Psychological Warfare at Work

By | February 22, 2014

These days, we hear about drone strikes, those unmanned weapons swooping in and killing everyone in their path.  The workplace feels the same effect when someone’s engaging in psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare is defined as the use of propaganda and intimidation to destroy the morale of an enemy, who is then too defeated to put up a fight.  And though none of us work for Genghis Kahn, who was notorious for stirring enough fear in folks he met little resistance as he mowed across Asia and Eastern Europe, we have probably worked for and with those who employ similar tactics.

We HR folks need to be on the lookout for this treacherous behavior because the results are devastating.  Sadly, we often figure it out after it’s too late, and we’re looking at the apocalyptic ruins of employees and the business.

I encourage all leaders to manage their employees’ performance.  However, some leaders use this as an out to rid themselves of unwanted employees.  It’s not that they’ve identified poor performance or a bad hire, they simply don’t like the person or feel threatened.  These reasons include an employee who suggests a system or practice that differs from the leader’s idea, or perhaps the employee excels and could one day do the leader’s job.

But let’s say there is some sluggish performance.  Rather than manage this performance and coach the person up, the bosses engaging in psychological warfare will start to push impossible and unclear assignments onto the employee.  Then they’ll complain that the employee can’t do the work.  They’ll also begin a campaign, through emails and conversations, to destroy the employee’s credibility.  They’ll be listening to and logging every word and document while also searching and collecting data to use against the employee.  Their conversations with the employee are meant to slowly erode the employee’s confidence.  They’ll often try to enlist HR’s help, and they’ll be cunning and charismatic enough to convince us if we’re not on guard.

If it’s a co-worker, the war’s subtle and often comes in the form of passive-aggressive yet deliberate sabotage.  I’ve seen the worse, mind you.  I’ve seen people hide needed files.  I’ve seen people tell someone the wrong deadline date.  For example, I recall one colleague who had planned the company picnic for several years.  But under new leadership, responsibilities shifted, and the picnic was given to someone he didn’t like.  Rather than sharing all his contacts and history of the successes and failures of the event, he destroyed the files.  Consequently, his co-worker essentially had to reinvent the wheel.  Also, his co-worker was missing some valuable information that caused the event to be subpar.  This put a chink into his co-worker’s credibility and capability.  The person engaged in psychological warfare was able to gloat, and he employed these tactics again and again.

But if it’s a leader engaging in psychological warfare, your company’s in danger.  I’ve seen leaders fire people with seemingly good reasons only to realize later that the fired employee was set up for failure.  I’ve seen whole groups coming forward and finding it impossible to explain what was going on.  They knew they were being mistreated, and most were working in a constant state of terror.  I’m not saying fear.  I’m saying terror.  See, most of us cannot fathom treating others this way, so it’s unlikely we’ll have any real understanding of the psychological warfare being perpetuated against us.  We’ll only know that we’re unhappy, and we’ll likely have lost our confidence in the process.  We’ll have no real words or data for the abuse and will simply quit.

HR, I know we’re not the office cops, but we’re the ethical gatekeepers.  We’ll need to be on the lookout for the following:

  1. Ongoing volunteer resignations.  During the exit interview, you’ll notice these folks staring out the window in shock.  Truly, they look like war victims.
  2. Employees taking medical leave due to stress and anxiety or simply stress-related illnesses.
  3. Subtle retaliation. Okay, we’re quick to discover blatant retaliation—cutting of hours, demotion, etc.  But what about the other forms?  Piling work on or taking it away.  Micromanagement?  Snide comments to co-workers.  Sudden documentation.  What’s terrifying is that the master of psychological warfare will have his or her ducks in a row and will be able to defend all actions.
  4. A history of inexplicable employee relations issues.  The bad boss will say it’s performance; the employees are just confused.
  5. Collecting words, twisting them, and blaming.   Masters of psychological warfare will take anything you say (HR, you’re not immune), and use it out of context.  They will save emails and track events—using them to their advantage.

Okay, one last thing about these office warlords, they’ll have a following–co-workers or staff who worship them.  It’s almost as if these co-workers or staff have been bitten by a vampire and can now only drink blood.  It’s self-preservation, really.  Becoming a vampire is better than the other choice, death.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic.  But I don’t think so.  It’s detrimental to any workplace to employ those who don’t care about the wellbeing of others.  I don’t care what type of industry you’re in.  But it’s easier to deal with the outright bullies and inappropriate schmucks, let me tell you.  The office warlords are another story, entirely.

How was work today?