Episode 86: Gaslighting and Other Ways We’re Abused at Work: What’s Really Going On? with Dr James Costello
Have you ever been told that you’re too sensitive at work, that you’re overreacting, or that it’s all in your head? Have you ever raised concerns only to be told that the same thing happens everywhere and it’s just the way things are done around here? If so, you may have been gaslighted. This gaslighting at work can be part of relational abuse and bullying in the workplace.
Dr James Costello joins us in this episode to talk about his new book and the insidious ways that organisations and individuals can undermine us. They compel us to do extra emotional labour for us to cope with the workplace dynamics. We also chat about what happens when authority and power are misused. Finally, James shares some of the disastrous consequences bullying in the workplace can have and what we can do about it.
If you want to know what to do if you or your colleague are experiencing gaslighting at work, then tune in to this episode!
Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:
Discover how to work out if you’re experiencing relational abuse or bullying in the workplace.
- Find out what you can do to reduce the misuse of authority and power.
- Learn the formula that psychotherapists use to help people grow and how you can apply it to your work.
[07:36] James’s Background
- James worked as a workplace counsellor in an occupational health unit of a large hospital in Bristol.
- He became a trade union caseworker, trying to advocate for change in organisations. Here, James tried to get managers to adhere to organisational policies.
- Activism allowed him to put theory into practice.
- James gained real insights into what goes on behind the scenes.
[09:24] Defining Relational Abuse
- We see incivility, ostracising, scapegoating, passive aggression and bullying in the workplace.
- We use these to manipulate, coerce and be punitive and damage people.
- It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact definition of bullying in the workplace.
- Emotional aggression and gaslighting captures microaggressions in the workplace more accurately.
- Hierarchies in organisations stem from a lack of trust. Why else would we come together as a group and organise ourselves in this way?
[12:15] The Corruption Complex
- The corruption complex is the misuse of authority and power for the personal gain or benefit of the group or the clique.
- It thinks about things being unethical, but not illegal.
- The people at the top think that bullying in the workplace has a purpose.
- Managers do all kinds of things to stay in their jobs.
[13:45] Challenging Organisational Power
- One way to challenge an organisation’s mindset on bullying in the workplace is to look at the structural conception of its policy.
- Organisations as a whole can sometimes be the bully in the workplace.
- Challenging it has to be done as a collective.
[15:10] Examples of Relational Abuse
- When a group of colleagues are anxious about the future and want to exert control over their peers, they collude to create a power base.
- If someone in the group takes a day off from work, others would undermine their professionalism.
- It can be about creating this myth of invincibility to intimidate others. The idea it sends is that ‘to get to where I am, you have to go through the treatment I went through.’
- This system of abuse then gets normalised.
[21:49] Bullying in the Workplace
- Often, people are not aware of the impact of their behaviour on others.
- Some might not realise that they’re engaging in bullying in the workplace.
- There can be a lot of shame associated with being a bully and being the target.
- We have to talk about the impact of our actions in a way that is not blaming.
- It is all about bringing the impact of your behaviour to the attention of others.
[27:06] Effective Performance Management
- De-escalation of the issue is key.
- Then, wind things back and make sure a supportive, informal process has taken place.
- Shame is one of the big three emotions in terms of attachment theory in the workplace. It includes the fear of being ostracised.
- Spend a lot of time understanding where they are coming from and offer informal support.
[34:11] On Gaslighting as Bullying in the Workplace
- Gaslighting is undermining the sense of self-awareness that a person has and their capacity to trust in themselves.
- This way, they are unable to make decisions or recognise when things are wrong.
- To get around this type of bullying in the workplace, triangulate by talking to others about your experiences.
- Don’t remain isolated and get help from those you trust.
- People who carry out bullying in the workplace rely on you being so confused and disoriented that you just get demoralised and leave.
[41:05] On Emotional Labour
- Work now is more relational; you need to engage with people and tolerate them.
- As a medical professional, you need to exert huge amounts of emotional labour as you treat your patients, particularly if they’re scared.
- Part of emotional labour is dealing with distressed, upset, and rude people.
[43:40] Key Takeaways
- Common factors work in creating a therapeutic change in someone.
- The common factors are the things common to a relationship that create a safe space for somebody to flourish and develop.
- These include unconditional positive regard, empathy and authenticity.
- Someone who engages in bullying in the workplace is someone who is hurting or in pain.
- For every behaviour, there is an underlying need. This is effectively the relational approach.
[48:59] Top Three Tips If You Experience Relational Abuse or Bullying in the Workplace
- Check out your experience with a trusted colleague or friend and triangulate.
- Second, you need to make contact. This can be with HR, a trade union representative, a caseworker or somebody who understands the context of what’s going on.
- Look after yourself. You may do this by connecting with someone who is not connected to your family or friends. Organisations often have good employee assistance programs.
- Do not bring the issue home, but find somewhere to blow off steam.
Powerful Quotes from This Episode
[14:00] ‘Other organisations have a much more loose floppy definition of what it is to be a bully. And that’s because management still want to be able to define who the bullies are, you know, because they want to be able to nominate those who use the position of power to control others.’
[17:26] ‘The idea is that “to get to where I am, then you have to take the treatment that I had, it’s how I got here, you’ve got to go through that as well.” So there’s this kind of relational abuse, that, “The only way you can get this level is to be abused in the way that I was.”’
[24:23] ‘All in all, we’re not always aware of the impact of our actions as we go about our daily life. I mean, we can’t be. But I think what’s really important is to be able to talk about the impact that we have on each other in a way that isn’t blaming.’
[27:52] ‘I spend so much of my time engaging in de-escalation, and getting people back into being relational. Because very often, if things aren’t going for someone while at work, there’s going to be reasons for it.’
[42:32] ‘The idea of emotional labour, particularly in your profession, is profound. It’s profound because people look to you for help when they’re frightened, when they’re in despair.’
[47:17] ‘We behave in ways that we know we want to be treated because we’re hurting for some reason. So that effectively, you know, the relational approach.’
[50:24] ‘ It’s not about being sick. It’s about finding somewhere to blow off steam that are not your family or your friends. And that’s what we’re for.’
About the Guest
Dr James Costello is a counselling practitioner, supervisor, educationalist, consultant, psychotherapist, and researcher. He also works as a senior lecturer in counselling and psychotherapy at the University of the West of England (UWE).
James was initially trained as a research scientist working in industry and academia. He believes that flourishing, innovation and learning are all social processes with the transformative power of relationships at their heart. As an experienced trade union caseworker, he successfully applies a relational approach to his areas of interest. These include training, supervision, advocacy, conflict resolution, and mediation across a range of workplace settings.
James also co-founded Born Human, a holistic mental health consultancy. They provide wellbeing programmes for a contemporary and emotionally healthy workplace. Finally, James’ experiences led him to author the book Workplace Wellbeing: A Relational Approach.
To know more about James, you can visit his UWE homepage. You can also reach out to him through firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message at Born Human.
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Dr Rachel Morris: Have you ever been told that you’re too sensitive at work? Or that you’re overreacting? Or that it’s all in your head? Have you ever raised concerns only to be told that the same thing happens everywhere else, and that it’s just the way we do things around here? If so, you may have been gaslighted. This is part of a spectrum of bullying and emotional and relational abuse that can be endemic in today’s workplace.
In this episode, I’m joined by James Costello, a psychotherapist, researcher, and author of the book Workplace Wellbeing: A Relational Approach. We talk about the insidious ways that organisations and individuals can undermine us, causing us to have to do extra emotional labour, just to cope with workplace dynamics. And we talk about what happens when authority and power is misused, and some of the disastrous consequences it has on individuals and for teams, and what we can do about it. So listen, if you want to find out the many forms that relational abuse can take, and what to do if you suspect that you are a colleague, might be a target of gaslighting. And listen if you want to find out the secret formula that psychotherapists use to help people flourish and grow, and how you can apply that in your work.
Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, life hacks for doctors and other busy professionals who want to beat burnout and work happier. I’m Dr Rachel Morris. I’m a GP turned coach, speaker, and specialists in teaching resilience. And I’m interested in how we can wake up and be excited about going to work, no matter what. I’ve had 20 years of experience working in the NHS, and I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed, worried about making mistake and one crisis away from not coping. Even before the coronavirus crisis, we are facing unprecedented levels of burnout. We have been described as frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water, working harder and longer. And the heat has been turned up so slowly that we hardly noticed the extra-long days becoming the norm and have got used to the low-grade feelings of stress and exhaustion.
Let’s face it, frogs generally only have two options, stay in the pan and be boiled alive, or jump out of the pan and leave. But you are not a frog. And that’s where this podcast comes in. You have many more options than you think you do. It is possible to be master of your destiny and to craft your work and life so that you can thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances. And if you’re happier at work, you will simply do a better job. In this podcast, I’ll be inviting you inside the minds of friends, colleagues, and experts, all who have an interesting take on this so that together, we can take back control and thrive not just survive in our work and our lives and love what we do again.
Before we get to this week’s episode, I’d like to let you know about some free online training for doctors that the Joyful Doctor Dr Caroline Walker and I are running in the next few weeks with some practical strategies designed specifically to support doctors in challenging times. This is for you if you feel that the demands of your work are increasing, along with its impact on the rest of your life. This is for you if you wish you had a way to press pause and take stock without letting your colleagues or your patients down. And if you’d love to feel energised, fulfilled and inspired by your work. So we’ll teach you two instant techniques to stop the overwhelm so that you feel calmer and love your job. Again, we’ll share three simple strategies you can implement today to help you thrive at work, even when you’re stretched. And we’ll introduce a fun and easy way to grow your resilience and boost your energy so you can ditch the dull and expensive CPD. To sign up for this webinar, totally free of charge, then do click the link in the show notes below. And please do share this with your friends and colleagues and anyone else who might be interested. So on with the episode.
So it’s brilliant to have with me on the podcast today. Dr James Costello. Now James is a psychotherapist and he is a researcher. He works at the University of the West of England. And he’s recently written a book called Workplace Wellbeing: A Relational Approach which is just fantastic, published by Rutledge. And he really specialises in relationships at work. And in fact, he said to me just now, Jim, ‘Work is relationships’.
Dr James Costello: That’s right. Yes, yes. I think that that very often comes as a bit of a revelation for the people who I speak to. It’s, ‘Oh my goodness. Yes, it is.’ I mean, relationships have the capacity to make us joyful, give our lives meaning, but also they can make us pretty bloody miserable as well. So, and I think we have the whole spectrum of the workplace.
Rachel: And one of the reasons I wanted to get you on the podcast today, amongst loads of other reasons, is that I’m increasingly getting frustrated with what I call the ‘fruit and bicycles approach’ to wellbeing and resilience. This sort of attitude that if we provide a fruit bowl for everybody, give them some fresh fruit, and perhaps we give them a cycle to work scheme, then then they’re going to be alright. Because it’s really dreadful working here. But we’ll, we’ll just put a sticking plaster and maybe do a yoga session at lunchtime, which they can attend in their own time in between those, those extra things that they have to do. And that is our responsibility towards wellbeing.
James: I call it the soothed disengagement approach, where I spoke to, you know, medical professionals preparing for the book, I heard people say an awful lot. You know, I don’t want to be put into a room for half an hour to be silent and just forget how crap my job is. or sorry, can I say that word?
Rachel: Say anything you want.
James: I actually want what happens outside the room to change. You know, and I don’t want to be soothed and disengaged. But don’t get me wrong, I think, you know, I think there’s a place for fruit. And I’ve just recently used the cycle to work scheme to buy lots of bicycles for my family. So I think they’re good. But it has to be, you know, in context. And you know, I can say more about that later. Because it sounds like it bothers you. I know, it bothers me.
Rachel: Well, it bothers me because I’m one of those people who provide wellbeing and resilience training. So you know, and I’m just about to provide it for great big hospital trust, I run courses on resilience for doctors, all these sorts of things. And I guess the one thing that I’ve noticed that the biggest barrier to wellbeing and resilience isn’t that people don’t know what to do, it’s they don’t have the time to do it. And that there are issues in the workplace that, that get in the way, and are a real barrier for people. So I think the fruit balls, and the cycle sweat schemes, and the wellbeing, and mindfulness, and yoga, and all that is, is vitally important because actually, you need to stay well, to give your best.
So these individual resilience skills, massively important, it’s what I do. And the workplace is just as important. And that’s why I sort of wanted to do a load of podcasts actually, around how we, how we make workplace better. Because there’s some stuff we can do. There’s some stuff we can’t see. But I think just acknowledging it in the first place is really important. And what I loved about your book, is that you’re talking about people. It’s about people; it’s about the relationship. And we can’t abdicate responsibility, but neither can our leaders in our workplace so either.
James: I guess the reason why I got so interested in the workplace, a long time ago, I was working as a workplace counsellor in the occupational health unit of a large hospital here in Bristol. And I started to get quite frustrated. There’s this metaphor, of, you know, seeing all the people in the river shouting for help, and you waving, and you pull someone out, and you give them CPR, and you dry them off. And then you throw them back in again. And, from upstream, there’s more, more people in the water waving for help. And it gets very easy. You know, we can set up really big clever organisations that dry people off, and to spruce them up, and give them CPR, but then throw them back in again. But I just felt it’s time to go upstream, find out what’s happening. Just why are all these people falling into this kind of emotional, torrential sort of process that requires them to be, you know, mollified by some kind of disengagement?
I guess that’s also what interested me in, in activism as well. So in my workplace, I became a trade union caseworker, I do find myself actually working with management in a kind of like a psycho-educational aspect, where I’m trying to simply get the managers to adhere to organisational policies, which get the need to get changed and updated as well. But I think activism through you know, being in the Union certainly, has allowed me to take what I think theoretically, and also put it into practice. And it gives you a real insight into what really goes on behind the scenes.
Rachel: And in the book, you describe this stuff that goes on behind the curtain as or maybe not behind the curtain, maybe actually out in public as relational abuse. What does that mean?
James: What does that mean? I think what terms like bullying, and incivility, ostracism, scapegoating, passive aggression, that the kinds of ways in which we, we use anger in socially acceptable ways in the workplace, are all part of this kind of nested array of quite complex ways in which we use relationships to manipulate, coerce, and be punitive and damage people. And I think when you look at the literature on this, there’s still quite a lot of difficulty in trying to define what bullying is and so on. But actually, I find it more useful to consider that, you know, emotional aggression or emotional abuse, because that kind of captures a lot of the kind of what I call microaggressions in the workplace.
I can see that as being like hierarchy. So you have all these kinds of interpersonal experiences. And then the mac middle type list of emotional abuses, I would say are things that require, you know, it can involve individuals, but it tends to involve kind of groupings, such as, you know, sexual harassment, discrimination. And then, of course, at the top of the hierarchy of this pyramid is what I’d call the corruption complex, which is what permits and allows these behaviours to kind of take place. Because for example, at the micro-level, management may well be very unhappy about the fact that scapegoating is going on. But in fact, a meta-level, that’s exactly what goes on in management. If you want to belong to the management caste, this is the sort of behaviours that you have to engage in. Yeah, this is the kind of soft abuses that are a part of how we run an organisation.
Hierarchies themselves are about a lack of trust. Why else would we, you know, come together as a group of people and organise ourselves in this way? You see it happening in the animal kingdom. You’ve seen the chickens organise themselves in the sitting order, and 8troops of baboons organise themselves in the sort of arrangements in which, you know, control is organised in a way that’s downwards. Because how else do you get what you want from members of your species or your pack, if you can’t trust them to give it to you by process negotiation? That’s what hierarchies are. After all, just think we’re more sophisticated than the troop of baboons. I just think there are other ways of actually interacting and engaging with each other to get what we need from each other. I guess that’s why I’m so focused on relationships.
Rachel: That’s really interesting about the corruption conflict complex, and you talked about it in the book being the misuse of authority and power for personal gain or benefit of the group, of the clique. And gosh, we’ve all seen that, you know. Managers doing things to stay in their jobs, rather than for the benefit of their people. But then they, they are being relationally abused from above, and it’s and so on, so on.
James: So I think the corruption complex thinks about things being unethical, but not illegal. And the corruption complex starts right at the very top. You know, our own Prime Minister, I think it was in November, I think there’s a report on one of his ministers that found that she had been a bully. And his reaction was, ‘Well, you know, she’s a confident manager. And let’s ignore that.’ And so right from the very top, we have the sense that the bullying serves a purpose. And yeah, things like nepotism, which is also, I think, highly problematic and undermining the workplace because that’s about, you know, bringing more people that are just like me. So if you want a diverse workplace, you know, we gotta tackle that. If you want a truly diverse workplace, then we’re going to have, we’re going to stop people giving jobs to people just like, you know.
It’s quite complex. So what goes on in the corruption complex, but it’s, I think it’s just beginning to, to emerge as something that we can use to describe the practices in the workplace. They’re really problematic and undermining.
Rachel: Yeah, because we all know that bullying is wrong, right? You mustn’t ever discriminate against someone you know, and you must be civil. And there are some, I guess, some legal definitions of bullying. And I know that you make a really interesting point in the problem is once you start going by the legal definition of it, and you’re talking about that, is it the MOD has like 100 pages on what bullying is, and what it’s not.
James: The MOD has a very kind of legalistic description of practices that are not permitted, or that transgress what’s acceptable in the organisation. And for my experience of people working in like the MOD, it’s a great place to work. Other organisations have a much more loose, floppy definition of what it is to be a bully. And that’s because management still want to be able to define who the bullies are, you know, because they want to be able to nominate those who use the position of power to control others. And that makes it quite hard to challenge.
Before we started the podcast, you’re talking about how, you know, organisations as a whole can can be the bully, so how do we tackle it? How do we challenge that? And we have to do that as a collective. A relational approach is about recognising that we have to behave and act as a collective in order to be able to challenge organisational power because it’s really hard to do individually.
Rachel: Yeah, it’s really difficult. The definition of bullying, you know, we can all get behind this idea that that is not right. And organisations have a legal responsibility or duty to address it. But when you talk about relational abuse, it’s so much wider and it includes all those things that are really insidious and cause almost as many problems as bullying, but they are sort of acceptable.
James: So for example, you have a group of colleagues. And so let’s say two of them are kind of by their nature, you know anxious about the future and want to exert a bit of control over their peers. And they can collude in order to create a power base in within the group, and act as a pair, in order to exert power over others, to perhaps ostracise, to perhaps undermine, to control others, to perhaps undermine people in a different context in order to degrade their professional standing.
Say somebody is the one to have a stay-at-home day because work is just too stressful. And there may be structural reasons for that. For example, that work role has arranged really badly, and so on has just had, you know, a large amount of nights, they got young family, they just need some time off. Well, actually, they behave in a very normal way to a kind of abnormal circumstances. Now, the way that that is actually framed by other colleagues or senior colleagues could be such that one is sick. Well, this pathologising that person doesn’t sit, it undermines their professionalism, and puts, if you like, the blame or the onus on that person, and actually deflects attention for what’s really going on: because they may be new to the team, because they haven’t quite understood how work roles are organised, they’ve got all the bomb jobs, basically. And they’re just in danger of burning out. And because the general message is if you take time off, you’re weak. You’re not up to the standards. You’re, you get sick. You’re pathologised and so nobody else will will will take time off when they need to.
For example, it can be about creating these myths of invincibility. Because I certainly know in the medical profession as a young student, I used to, I used to work in hospitals as a porter and I would see consultants parading around and this kind of quiet godlike figure of invincibility that really just intimidate those who want to rise to that position. And so the idea is that if ‘to get to where I am, then you have to take, you have to take the treatment that I had; it’s how I got here, you’ve got to go through that as well.’ So there’s this kind of relational abuse, that ‘the only way you can get this level is to be abused in the way that I was.’
Well, actually, this is quite similar to the kind of abuse that happens, you know, I do a lot of work with sexual abuse in families, and it’s generational. It goes on for generations, the abuse. ‘This is what’s normal for me, and this is what I’m going to do to you. I don’t see it as wrong. It’s just what I’m used to. And don’t stop and ask me if it’s right or wrong, that’s too problematic.’ And so we’re having relations, you see parallels with abuses, from a very serious context. And then with, no one disagrees that, you know, sexual abuse in families is wrong and dangerous, but the parallels that exists in organisations as well. In fact, the parallels exist in organisations that investigate sexual abuse, and in organisations that provide counselling to those who have been the target of sexual abuse. The parallel processes of silences and what’s kept secret continues, you know.
I guess where I get involved, my consultancy, is to say, you know, ‘Are you noticing the parallel processes going on here? Are you noticing that what you do professionally plays out in your relationships with each other, as well?’ So I’m not sure if that’s kind of really nearly done enough. But when I see what happens between two people, I always see in the context of, you know, what is permitted, what sort of behaviours are presented to you as normalising behaviour.
I think, when I talk to colleagues and friends who work in the medical profession, the expectations of the fact that you’ve taught the ideal masculine employee first, because I talk in the book a lot about how we organise work and work intrinsically, structurally, is based upon the idealised man who can devote himself to the workplace for 40 years. And because he’s a man, he doesn’t have to reproduce. That’s all behind the scenes, right? That’s just structurally how we organise work, and it still goes on.
We begin to make real structural changes, like, you know, men take their paternity leave, and a lot of it. That’s what we really have to do in terms of gender equality in the workplace and making the workplace, you know, more friendly for people who are not men, quite frankly.
Rachel: Yeah, that is so fascinating when you were talking about, you know, ‘this is how we’ve always done it, it happened to me; therefore it’s going…’ And you knew, excuse it, I was just thinking, in the book, you talk about, you know, bullying and how we need to change our language and how we often you know, there’s the bully, and then there’s the victim, which is very difficult then for you to admit that you’re the victim or ever and you’re talking about actually, we should we call it the perpetrator and the target. And some of the euphemisms that people say about the perpetrator and the target, I just like to read them out, because I think they’re fascinating. And I, I’m sure, I’ve been called a lot of these: easily sensitive, can’t take a joke, you know, one of life’s natural victims, a bit of a loner, perhaps not a team player, but a maverick, outsider. So if you don’t fit in, you’re not a team player. And you might not be fitting in because you fit the gender or the culture or you’re refusing to join in with the bad behaviour, or has an attitude problem, or a troublemaker. And I’ve certainly be called that when I have raised concerns.
Then about the perpetrator, interestingly, like you said, and whilst you were talking about you know, these two people getting into a lot an alliance and making it difficult the rest of the team, I can just, you know, hit hospitals all around the country going, ‘My department, my department.’ I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. You know, the perpetrator is a forceful, strong, straight talker, their robust personality has an unfortunate manner, but they’re good. They’re a good person. It’s just their manner’s unfortunate. So just put up with that. So doesn’t suffer fools gladly, not a people person, hard taskmaster, old, old school, old school runs a tight ship. I just thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, and we accept, we accept all of that.’ That is fine.
James: Bullies. Yeah. And actually, I think I was I was in a mediation once. The manager, who was a hard taskmaster, was talking to the person who was the target, and he said, ‘Your bullies, I will hunt them down; there’ll be no bullies.’ In fact, in his the way he was thinking about dealing with bullies, you’ve actually been quite bullying as well, he’s actually, he wants to bully the bullies. And he can’t escape that cycle. But I also recognise that bullying is a behaviour and not something essential to the person.
Because ordinarily, when you’re working as a psychotherapist, you know, you think you’re always thinking carefully about boundaries, but that during one judging one stage of my career as a workplace counsellor, so often setting it was after about, I don’t know, 12 sessions with two people, I realised that actually, I was talking to the perpetrator and the target. Right. And they were, they had been talking about each other in sort of quite general terms, they brought the presenter the materials, and they were talking about people in their lives, they found quite difficult, but occurred to me that actually, these two people were talking about each other. One was the bully, one was the perpetrator. The person who was a bully, had no idea they were a bully, they wouldn’t, they would not have recognised that epithet. The person experiencing these behaviours certainly felt like they were being emotionally abused.
After many, that realisation only came to the fore, that when the work ended, during the supervision session, I wasn’t working with them knowing that. But then it reminded me that the turning point for the person who didn’t represent the bully, was when they thought about a period in their life, a very painful pain in our life, when someone who’s very popular that wants to be friends with it, systematically ignore them and ostracise them. And it occurred to them just how painful that was. And yet the person who was ignoring them had no idea.
It can be a complex dynamic, because very often people’s behaviour, they’re not aware of the impact, and they may not even be aware of why they’re doing it. But that gives the question: well, does it matter? I don’t think it does. What matters is a subjective experience of the person who is the target because all in all, we’re not always aware of the impact of our actions as we go about our daily life. I mean, we can’t be. But I think what’s really important is to be able to talk about the impact that we have on each other in a way that isn’t blaming, but because there can be a lot of shame associated with both parts of that dynamic, being the bully and being the target, the word you know the word victim, is it highly problematic because particularly for men, where you know, the masculinity is really about being off autonomous and strong and so on.
Very often, men who are the targets will suffer in silence for a very long time. And let’s face it, if a man is being bullied by a woman, he is less likely, in my experience, to do something about it than the other way around. So I think whilst there is a systemic aspect to this as well, I think, you know, bullies themselves, so people who engage in bullying may not have always necessarily been aware, I think that doesn’t matter. I think it’s about bringing the impact of your behaviour to the attention of others. And this does require not a punitive approach to bullying, which is the one I described with the manager who wants to go around bullying the bullies. It actually does require a kind, compassionate, relational approach.
In the book, in the other chapters of the book, I do talk about what a relational approach, you know, really looks like. So it’s not a theoretical, philosophical sort of argument. It’s actually, it’s found in the practices therapists engage in secret in their rooms, you know. And so it never really gets out. I think we know all this great stuff, but we don’t get it out. And that’s, that’s also a reason why I wrote the book and engage in a lot of kind of training and that kind of stuff.
Rachel: In a minute, I’m going to come and ask you a bit about this compassionate approach, and what bits that we as non-psychotherapists can adopt. First of all, I want to play a little bit devil’s advocate, because I think often bullying behaviour stems from the belief themselves, being having pressure on them from management to achieve certain things. And I know that in the NHS, we are really scared of performance management, really scared of it. I’m thinking of a colleague who’s in a line management responsibility. There’s somebody who’s been not doing their job on their team, and they probably, it hasn’t been addressed when it should have been addressed. And now they’ve had to raise it, give them some improvement targets, things like that, the first thing that this person did turn around and put in an accusation against them, the bullying.
James: So this sort of dynamic I see a lot because I think performance management can be seen as very sort of punitive exposing and shameful process when there’s no point in, it’s got too far down the line that needs something more formal. When in fact, a lot of that a lot of the work I do as a trade unionist is about de-escalating, winding things back, and making sure that the informal process, a supportive, informal process has taken place. Just a note, I know people are busy, and they don’t notice things and things drift, they feel the need to take action because they themselves are concerned about being in the spotlight.
I spend so much of my time engaging in de-escalation, and getting people back into being relational because very often, if things aren’t going for someone while at work, there’s going to be reasons for it. Nobody enjoys not contributing effectively to their team, and nobody enjoys— in fact, people enjoy working well with their colleagues. You know, it’s, work is good for us. And when work is good for us, we are happier, we are more content. Now, all the research evidence shows it. I think Freud said that he said that the purpose of life is to love to work. And so it’s de-escalation. And yeah, when that hurt and that pain gets triggered, and we reach for our holsters, then not only does that create a huge amount of workload for people like me and HR professionals, because we work very closely with HR professionals, that creates a huge amount of workload for us.
De-escalation really is absolutely key. So I don’t if that helps. But certainly, that’s why I spend most of my time doing is taking the heat out of stuff. Because you know, people get— shame is one of those emotions in the workplace. And I think I talked about I talked about the big three emotions in terms of attachment theory in the book, which are fear, anger, and shame. Shame is massive. You know, it can trigger a lot of behaviours, because shame is also the fear of being ostracised. And we’re human beings; we’re pack animals. If we feel like that pack wants us to, trying to kick us out, that’s an existential threat. You know, we are part of the pack. We need to belong to the pack, and the workplace, and our teams, our safety packs.
Rachel: Yeah. So you’re saying that, you know, if you do have to undergo performance management with someone, then spend a lot of time understanding where they’re coming from, offering informal support before you then have to go down that route and it’s less likely to escalate.
James: Yes, I mean, don’t get me wrong. I have been through that process myself. A number of trade unions and a psychotherapist and I myself have had to lead somebody out of the organisation that worked for me. And it was a very painful process. But at every opportunity where the hand of help and support was off, but it was rejected, you can offer help, and you can be supportive, but if there’s no engagement, then that’s really difficult to work with. So I’m not some kind of wishy-washy liberal, who thinks that, you know, the workplace is some kind of soiree, actually. But I think with compassion and support, we can avoid a lot of these things escalating. Yeah.
Rachel: So yeah, I’ve never want to accuse you of being a wishy-washy liberal. That would be dreadful, won’t it? In a minute, I’m gonna, we’re gonna come on to actually what you can do, how can you offer a compassionate approach? What can you do about some of this, but I did want to touch on a few more examples of relational abuse, and particularly gaslighting because this for me was like, ‘Oh, oh, yes’. And I think I can see this going on in the NHS at the moment.
This may be a bit that I’m too nervous to put out on the podcast, but I have seen a lot of anti-speaking up stuff going up, that happens to me, in my workplace, this might not be gaslighting, this might just be some emotional abuse. I’ve seen, at the moment, failure to protect our colleagues in medicine from abuse in the media, failing to speak up and protect them. I’m seeing people being told they have no choice but to work. I’m seeing blaming the providers of care rather than the commissioners, the lack of funding or say you don’t give enough money or resources to the people who’ve got to provide care. And then when they can’t provide the care you blame them. And, yeah, a lot of that sort of stuff going on, and I think it’s causing widespread anger.
People are sort of saying, ‘That’s enough, we can’t carry on.’ And then that may be being accused of being paranoid or, you know, being weak or overreacting, and all those sorts of things. And I just wondered if, if those were examples of relational abuse?
James: Well, that’s really fascinating. I think, I’m not quite sure who said it, we treat but God cures, you know. There’s some idea around recognising that in the medical profession, you’re not supermen and women, and you don’t have power over life and death. And yet, the expectations are really high in your profession. The expectation of your profession is really high. And I think that message, not very, medical science is fantastically successful, but that message, that, hang on, we’re not gods, we can treat. And we have, we can do that within the limited resource envelope. And we care.
Also from your organisation, to get that message out to be supported in recognising that actually, there’s only so much can be done with the resources we have. And if we want more from the NHS and from our practitioners, we need to pay more tax. At the very beginning, I was it was at Nye Bevan had had to concede that, ‘Okay, we got to pay for prescriptions, we can’t, they can’t be free.’ Right from beginning, it was recognised that this was a fantastic dream. But we have to be realistic about what we can offer. And I think that that message didn’t always get across. The last year has been an extraordinary year politically in terms of what the NHS means to us.
Rachel: Can I ask you about gaslighting? Because it’s different spectrums. It’s one thing being barely then you’ve got relational, emotional abuse, and gaslighting is this insidious thing that makes you think it’s your fault, or is it your fault. So just remind us what gaslighting is.
James: Well, I think the best introduction to this, because I wanted to go back to basics, I wasn’t able to go and see the play Gaslight, the Gaslight, but it’s wonderful film from 1943, I think. Ingrid Bergman. And so I thought I can watch this film as part of my research for the book. So I’m very dedicated. And so anyway, some chap decides that he wants to get hold of Ingrid’s diamonds. And so he met her, they have a whirlwind romance. And then he, what he wants to do then, is to try and undermine her sense that she understands the world around herself correctly. He begins to undermine a sense that she knows herself and that she is able to make emotional choices and decisions in a way that she can trust.
Actually, what he does is something, which is the anathema of being a psychotherapist, which is undermining a person’s capacity to trust in themselves. Because if you stop trusting yourself, then it’s, as a moral agent as a thinking person, how do you then make decisions about the world if you’ve been told by everyone around you, actually, you’re just reading it wrong? Just, you got it, you got it wrong. And the film has got some wonderful quotes or the kinds of things that can serve to that project to undermine someone’s capacity. For example, suggesting it’s, ‘You’re like a child,’ I think, ‘Like a child, you’re misunderstanding the situation.’ I think that’s a direct quote from the book, or, you know, things that I’ve actually heard from practice, which is, ‘Actually, I think you’re quite difficult, quite difficult personality,’ or, ‘You’re quite sensitive.
In fact, it’s the kind of thing now I think, on some branches of psychology, which is like, sensitivity, which is somebody just takes the world a bit too seriously. And that’s a pathology, which is really worrying. So you know, I’ve worked with people in the NHS, who have asked me, ‘Am I too sensitive? I’ve been told I’m too sensitive, it’s like a pathology.’ While t this is just bullshit to undermine your sense that what’s going on around you is— so, you’re sick. You’re unwell. Yeah. ‘Are you alright? Having a hard time? Finding difficult right now?’
You know, this is very invidious. And it slowly undermines the fact that actually, you’re thinking moral agent who knows what’s going on and can make decisions for yourself and recognise when things are wrong. And it undermines your confidence and then being able to challenge because you think, ‘Am I right here?’ And it hear it so so very many times when I’m working with people. ‘Is this what bullying feels like? Is it, is this?’ Yes, yes, it is.
In my experience, the only way to kind of get around that is to what I call triangulate. So if you’re isolated in your experience, as Ingrid Bergman was, then you will start to doubt your capacity to make sense of the world. But for Ingrid Bergman ironically, it was a Mr Cameron who came to her rescue.
Rachel: There is an irony.
James: So Mr Cameron comes to Ingrid’s rescue and says, ‘Hey, this guy is out to rob you. He’s trying to hold your diamonds, and I’m going to rescue you. Off we go.’
There’s an element of that the dramatic art that actually applies also to the workplace, which is triangulating your experience by talking to others about your experience. And sometimes actually getting the evidence for bullying is really difficult, slippery because bullies make sure there’s no audience. You know, this is something they learned to do as kids as a way of manipulating and coercing people. Don’t do something what someone around you can see what you’re doing. So very often happens in one-to-one interactions. And the person just changes, they become someone else. They become this alter ego. And then you have no— where’s your reference point for this? You know, it’s very often but so disorientating and confusing that you cannot make sense of it for days afterwards, what’s happened.
I think what’s really important is to triangulate the experience and that means getting others involved, people that you trust, getting them involved in checking out your experience. And I think this is where relationships, which I talked about in the book like, mentoring, informal mentoring. Yes. I mean, I’m a trade union caseworker. So very often, my role is also about these informal conversations. ‘What would you call this? What do you think this is about? What does this like?’ And, and I think it’s a triangulation, don’t be isolated in it. And yeah, get help. Because I think that’s what the bully relies on: that you’re going to be so confused and disorientated, just become demoralised and leave.
Rachel: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. Because if you put in a complaint said, ‘I’m being bullied,’ they said I was really sensitive. Listen to the start. So yeah, get some sense checking. ‘Am I sensitive like you said? and if that was really happening, and can you see it happening?’ And I think part of the problem is, certainly in healthcare, is that like you said, that sometimes the bullies really know that they’re bullies and they’re doing on purpose, but actually, sometimes they don’t know and do you think it’s possible to gaslight someone else without knowing that you’re doing it?
James: Yes, I’ve wrestled with this philosophical point many times because it’s about ethics, isn’t it? It’s about you know, if my if I know my action is wrong, then I’m wrong. But I don’t know my action is wrong, is it right? So but actually having played around with that conundrum for a long time, I think you know what, it doesn’t matter. No matter whether somebody has 50 hours of therapy with me to examine their relationship with their absent father or their overbearing mother and a sibling that was disinterested or bullying themselves, what does it matter if after 50 sessions, we get to the bottom of it, actually, what matters is the experience the person as the recipient. So that sounds a bit kind of cold, I think, but actually, we need to stop the bullying at the point of contact, you know, whether somebody knows, or needs therapy or needs to work it out.
Rachel: Yeah, it’s really difficult, isn’t it? It’s very multifactorial, you know, that person might be bullied themselves, they might be in a really difficult environment where they are held accountable for things that they have no control over. So they’re trying to exert control over you. There’s all that stuff. But what I did find interesting was you then talks about if you’re being relationally abused, or you’re being gaslighted at work, or working these difficult cultures, you then have to increase the emotional labour that you’re doing. Yeah. What do you mean by that?
James: Well, this is an idea that came out in the 70s. That you know, as type of work, we do changes, we’ve gone from lifting things and pulling things that the kind of work we do is more relational. If you think about work in a coffee bar. Actually, your job isn’t just about making coffee it’s about engaging in relationships with people that sometimes can be quite rude, or abusive, or— and not everybody is as polite as grateful as I am when they buy a coffee, particularly these days, but I think it’s then been able to process. But your reaction may well be to say, ‘How dare you treat me like that? What a terrible way to— bugger off and do that somewhere else.’ These minor sort of indignities are actually part of the be emotional workloads of doing that job. Going to work or being ignored, that’s not nice, is it?
I think in other professions, like the medical profession, this idea of bedside manner, you know, it’s an old idea, isn’t it? But actually, that’s the emotional layer of ‘Yes, it may well be the 20th, 30th person you’ve seen that week with this particular malady,’ but it’s actually presenting yourself as this is the first time ever met this issue. And having to do that takes a huge amount of emotional labour. So, yes, the idea of emotional labour, particularly in your profession, is profound. It’s profound because people look to you for help when they’re frightened, when they’re in despair. And you’ve got to, you know, there’s your technical abilities, but also, you’ve got to offer something else. And surely, we know that all the time. Now, it’s got to take a toll you need nourishment and to be replenished.
Rachel: And I guess, yeah, it’s a healthcare professional that you do see, that’s part of your job being able to deal with angry, distressed, upset, cross patients, and there are a lot of them at the moment for reasons that are completely without, outside our control. And then you’ve got to then add in the emotional labour of dealing with the relation abuse that’s occurring in the culture as well, which is a layer that would be really nice if that wasn’t there. I know, you talk about this sort of relational approach. I can’t recommend this book highly enough to people, if you’re interested in this, please get the book and there’s so much in there. But what principles would you really like people to take away?
James: Okay, so there’s really interesting piece of research done 20 years ago about what works in psychotherapy, what works. And yeah, I originally trained as an organic chemist, originally started off in education as an organic chemist. So I really am interested in what works. Yeah. And so are you, you know, in the medical profession, what works. And so this piece of research that looks at what works, what creates a therapeutic change when someone goes to psychotherapy, what helps people flourish, what helps people grow. And the results are really interesting that it was shown that about 15% of what works is just the placebo effect. ‘I believe this will heal me.’ And 40% is associated with just all your stuff goes on outside, because when you come for therapy, it’s only one hour of your week, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that can change outside and does change. And its term resilience is about our capacity to bounce back from tough times with our family and our friends, dogs, pets, you name it. And vanishingly small factors associated with actual technique, right? You know, it’s quite depressing for people who write books about technique, but that hardly matters.
What really matters is what’s called the common factors, and that’s about 30%. common factors are what’s common to a relationship that creates a safe space for somebody to flourish and develop. And this sort of relationship is quite unique because very often we don’t get it after our relationship with our mother. Even then it’s only but you know, not all of us are that fortunate to be able to get from others unconditional positive regard. I shouldn’t say father as well, father, whoever the carers are, doesn’t matter. Unconditional positive regard. ‘I love you just because you exist.’ I mean, I look at my children. I loved them, just because you exist. So I could sort of just positive regard. Empathy. What’s it really like being you? I’m interested in what is what does the world look like from your perspective. And authenticity, being real.
Now, these common factors are what the book is about. And so that’s what I’m suggesting in the book as well, that we can all try this, we can all simply put ourselves aside for a moment and being trapped in what’s going on for you. And not waiting for a gap so I can tell you about my day. It’s about responding really, really, authentically, to what’s going on for you. What does that do for me? You have, you feel like you’re being bullied? And that really bothers me that you’re being bullied. And you know, I feel a bit angry as well. I feel angry that because very often people forget to be angry about the fact that they’ve been bullied, they just feel scared. So being authentic is about also really checking in with what that does for you. And unconditional positive regard. You know, it’s, it’s about, it’s not about what you do, because I come back to this kind of challenge about thinking about is a bully a bad person? No, no.
A bully is someone who’s hurting; they’re in pain. At that some level, there’s a stone in their shoe. And it hurts every time they walk. And the size of the stone changes. But that’s all we’ve all got stone, just shoot. And I think it’s about having compassion about, you know, working with that way. I may have sounded compassionless towards bullies earlier on in our conversation, but we behave in ways that we know we want to be treated because we’re hurting for some reason. So that’s effectively, you know, the relational approach.
Rachel: Yeah, every behaviour, there’s an underlying need, isn’t there? That is probably unexpressed.
James: Exactly, yes. Yeah.
Rachel: Yeah. And I guess if you apply that, whether you’re the most junior person in the organisation, whether you’re middle management, whether you’re running the organisation, if you apply those three principles running, running through it like its DNA, then you’re probably not going to go far wrong.
James: Well, am I searching for utopia? The thing with searching for utopia is that once you’ve reached utopia, then you got to put some system in place to keep utopia. So you’re going to have to then turn into a totalitarian regime. So you know, it’s a philosophically difficult, but certainly, I’m not looking for utopia, I’m looking for people to just be a little bit more aware that if someone behaves badly, could be because they tend to have compassion for that person, and to just withhold judging what they’re up to for a little longer than you would normally do. So that’s a relational approach. It’s not really that complicated, I think. But to put it in practice, it’s hard.
Rachel: It’s really hard. And we work in such complex organisations and with such complex motivations and things like that. But I mean, that it’s just been so fascinating. It’s really open my eyes to stuff and I think I’ll be approaching things very, very differently, really, and hopefully with a little bit more compassion. If you have three top tips for someone who feel that they are being bullied or gaslighted or are suffering relational or emotional abuse in their workplace, what would you say to them?
James: Okay, well, certainly the first one is to check out with a trusted colleague or friend. And triangulate and triangulate means, you know, three or four, squaring, I’m not sure is a word but check out with others who know you, and just calibrate what’s going on, because actually being the type of bullying is about your experience. Okay? Point one. Point two you may contact— that person could be HR. So it’s a point you could be point one as well make contacts either with a trade union representative, caseworker, somebody who may well understand the context of what’s going on and talk to them.
You know, it could be nice to look after yourself as well. So you may need to look out for yourself just by talking to somebody who’s not connected to your family and so on. Because actually save family time, but you know, that they’re restoring and we operate in better. Very often organisations have employee system programs that sometimes are very good. And blow some steam and talk to a professional and spare your family from it. Because actually, when you’re being bullied, it can preoccupy yourself. If you’re miserable, and it detracts, you know, don’t bring it home, park it with a therapist, and you don’t have to be, this is the whole thing. You don’t have to be sick. It’s not about being sick. It’s about finding somewhere to blow off steam that are not your family or your friends. And that’s what we’re for. Because then we blow off steam up to our supervisors. And eventually, there’s some kind of huge cosmic chimney through which the world’s pissed-offed-ness gets blown out into another dimension.
Rachel: I just got this thing in my mind is and what if this great cosmic chimney accidentally collapses and falls down and will blast towards one particular profession, which at the moment, I think is general practice? We’re not going to talk abo.t that? Yes, that is really, really helpful advice, Jim. I think I would add to that, you know, we’re gonna have done a full circle add to that when you said, looking at yourself and getting help, and pay attention to your own wellbeing because if you’re not, you know, looking after yourself, is it just much much harder to do that emotional labour and to cope with whatever’s going on in the workplace.
James: Which is why, you know, apples and bicycles, they do have their place, but that is not alone the answer. Well, I think we’re, I think we’ve solved that one. That’s chapter seven done.
Rachel: Brilliant. Okay.
James: Well, I really enjoyed today, Rachel, it’s been absolutely tremendous fun. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. And I hope, if there’s people who have done, you’ve done me the great service of actually listening to this, that hope has helped a bit.
Rachel: I think it’d be really, really helpful. I think there’s many, many people around who just had their eyes opened by that. So thank you so much for being on. And Jim, if people wanted to contact you, either pick your brains or for consulting or anything, how can they best get hold of you?
James: I have a homepage on the University website. My name is James Costello. And I’ve also got an email address email@example.com. And also, I’ve started a consultancy with my colleague and Andy Chambers. And Andy came from a different sector, he came from the city where I think ideas of what it is to be a human being didn’t really fit. And so we became concerned about, you know, what it’s like being a parent, and combining it with work. And this is ties in a lot with what we talked about today. So we’re called Born Human, and the website.
Rachel: Brilliant. So we’ll put all those links in the show notes. So do get in contact with James. And, yeah, thank you so much. Will you come back on another time?
James: Oh, well, I think we’ve all just got started. Really, I think I think the philosophy of death and dread, I think is going to be a real ringer. You hear that one?
Rachel: Yeah, death and dread, right.
James: Oh, yes. Let’s do the whole post model.
Rachel: Wow. Right. I’m looking forward to that one.
James: It’s been lovely speaking to you, Rachel. Bye, bye.
Rachel: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please subscribe to my You Are Not A Frog email list and subscribe to the podcast. And if you have enjoyed it, then please leave me a rating wherever you listen to your podcasts. So keep well everyone. You’re doing a great job. You got this.