Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Silence of Our Friends!

Today, while watching a TEDx talk by Jackson Katz ( about violence and silence, I was suddenly reminded of my struggles with a particular boss I had for about 10 years.

The struggles I faced were unique by any usual standards. You see, I was well paid, openly acknowledged and appreciated, empowered to make critical decisions, and given more opportunities to climb the corporate ladder than anyone else. My job was safe and and I was protected. By all standards, I should have had no struggle at all!

The problem was this. This particular boss, a man, was downright verbally abusive to employees he didn't like. And it didn't take him long, or much, to dislike people.

Though I must say he was quite fair in his dislike dispensation. He would as easily dislike people whom I would hire, as he would those he did. When I was being interviewed, he shared proudly that there were eight nationalities in the company. I soon learned that his dislike knew no barriers of race and nationalities. And there was no gender discrimination either- he had made as many men cry as women.

There were a hundred ways to disappoint him and set off his I-so-fucking-dislike-you meter. You could make a grammatical mistake, or write inelegantly, or have a different way of doing things, or come up short on how much he expected you to accomplish in a day, or be extra-confident of yourself, or be too diffident, or be too narrow-minded, or be too easily distracted, or be callous enough to not remind him of a client meeting, or not be as super creative just as he was, or be too tactical and not strategic enough in your thinking, or be too full of big talk...and so on. With senior staff, the main trigger was standing up against his ever changing priorities or having a different opinion on any business matter than him. In short, there was just no getting away from being disliked by him, sooner or later

And how did he respond to the dislike that you caused him to feel for you? By shouting loudly, spewing enough profanities to make you have nightmares every time you saw the letter F, or being sarcastic and nasty in a voice just loud enough for everyone in the open office to hear. Basically, he ripped you off all dignity at the slightest pretext. With him, there was so redemption, no second chances. You lose once, you were declared a loser forever.

Image from:
Now enough background, let me come to the point of why the TED video triggered this memory. Even though I had seen an example of rudeness and sarcasm even before I had formally joined the company, it took me a few months in the job to figure out that something was seriously wrong with how he was treating people. The reaction of the staff didn't help either. Though there was lunch-time gossip around the topic, it was tinged with a certain acceptance, almost indulgence. No one ever objected to his behavior while he was at it. No one walked away. No one intervened. The less sturdy bystanders shook in their boots during the verbal assault happening to others, while the rest carried on with their work. The victim(s) appeared back at work the next day as if nothing had happened. I never heard a victim shout back, though I am told it happened a couple of times before my time.

I too was one of those who shook in my boots when such hostile exchanges happened. The difference was that I stood up and took action while I was still shaking.

The first time, I stood up for myself when I felt the hate-wave building against me. I asked him to step outside so we could have some privacy and then told him that though I had made a mistake (in a proposal), I did not believe I would ever make the same mistake again because I held myself to very high standards. So, he need not remind me about the mistake I had made or keep looking for similar mistakes in all my work, because that's what I would be doing. I could see the shock in his eyes at my approach. Obviously, no other employee had dealt with the matter in this particular way before.

Nothing special about defending one's own self, though in that toxic passive environment, it was an oddity.

The next time I stood up for a very close friend of mine, whom I had hired because she was exceptionally talented. She triggered his dislike in the very first project they worked on as a team, just three months into her employment with us. I saw what was happening and just told my boss that if I heard another insult hurled at her, not only would she leave, I would too. Doesn't sound like an elegant defense, more like blackmail, but I meant it and it worked.

But let's be honest. There is nothing exceptional about defending your best friend either.

The next time, and the dozens of times after that, I stood up for anyone and everyone. My point was not that they hadn't made mistakes, but that abuse and violence was unacceptable to me as a decent human being. Those were the years I was learning more about Buddhism and couldn't help but relate the concepts of value and dignity of human life to what was happening around me. Every insult he hurled at people seemed like a slap on my face- my heart would race and my cheeks would tingle until I had had my say.

Each such intervention with my boss was a stressful 4-5 hour session (or longer) that would drain me of all energy. Not only did I have to hear how unfair I was to him, but also what a poor judge of people I was because the people I was defending deserved to be treated like shit. Of course, I was also made to feel I was too weak and soft to be a good manager of people. I can't recount the number of times I heard fucked-up BS like "real leaders have to make tough decisions and not be concerned with being liked etc." Each time, I had to bring him back to the basic issue- that of human dignity and decency and faith in the potential of people. And if someone had really proved that they were useless, then shouldn't they be fired from the job, instead of being insulted?

Most of such sessions would result in some positive changes for the affected person, because I won't let go until it did. Later I realized that once it was over, it wasn't really over. The animosity lasted as long as the employee lasted in the company- it just simmered under the surface. And when people left, he never failed to remind me about my poor judgment in defending people who were basically useless.

Veterans in the company told me that I changed the office atmosphere totally within a couple of years. I am glad they thought that, but I know I was just responsible for changing the expression. The abuse went on, but behind closed doors and away especially from my eyes and ears. People continued to suffer but perhaps had a little more dignity. Despite not being successful in making a fundamental change in the situation, I am happy that at least someone had told the abuser that what he did was wrong. I once read some Australian training material on workplace bullies and forwarded him the description after highlighting keywords, much to his shock and hurt. He actually looked devastated and betrayed because I called him a workplace bully!

I was bold, because I knew I was right. It didn't hurt that I also knew I was indispensable at that time!

As his trusted and star employee, who was never at (or likely to be at) the receiving end of his abuse, I could have kept quiet. But I am glad that my principles and conviction, strengthened by my Buddhist beliefs, pushed me into taking a stand. If I hadn't, my silence would have done more damage than anyone else's.

As Martin Luther King said (quoting Jackson quoting MLK in the TEDx video):

"In the end what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends!"


  1. PS: A good friend, who knew what was going on to some extent, asked me how and why I continued to work in this toxic environment for so many years. I have thought a lot about it. My belief that this battle was worth fighting was a big reason I stayed on. You see, in Buddhism, it is said the the environment is a reflection of yourself, and you can run away from everything except yourself. So I didn't run away as long as I had faith that I could change my environment. And the fact that I genuinely affected the lives of some people kept me going too

  2. The man was (and maybe still continues to be) a bully. It's no different than the bullying behavior you see in school yards. And you have to stand up to a bully. It's harder for the victim to do that than other people who can observe the behavior without it being personal. Good for you that you refused to be a silent observer.

    1. Spot on Nanhi. The bullying behavior continues. I heard about an episode that happened just a couple of weeks from a colleague who still works with him.

  3. You stood up for them Puja thank God, people just watch and laugh!
    Bullying at workplace is increasingly becoming a prevalent,accepted and allowed behavior-be it boss or co-workers. The killer version is sexual harassment with bulling.
    They use every opportunity be it race, religion, clothes to bully and fulfill their desires and frustrations.
    I heard someone tell a lady co-worker in public, "I will work on this project if you wear a 10 inch skirt." And continued to justify saying I am not asking for something that is not a culture in the country.
    I guess this person feels that the salary is not sufficient and he needs additional perks.