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Case Analysis: The Malady Of Abusers

When abusive leaders of this kind take over, they unconsciously legitimise toxicity

This kind of story is not unusual. You only need to open your eyes and really look and you will find plenty of instances. Let us examine this case from three angles: one, from Malhar’s perspective, two, from Sen’s perspective, the abuser and three, from the perspective of the cultural ecosystem that this is a part of.

For Malhar this is clearly an intense and hurtful experience. He brings his own youthful eagerness to learn into the company, and ‘bang’, there’s this bolt from the blue and he reels under it, searching for something that will help him stem the inner ‘bleeding’ from this wild ‘punch’. I have, during my career as a psychologist, seen the impact and it is not a pretty sight. While a lot of us are able to get past this in time (“I just have a good cry in the loo” said an accomplished young lady who has seen plenty of this in her eight-year career), at an extreme, it can leave people deeply upset and with a heightened sense of their own (incorrectly perceived) incapability. They can end up doubting themselves for a long time impacting their subsequent adaptation into working life. Sure, one can always say “it’s necessary to build a thicker skin”, but the damage is real and it cannot be brushed aside. It can take a long time to heal. A good psychological study of this at a more heightened and intensified level can be found in the book / film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

At the core, we are all sensitive, sentient beings and it is not just physical injury that causes pain. The invisible psychological slights, insults, demeaning comments, disrespect and other such lashes can often remain for years, leading to responses ranging from withdrawal to becoming aggressive oneself. Both Fr Bon and Ms Williams are well meaning but they put the onus of change and understanding on the very person who has been hit, like the way that the burden of proof is sometimes left to the victim. Malhar is in the midst of something he is not at all prepared for. How then can he be expected to be the ‘understanding one’! This is not about playing victim, he is one.

There are many Sens around. Broadly they can be classified as the ‘well-meaning’ but foul-mouthed or those who use expletives frequently but not in an abusive way to put anyone down. The second kind are the more vicious: They use language to cause injury. The great advantage of this weapon is its ability to cause pain without leaving any direct evidence. The wielders have a way of creating a type of polarisation in the spaces they operate in: one group, the sycophants, egg the abuser on and they also enjoy vicariously seeing the impact on the hapless recipient. The second group, more cautious, stay away and try not to cross paths with them.

The abusers themselves can often be very senior and accomplished leaders which makes the impact of the abuse itself more sharp: “it’s not just anyone who is saying this but the bosses boss!” While they escape the public eye, they are spoken of warily in private with a fair amount of distaste. The reality is, they are well known, though organisations often turn a blind eye to them. Their collateral damage is overlooked. Their power and clout create a fire line around themselves that nobody can call out. One CEO of a manufacturing company received so many complaints from employees about one such abuser that he had to be seen to do something. Eventually the senior leader-abuser was asked to leave: the collateral damage was more than the organisation could take despite having turned a blind eye for years.

When abusive leaders of this kind take over, they unconsciously legitimise toxicity. With one prominent company, it is considered very macho and clever if someone has a nasty, cynical streak. While one can see the value of courage in being able to speak one’s mind even in hierarchical cultures, when the nasty attitude is worshipped, it can become hard for many. Interns, among others, whether junior or senior, have it the worst. Leaders who turn the other way leave it to employees to manage on their own. Many leave given the slightest chance. While profits may peak, the ambient culture is just not conducive for a large number of talented people.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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case study case analysis magazine 16 September 2017


Kaushik Gopal

The writer is a psychoanalyst and coach by training and has recently taken on the role of managing consultant in YSC India

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