shortly thereafter, probably even the next day, you called me and my fellow supervisors into the office and warned us that if we kept "screwing up," because we had neglected to achieve perfection by not catching some petty deviation that was completely out of control, then we "had better start thinking hard about our career choices."
In August of 1973, several bank employees were held hostage in a vault for 6 days in Stockholm Sweden while their captors negotiated with the authorities. During this ordeal the captives reportedly became emotionally attached to their captors, criticized the police response, and even defended one of their kidnappers in court after the crisis had ended, even though they had been threatened and abused.
The so-called "Stockholm Syndrome" achieved even greater fame in 1974, when 19 year old Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of wealthy newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped from her Berkeley, California apartment by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). As the American public watched in amazement on the six o'clock news, audio-taped messages were played in which Patricia announced that she had joined the SLA. Even more extraordinarily mystifying was a video released in the news media of her wielding a gun and assisting in bank robberies.
Evolution of the Stockholm Syndrome
Your office had a bookcase full of management tomes with friendly sounding, inspirational titles. In your own grandiose, inflated sense of self you were our refined, educationally cultivated mentor, and we your uncouth, illiterate, savage subjects. You used these books to try to delude us into thinking you were enlightened; a benevolent dictator that we could look forward to working with in a professionally managed environment. The favorite catch phrase you pulled from these books was "creative tension," which was of course only a smooth sounding euphemism for unrelenting bullying. Ultimately, however, you showed us the ignorant brute beneath your slick veneer when you would try to terrify us with abusive, threatening emails that were full of poor grammar and misspelled words.
Although the Stockholm Syndrome would seem to have no legitimate place in a free, democratic society in which individual liberties are guaranteed and the rights of workers are defended by stringent laws, there actually seems to be a built in, evolutionary basis for the phenomenon that arose long before the beginning of civilization, when humans were still hunters and gatherers.
When competing tribes of hominids roamed the Savannah in prehistoric times, one of the constant dangers facing these people was being abducted by another tribe, where physical abuse, including torture and rape, and severe psychological dehumanization were often the norm. Those primitive humans more inclined to adapt to the trauma imposed by their captors were more likely to survive, assimilate, and pass their genes to subsequent generations.
A more modern case, a sort of anthropological throwback, is that of Cynthia Ann Parker, an American of European descent who was abducted as a young child from her Texas home by Native Americans of the Comanche tribe. After witnessing several members of her family being tortured and slaughtered, Cynthia Parker was raised as a Comanche and eventually gave birth to several Comanche children, one of whom was Quanah Parker, a notable tribal chieftain. When finally rediscovered by white traders Cynthia was so thoroughly assimilated into the tribe that she refused to return to white civilization. When finally brought back by force Cynthia Parker remained despondent, depressed, and completely unable to reintegrate into white society.
Corporate Stockholm Syndrome
Your constant mantra was that family comes first and that if I ever had a personal problem I should not hesitate to come to you, being a benevolent father figure in your own twisted fantasy world. But then you forced me to work 15 hour days by giving me and my coworkers an impossible work load and piling on meaningless, redundant, nonsensical reports onto meaningless, redundant, nonsensical reports. This of course meant that I rarely saw my family. When people grumbled about the workload your response was "I'm not the one making you work all those hours. You need to learn to work more efficiently." Just as cult members are purposely sleep deprived to weaken their mental resistance to ideas they know to be false, you kept us exhausted on purpose to strengthen our loyalty to your own cult of personality.
Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is not a concept that I invented on my own, which actually surprised me. My research, in fact, led me to several articles on the subject, including a March, 2014 Psychology Today piece by James Ulrich. In this exposition the author asserts that "Corporate Stockholm Syndrome is being observed more and more often in individuals who have experienced workplace trauma, and the concept is beginning to filter into clinical awareness."
In the "capture bonding" type of Stockholm Syndrome, the hostage takers exercise actual life and death power over the hostage. Although physical life and death are not at stake in the Corporate Stockholm Syndrome, the abusive boss does sign the paychecks that the employee needs to maintain the essentials of food and shelter, so there is a level of psychological control over one's livelihood that is involved.
Employees who experience Corporate Stockholm Syndrome become emotionally attached to the company, to the point that their own emotional and physical health suffers. These workers will also accept the morés and values of the organization as indisputable truths, even when these tenets are contrary to observable reality. Denial of reality is a critical component of this disorder, and employees trapped within the impenetrable pall of Corporate Stockholm Syndrome will passionately defend the actions of the managers that abuse them, even though it is obvious to outsiders that they are being manipulated and mistreated.
Postal Stockholm Syndrome from the Top Down
You would compliment me by saying "I love how you push these employees," implying that you had complete confidence in my rather benevolent management style in which I would try to motivate letter carriers in a positive fashion, using praise and expressing my appreciation for a job well done. But then you would stalk along behind me at times, micromanaging my every move and expressing dissatisfaction when I didn't treat responsible adults like unruly kindergarteners.....
America's Postal Service has also become infected with this mentally debilitating Corporate Stockholm Syndrome mindset. Even though most Postal managers have been craft employees themselves and understand the often grueling working conditions and borderline hostile work environment in which letter carriers and clerks are sometimes forced to work, the "traumatic-bonding" brainwashing of upstart supervisors begins immediately, and former coworkers that the new supervisor once perceived as hard working, devoted, and conscientious are soon transformed into nothing better than liars and cheats. One manager that I worked for, a former letter carrier himself, behind closed doors would secretly deride Postal employees for "making way too much money for such an easy f***ing job." The fact that he almost always divided up his own work among his subordinates and then went home early, did not soften his negative analysis of the Postal work force at all
The negative attitude toward the rank and file that is thoroughly indoctrinated at the top trickles down through various levels of supervision and has a profound impact on how postal employees are treated. While I am not writing this to be an apologist for the handful of employees that "milk" the system, in management's Stockholm Syndrome fostered mentality all employees are potential "milkers" that deserve to be harassed and fired if possible.
It turns out that in a recent court case a federal judge agreed with my assessment. The court action arose after Letter Carrier Billie Eyeball was robbed at gunpoint and subsequently suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When she finally returned to full time letter carrier duties she was targeted for harassment by management. The judge who tried her case upbraided Postal authorities for "..."devious actions," "sabotage," and "multiple examples of abusive and intimidating conduct."" In making his decision in favor of Billie, the judge made it clear that Postal administrators provided information they knew to be false to the labor department concerning the employee's condition, a crime punishable with up to five years imprisonment. All the same, at present writing these lawbreaking managers are still gainfully employed with the Postal Service, a circumstance which nobody wearing a Postal uniform would find surprising at all.
It would be nice to think that Eyeball's case is an isolated incident, but the resumes of high-level postmasters and managers across the country are decorated with such incidents. Instead of being punishable offenses, allegations of harassment and misconduct are instead viewed as "a feather in the cap," and turn out to be an almost sure fire ticket to promotion. Instead of being fired, managers who unjustly harass employees, falsify documents, and even sometimes throw away mail to make their numbers are quietly shuffled around to other offices, or are given extended vacations until the furor and scrutiny die down.
The Price of Bad Behavior
You played games with your "children," as you so cynically referred to us. Sometimes you would leave one supervisor in the office to answer the phone while you took the rest of us out to lunch. Then you would call the remaining supervisor on the phone with requests requiring immediate attention that you made up on the spot. You knew quite well that this lone supervisor still in the office was extremely busy answering to all the needs of the station but you also knew that, like a good dog, he or she would jump when you called. Those of us lunching with you were expected to laugh heartily at your gag. It reminded me of the scene from the film of Josef Stalin's life where the drunken dictator makes his puppet Nikita Kruschev dance in front of others for his amusement.
There is probably no accurate way to calculate in dollars and cents the human emotional costs and mental health damage that arise when people work beneath a black cloud imposed by sadistic corporate tyrants that psychologically manipulate them into dancing to the gloomy, dissonant, nerve wracking tune of secret, sinister, unwritten corporate policies that are much more powerful than the official guidelines set down in the company handbook. But in the case of the United States Postal Service there is one semi-reliable measurement, and this is the enormous grievance settlements paid out to union members, many of which result from the harassment leveled out by those completely brainwashed into the Stockholm Syndrome mentality that is part of Postal Corporate culture.
In 2011 alone the Postal Service paid out 641 million dollars to settle grievances for contract violations. This grievance payout is a stunning figure when considering that it adds up to roughly a third of the estimated 2 billion dollars that would be saved by eliminating Saturday delivery, a proposal that is often bandied about as the salvation of the USPS.
But how can you measure in dollars and cents the corruption of a good soul gone bad? When honesty and integrity are exchanged for a seat next to the boss at the lunch table, how much happiness and peace of mind is trampled underfoot for the captors and the captives alike? Is spiritual bondage a fair trade for driving arbitrary numbers on a business report? When the cowering fear of this Corporate Stockholm Syndrome has replaced a competent, level-headed management culture in which humans are no longer sentient individuals but just faceless cogs on a spreadsheet, it is time to rethink the American Corporate business model.