Stockholm Syndrome, Toxicity, and Work

“You, what do you own the world? How do you own disorder? Disorder.” – System of a Down, Toxicity

I first heard of Patty Hearst in high school. Her story is an interesting one, if not tragic. She was abducted and held hostage by a terrorist group in San Francisco in the 1970s. The group began robbing banks to fund their activities, and police were baffled when they saw security footage of Patty helping her captors with the robberies! She eventually came to identify with her captors and joined them.

This is a phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome, named after events from a 1973 hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden, where the captors came to identify with and support those who held them hostage – going so far as to not even support the police investigation into their captivity!

Sociologists are not unanimous with their support that Stockholm Syndrome is a legitimate illness, but the condition tends to have the following traits, according to Sundaram’s “Stockholm Syndrome” (2013):

  1. A hostage’s development of positive feelings towards the captor,
  2. No previous relationship between hostage and captor,
  3. A refusal by hostages to cooperate with police and other government authorities, and
  4. A hostage’s belief in the humanity of the captor, ceasing to perceive them as a threat, when the victim holds the same values as the aggressor.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, people who have Stockholm syndrome have:

  • Positive feelings toward the captors or abusers.
  • Sympathy for their captors’ beliefs and behaviors.
  • Negative feelings toward police or other authority figures.

I recently began wondering why people don’t leave jobs they hate. It certainly isn’t the same, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s some sort of workplace Stockholm Syndrome going on with folks who refuse to leave toxic jobs. There may not be positive feelings, but there is little to no action towards leaving a toxic workplace for many folks.

I know you know someone, or have known someone, who hates their job. Yet, they remain rather than find new work. Bitching and complaining register the emotions rather than determination to better their experiences.

Not everyone stays, obviously. What’s the old saying? Something to the effect that the best leave toxicity while those who don’t, stay and underperform causing the toxicity to spread further and deeper until it permeates all facets of the organization.

And isn’t the Great Resignation driven at least partially by folks no longer willing to tolerate toxic work environments?

All true! For the first time in, well, probably ever, employees are not tolerating horrible working conditions. They are leaving in droves, and rightfully so! No one should be subjected to shitty work environments.

But still, what drives people to stay! Because not everyone is leaving, and until the COVID-19 Pandemic, people were not leaving workplaces as quickly or as readily as they are now.

So, why are these folks staying? Is it generational? Is it cultural? Is it something else?

Richard Chambers from the Audit Beacon had a pretty interesting blog post on the topic. He feels people stay because:

  1. People believe they are doing good work despite the culture.
  2. People feel it would be disloyal to leave those who are suffering along with them.
  3. People feel trapped by their circumstances.
  4. Some people don’t want to be held accountable.
  5. People become infected by the culture.

“Some workers are attracted to a toxic culture because it provides protection and advancement for all the wrong reasons.”

This makes sense to me. Many people feed off negativity. It helps them scratch whatever itch they have. Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh once put into perspective that:

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”

Still, some of this sounds like Stockholm Syndrome. Like, folks know something is off, but they aren’t sure. So instead they buckle in and begin aiding and abetting.

I used to be like this. I had stayed in some past jobs despite the toxic work environment and despite my heath suffering. Why did I do this? Partially because, I think, I didn’t know I was in a toxic place. I was still young and just trying to earn a dollar.

Do you know anyone like that? Maybe it’s you. How is someone to know the environment they are in is bad unless they experience it first? If you were like me and didn’t know, you can turn to others and learn!

Brigette Hyacinth has a good piece she wrote with her 10 Signs of a toxic workplace culture.

  1. Company core values do not serve as the basis for how the organization functions.
  2. Employee suggestions are discarded. People are afraid to give honest feedback.
  3. Micromanaging -Little to no autonomy is given to employees in performing their jobs.
  4. Blaming and punishment from management is the norm.
  5. Excessive absenteeism, illness and high employee turn over.
  6. Overworking is a badge of honor and is expected.
  7. Little or strained interaction between employees and management.
  8. Gossiping and/or social cliques.
  9. Favoritism and office politics.
  10. Aggressive or bullying behavior.

I’ve experienced a lot of these in the workplace over the years. And yet, I stayed. So, maybe my point in exploring this topic is less about other folks’ motivations, and it’s more about mine. Regardless, isn’t that why we read and write? To learn from mistakes of others and to make sense of the world?

Ultimately, why folks stay in toxic environments should not be any of my business. It’s interesting to me, but there really isn’t anything for me to do about it. People make their own way in the world, and that sometimes means staying in situations that are self-harming.

The only goal I have is to ensure I use whatever influence I have to build positive, supportive, and kind workplace cultures. I can control what I do for others – and for myself. If that means leaving a shitty workplace, then it means I’ve grown and learned. It means I’ve become aware of being kinder to me, by not allowing others to destroy my inner sense of self-worth.

Self-recognition is the key to avoiding Stockholm Syndrome at work. Recognize who you are. Recognize what you can control. And recognize that you always have a choice. Always.

Marcus Aurelius wrote that we should “Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie.” Our job as HR folks shouldn’t be figuring out why folks stay in bad work environments. We should figure out how to destroy bad work environments so people don’t have to leave.

© 2022 HR Philosopher. All rights reserved.

Published by Paul LaLonde

Husband. Father. Passionate about HR, helping people, and doing the right thing. Also, heavy metal, craft beer, and general nerd things! #SHRM19Blogger. Find me on Twitter at @HRPaul49 and LinkedIn. Thoughts, views and opinions on this site are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other entity ​with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated.

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