Abusive Relationships from the Past: How They Impact Workplace Productivity

One out of every ten employees, male or female, have been physically abused in their lives as a child or abused by a partner as an adult. The statistics are even higher when considering emotional and verbal abuse. Therefore, if you have 500 employees, anywhere from 50 to 100 have a history of abuse. Is it possible for individuals who have experienced this kind of trauma to cut off this part of themselves when they come to work? Absolutely not; how your authority figures or intimate partners communicate with them become embedded in one’s subconscious. Hopefully, most were among the lucky kids hearing kind words and support, which now has become of part of their internal landscape. However, many of you reading this blog may have experienced abuse yourself, and know that it truly includes all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. 
There is no question that employees’ personal backgrounds affect their workplace interaction and when he or she has experienced abuse it may complicate even the most simple communications. As a leader, you may want to believe an employee leaves their personal self at the door when they enter work, but the abused child is right underneath their professional persona. The abused child is sensitive to criticism, aggression and uncomfortable with conflict. In addition, long term effects of past abuse include anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and alcohol/drug abuse.  As an employee advances in his or her career handling more and more responsibility being good at conflict resolution is necessary for one’s success.
You might be wondering why I see this as a problem and why you should care. In a 2012 research study completed by Dr. Mark Attridge and myself, 95% of 100 male and female millionaires/multi-millionaires stated they are comfortable arguing a point to closure!  In other words, to be very successful one needs to be able to comfortably negotiate conflict.
Let me explain all the different ways an abusive background may play itself out at work. In my executive coaching practice I have seen bosses who have been abused that are overly harsh with their employees (an opposite self-protective style). There are leaders who are uncomfortable supervising the opposite sex, aggressive bosses who trigger their employee’s abusive victim history, employees who bully their supervisor, and senior leadership teams who alternately act out the aggressor and victim roles, never learning healthy ways to resolve conflict.  

I have seen females and males in the aggressor and victim roles. My experience as an employee assistance psychologist at Honeywell, in Minneapolis, demonstrated that the amount of and impact of abuse on men is very underestimated in the workplace. As a supervisor, one way to spot when an  employee’s own personal issues are interfering is when you see an ongoing fixed pattern or interaction around disagreement whether it be between two people of the same sex or opposite sex. The emotion may appear to be way out of proportion to the issue being debated and affects other employees in the work group. When employees really dislike each other and have convinced themselves the other has no redeeming characteristics, past histories have been activated and it is difficult for the employees to distinguish past abuse feelings from the present.
These unhealthy dynamics interfere with good team communication and cohesion resulting in less creative and successful strategies for organizational success.

Your job as a leader in your organization is to observe team members (at any level):
  1. Who do not participate in the resolution of issues through healthy debate, but seem to retreat or freeze.
  2. Individuals who yell, intimidate, or have a cold and condescending manner.
  3. Absenteeism after a stressful management team argument. 
In the spirit of embracing difficult communication, I would encourage you to take the following steps:
  1. Meet with your employee alone and gently point out the specific behavior you have observed.
  2. Explain the importance of being able to effectively participate in conflict resolution to find the best organizational solution.
  3. Recommend he/she get some help/education with conflict management and resolution.
  4. Refer to your employee assistance program for a professional assessment to determine the best referral, whether it be a conflict resolution class or counseling.
Our job as organizational leaders is to develop cohesion and improve communication to enhance overall organizational effectiveness. Unfortunately, this job becomes more difficult when the abused child “comes to work” with the professional adult. But, observing your team and compassionately making referrals for one to improve their communication during times of conflict can help put your employee and the entire team on the road to success.


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