Rats, Stalin and Barrels: The Psychology of a Toxic Workplace
What makes you a terrible person: environment, or personality?
If you have a rat infested island, or so the proverb goes, you don’t need to kill every rat to get rid of them. Get a barrel, shut a score of rats inside, and wait until they get hungry enough to eat each other. Then you just let the survivors out.
Unfortunately, cruelty is very infectious. We base our moral norms and boundaries off what we ourselves are surrounded by. These moral behaviours, whether that means not stealing your coworker’s special mug, or not executing your prisoner, depend very much on what is perceived as normal within that moral space.
How badly you can behave is governed not so much by personal moral codes, but what we are socialised to accept or codify as a group. If I’m talking too anthropologically for this to be juicy, don’t worry. I’ll spill the tea and some dark historical facts.
In short: humans are pack animals. We are very easily influenced, and we bend and shape our own principles according to what the group is doing. Groupthink applies here: what the group does, you can do, and what the group hates, you can hate. It was not socially acceptable to brutally shoot your Jewish neighbour in the face, take his paintings and murder his children in 1920s Vienna. By 1943, the codes were different. The parameters of ‘evil’ had shifted.
So if the rats and barrel theory is true: that is, one ‘evil’ human can infect all his fellow humans with the same sociopathic cruelty, how does it reflect not just on national political culture, but on micro work culture? How does ‘infectious evil’ play out in say, an office?
You might say it is flippant and vacuous to compare modern corporate conflicts to such dark times in history: I am not. That is not my argument, nor what I seek to do. I seek to show that if you participate in the same cruelty, the same evils, and the same callousness that your colleagues do, out of fear or greed, you are behaving in the same way as the most monstrous among us. You are removing your autonomy at the expense of the vulnerable, the weak and the frightened. Wake up to the dangers of silence and complicity, whether that’s on a scale of life or death, or persecution and abuse.
The King Rat of The Barrel: The man we called Stalin
The time I worked for a sociopath
I know someone who, without exception among staff, former staff, journalists, invoiced workers, recruitment agencies or acquaintances, was known variously as Stalin, Hitler, Caligula and Nero. It became normal practice to psychoanalyse him in bemusement at his latest astonishing, brazen cruelty. Was it sociopathy? Was he just incapable of empathy? Was it his abusive, fractious childhood? Or was he just that freak of nature: a monster?
One thing was for sure: he was extraordinarily manipulative and callous.
He was the kind of man who, if he had murdered someone, would definitely blame his friend for ‘betraying’ him for failing to bury the body as well as he liked. This was a man who mocked disabled children, conned philanthropists, fired staff for literal spelling errors, called employees at 4am to deliver rage filled monologues on how stupid, incompetent and useless they were, and joked about firing others for their mental health minutes after doing so. This was a man who told people with eating disorders that their jobs were at risk for ‘worrying’ their clients by looking thin, lied about former colleagues being ‘insane’ or ‘violent’ to clients, and breaking up numerous friendships, relationships and inspiring more court cases than I can list in my head.
And, under him, I watched very good people become increasingly similar to him. The paranoia would creep in. The bitterness. The callousness. The desire to survive, at all costs. In many ways, it resembled some weird fascist cult.
The sleep deprivation was a big factor: you’d start getting demands, insults and frenzied panic at 4am, be expected to reply from 6am, be at your desk by 8.30am, and leave work at 7pm, but be immediately reachable until midnight. Technically, the day ended at 5.30pm, but it is not hyperbole to say he threatened to fire anyone who left the office on time. The knowledge that, at any moment, you could be called and shouted at, threatened and harassed left you checking Slack every few minutes. Weekends? Holidays? The whole time I was there, there wasn’t a single day when I didn’t check my slack or work emails every hour. Even at my grandmother’s funeral.
In my year there, I saw 18 people fired. Out of a team, I should say, of nine or ten at a time. I saw mental breakdowns, I saw panic attacks, I even saw a suicide attempt, entirely because of the way this monster behaved. So why did anyone stay in the rat barrel of terrible, frightened, tired, paranoid people, working for a man who was eating them alive? Why did they stay, knowing they were being forced to lie, cheat and conceal from clients they liked and admired? Or, most reasonably, why did I stay?
Why do people stay on working in evil places for evil people?
“Let them hate me, as long as they fear me.”- Caligula
This is a question that has haunted psychologists for years. Why do people take on jobs where they are sadistic? Why do people stay in abusive relationships and work under people they know to be evil? I’ll split this into two categories:
- Motivating Reasons
- Demotivating Reasons
Motivating reasons are something that you’ll find every where, in every culture. The man who takes a job as a SS policeman in Nazi Germany might well need the money. He might justify it to himself, as Christopher Browning suggests in Ordinary Men, in that he needs to feed his family. He needs a job. Similarly, a General under Stalin might look the other way to the bodies of young women buried in Beria’s rose garden, in the knowledge that he might get a promotion for keeping his mouth shut.
Money, wealth and bribery is a crucial factor in making someone do something they don’t want to do, and always will be. I stayed on, through hell, in part because I was paid more (£41k) than I could get working in any other job as a 22/23 year old woman. Was that greed? Yes. Was I a bad person for staying on and supporting that monster in his ruthless pursuit of wealth at the expense of countless others?
I told myself it was okay for me to work for an abuser because I earned more money than I would by looking for work elsewhere. Like anyone who does something knowingly bad, and contributing to a greater evil, I participated in it because I benefited in some way: in this case, financially. But, as you can imagine, it’s more complicated than that. If it was really, truly unbearable and morally repugnant, no amount of money, bribery or wealth would be worth it, right?
Demotivating reasons are more compelling than offers of money or status. “Let them hate me, as long as they fear me,” Caligula allegedly said of his people. Fear is a powerful motivator for abusers. Maybe you’ll be sent to the gulag if you don’t inform on your mother. Maybe you’ll be beheaded, beaten or tortured.
Maybe, in a work sense, you will be fired. Maybe you’ll be unable to pay your rent next month. Maybe you won’t be able to feed your child. That’s why you had to lie about your colleague. That’s why you had to look the other way when she was ridiculed for her eating disorder. That’s why you were silent when he abused your friend. You needed to. You had to survive. You had to not be the target of abuse for this hour, this meeting, this day, this week, this month. Gradually, it becomes second nature to look the other way, to do as you are told, to normalise the most grotesque and hideous abuses of power. This, alongside a daily diet of being told you are useless, pathetic, incapable and hated contributes to a strange frigidity in your inability to stand up and say ‘No, I won’t let you do that, and I won’t do it either.’
Again, I willingly participated in the culture of abuse. I am guilty of giving into fear, a desire for self preservation, and the emotional manipulation that contributes to toxicity. I am guilty: I stayed silent when I saw others being abused, I didn’t speak out when I saw others in tears or shaking with fear, and I didn’t help those who needed me out of the anxiety of getting into trouble myself.
I’m not a monster. I’m not a natural sociopath: I don’t enjoy hurting people. I don’t like seeing others in pain. I flinched when I saw others bullied, beaten down and insulted. But I behaved like a monster by participating in it’s survival. I fuelled it. I kept it alive when I came into work every day. I was part of a monstrous system, and I have to live with that. I will always be haunted by the faces of his victims: thin, tired, fragile young women, burnt out by his cruelty, his selfishness, his lies, and his greed. That’s my punishment.
But there is a light in the dark: humans can come back from the boundaries of moral perimeters.
People denounce their racism, their sexism, their discrimination, their hatred. People come back from the cruelty, the abuse and the venom they participated in. They realise that it was not normal, that they did have autonomy, and that they did behave badly. Dictators must fall, and dictators must die.
Since I left, I’ve had a slow trickle of apologies. Some were gushing, tearful and heartbreaking: pleading apologies for how they behaved, what they let him do to me, what they saw and what they let happen. Others were more tight fisted, quietly acknowledging that they wish they had done more, and that they hoped someday, no one would suffer at his hands again. Many more were angry, filled with a surge of trauma and bitterness for him, with a slow creeping sense of guilt.
I’m still realising what I did, and the gravitas of the damage that my participation caused to all those innocent, bright-eyed, happy young people, hopeful for a new job in a glamorous sector. I’m still feeling my guilt a little more each day.
So whatever level of evil you may be bribed or bullied into: whether that’s small in an office, or grotesque and sweeping across a nation, don’t excuse yourself. Keep your autonomy, keep your head, and recognise that evil men of this earth only have power when you participate in it.
You are strong when you say no. You can always walk away.
Break the cycle.