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The Stockholm Syndrome in American Business Management - A Postal Scenario

Updated on March 29, 2015
Mel Carriere profile image

Although many are mystified by his mysterious moniker, Mel Carriere is a San Diego mailman who writes about the mail, among other things.

Patty Hearst became the poster child for the Stockholm Syndrome in the 1970s, after she was kidnapped by the SLA and then appeared to willingly engage in criminal acts with her captors.
Patty Hearst became the poster child for the Stockholm Syndrome in the 1970s, after she was kidnapped by the SLA and then appeared to willingly engage in criminal acts with her captors. | Source

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 bank in Sweden where the term "Stockholm Syndrome" was born
The bank in Sweden where the term "Stockholm Syndrome" was born | Source

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.

Long before the Stockholm Syndrome concept existed, Cynthia Ann Parker was famous as "The White Squaw," a woman of European ancestry who completely assimilated into the society of her Comanche captors.
Long before the Stockholm Syndrome concept existed, Cynthia Ann Parker was famous as "The White Squaw," a woman of European ancestry who completely assimilated into the society of her Comanche captors. | Source

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.

The cycle of abuse that engenders the Corporate Stockholm Syndrome mentality.
The cycle of abuse that engenders the Corporate Stockholm Syndrome mentality. | Source

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.

Patricia Hearst yelling out commands to bank customers held at gunpoint during a San Francisco bank robbery.
Patricia Hearst yelling out commands to bank customers held at gunpoint during a San Francisco bank robbery. | Source

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.

Like members of other bizarre cults, victims of Postal Stockholm Syndrome can be made to dance at the arbitrary whim of a megalomaniac manager.
Like members of other bizarre cults, victims of Postal Stockholm Syndrome can be made to dance at the arbitrary whim of a megalomaniac manager. | Source

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.

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    • profile image

      truk 3 months ago

      Mel I'm surprised more managers and post masters aren't found beaten silly in their offices? I read a story awhile back of a guy in Breaden County that slapped a postmaster around the post office for 30 mins non stop while employees cheered because the post master insulted the guys wife..You can't treat people like garbage and expect not to bleed

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

      I have worked for the postal service for 22 years, Robert, so in my former jobs I probably wasn't old and wise enough yet to see what was going on around me. If I had to guess, I would say that this occurs in every workplace. Management always pays lip service to enlightened principles, but human nature remains what it is, and enlightened principles rarely get translated into reality. I will have to look up Deming. Thanks for reading!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 20 months ago

      An interesting article. Have you seen this in other places where you worked? There does seem to be a tendency for managers to blame subordinates if something goes wrong. I remember hearing someone say in the 90s, when Deming was the management trend, that Deming's principals weren't particularly popular because those principals meant if something was wrong it was management's fault.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I believe this Stockholm syndrome is a human survival trait, Mona, that is built into us, kind of like when a pack of wild wolves will atart following the new alpha dog after he kills their old leader. Problem is that it just doesn't fit with our modern society oriented toward human rights and individual freedom. Thanks for reading!

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 2 years ago from Philippines

      This is quite an eye opener, that the Stockholm Syndrome can exist even in a corporate environment. It does remind me of some experiences I had in the past. I also think it can very strongly exist in religious cults. Right now we are having this scandal in the Philippines with the Iglesia ni Cristo, where the leader excommunicated his own mother and siblings and they were held hostage in a house with no water or electricity. Plus he also held hostage about 12 ministers. It makes you think the Stockholm Syndrome is larger than we thought, and could we could probably benefit from deeper study into it in today's daily settings. Great article!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      That is an excellent point Lawrence. The Stockholm Syndrome actually deludes us into thinking that these jerks we work for have noble intentions and we are the ones who are somehow not worthy. Thanks for reading!

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Fascinating hub. I never really thought about bullying in this way. I put down that I've not been affected by it but that doesn't mean they didn't try!

      Actually when I think about it I think we've all been affected in some way. The insidious thing is with the Stockholm syndrome you're left feeling it's your fault!

      Even when you do step away it still leaves a bad 'taste'

      Awesome hub about difficult issue

      Lawrence

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Yes Nadine May De Beers is pretty notorious the world over and I will bet their human rights record isn't exactly spotless. These kind of abuses happen the world over. Thanks for reading!

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 2 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Wow what a well written article on this called the Stockholm Syndrome. Your article reminded me of a book we published years ago titled: Icebergs in Africa. (A personal interest in what makes people well and unwell in a corporate setting like De Beers Group - A leading diamond company in SA. ) After the book was published she resigned from the corporate world.

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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Poolman politics is more like religion these days.. There are people on the left and the right who want to burn the other sides people at the stake. I fear undesirable resullts for this country if this sort of fanaticism continues. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      Mel - You are right on with that comment. Most of our elected representatives could care less about what is good for this country and the people. Once they win an election and pass through those golden gates, the only thing they care about is lining their own pockets with gold and gaining personal power.

      Blind party loyalty is a form of the Stockholm Syndrome. Many of our citizens root for their party of choice as if it were a football team. Yet they have limited knowledge of what the issues are and what the future impact of bad decisions will be. As long as their team wins all is well in their minds.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Good point Deb. You are correct that this same phenomenon occurs on a massive scale, where millions of people are hoodwinked into thinking that evil political leaders have their best interests at heart. It is happening here. The next step is tyranny. Thanks for reading!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Excellent work. In effect, this is all brainwashing, which was generally done by leaders that were thought to be "for the people, " like Hitler. It has since evolved into the Stockholm Syndrome, but in effect, is basically the same thing. Now, what will it turn into next?

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      No surprise there Poolman. It reminds me of all those execs in the 2008 recession who destroyed their companies and got huge golden parachutes with taxpayer funded bailout money. They are all part of the same corrupt crony frat boy network that you and I are too honest to get admission into. Thanks again.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Sounds exactly like my situation Dana Tate. I felt like I had a black cloud over me constantly and I couldn't enjoy any days off or vacation. Thanks for reading!

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      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      Anyone whom has never worked in the Corporate would can not even imagine the pressure put on the various managers. My former company took the route of reducing manpower to the breaking point and then blaming the current managers for the resulting failure. Their thinking was that the only way to find out how "skinny" they could run on manpower was to keep taking it down until it broke, then add back a few employees.

      In their own minds it was a brilliant plan, and of course they all got their big fat bonus checks for saving money for the company.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 2 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      I have worked quite a few jobs that made me feel ill at just the thought of going. This caused lots of emotional distress in my life. On the weekends I would dread going back to work on Monday and this would ruin the two days I had off, same with vacations. I tried to sympathize with my bosses and assume there jobs were stressful and outside of work they were probably good people. But I know that in most cases I was just fooling myself and they were just egomaniacs and jerks.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you AliciaC. Postal Management is almost as bad as a criminal syndicate. I appreciate your nice words.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Glad I could fill in the details Catherine. I hope you have been able to purge your soul of that phase of your life. I still have flashbacks. Thanks for reading.

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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      You might be right Larry Rankin. It is probable they have even done statistical analysis to determine how many of the brainwashed syncophants will go Stockholm. Thanks for reading!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an excellent article that is informative and chilling at the same time. It's interesting and a little scary to learn about the situation in the Postal Service and the manipulation that occurs in the corporate world.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I was a ware of Stockholm Zyndrome, but you educated me on the details. It is a very interesting concept to think about in the context of corporate offices. Now, I have to look back on my life in the corporate world and see if any of that was present for me.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful article. I really think that corporations know if they treat their employees horribly, a certain percentage of the employees will develop Stockholm Syndrome and work harder.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Eric Dierker I am glad you found it entertaining. This is the all too frequent reality of American business and unfortunately a self perpetuating system. Once people catch the evil seed of corruption they pass it on to future generations of managers. I appreciate you dropping in.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A wonderful piece on an all too frequent reality. As always, your writing style was refreshing and entertaining. I guess I would have to give a good shit to find myself in the negative of such a situation. Jobs have just never held that allure for me. But boy I sure have seen it adversely affect a great many people. Hopeful some will read this and be given hope.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      That is why your soul is still pure Bill. To rise through the corporate ranks a fair amount of deviousness, duplicity, and downright cruelty is necessary. Thanks for reading and the nice words.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You never fail to entertain or inform. You did both in this great article. Despite degrees in Marketing and Economics, I never worked in the corporate world. I'm just not cut out for that kind of lifestyle or work mentality.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      That's a great story Old Poolman, worthy of its own hub. There is no doubt that the so called prestige of being a manager just isn't worth it in some cases, especially when the pay increase is almost unnoticeable, as is the case with the Postal Service. If the pay had been worth it I probably would have just toughed it out but it wasn't, so I left. As always, thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      Old Poolman 2 years ago

      Very interesting article and very well written. I worked my way through the ranks and ended up in a mid-level corporate management position prior to retirement. Without a doubt, that was the worst job I ever had.

      My company was loaded with unqualified upper management people who were in their positions because of nepotism. They all knew they were untouchables no matter how poorly they performed. There were constant threats and rumors of take-overs by other companies in the same industry, and Friday may be your last day on the job. Needless to say keeping up the morale of those working under my supervison was difficult to say the least.

      I can assure you I was never afflicted by the Stockholm Syndrome, I hated all of them equally. Then one day they called a meeting and announced an early retirement plan. Not a great plan, but good enough to enjoy a graceful exit from the company.

      About one month after I retired I received a phone call from the Human Resources department at my old company. They asked me to come back as a private contractor to do the exact same job I held prior to retiring. I took that offer and the next two years were great. My career and retirement could no longer be threatened, I could quit any time I wanted to, and the pay was darn good. As long as I produced the desired results nobody could mess with my job and it didn't matter who I pissed off while doing that job. The nepotism boys just had to step back and let me do my thing.

      It is amazing to me just how cruel some management types can be. The pressure in the Corporate world were very similar to what you experienced with the USPS. It felt really great to be out from under all the threats and intimidation.