Attacking a person’s self-esteem can destroy them

Victoria Gimeno. Director. International Relations. IE University

22 February 2017

Bullying in the workplace has highly destructive effects on people’s mental and physical health, and the consequences can last for years. In short, it is a form of abuse.

I often repeat that attacking someone’s self-esteem should be a jailable offence. It is extremely difficult to get over the effects this form of abuse  has on people.

It reminds me of some coaching processes that I once did.

Pepe, in the first coaching session we had, described the bullying he had suffered ten years earlier, and although when I first met him he was happy at work, he still hadn’t forgotten or forgiven his two bosses who submitted him to horrendous bullying at work. When I asked him to tell me about these experiences, the mere act of remembering these bosses upset him so much that I could see the physical signs of profound anxiety that resulted from thinking back on it.

Ten years had passed, but he still actively avoided any work situation that reminded him of it in any way, like working for a company dedicated to a similar activity, or people who used similar gestures or had similar reactions to things. Obviously, this meant it influenced his work and his life for those 10 following years.

Harassment at work or bullying, although it occurs in different forms, has highly destructive effects and people’s feelings of security and confidence, and on their physical and mental health. It is also often carried out in subtle ways that are very difficult to prove.

In Pepe’s case, for example, they discredited his work continually in front of third parties, particularly clients. They didn’t let him go to any meetings and left him isolated from other employees. Of course they didn’t keep him informed of issues that they were in charge of and then made him responsible for them.

In another session Luis talked from the heart, telling me how his boss had invited his work colleague to watch Real Madrid from a box seat, knowing that he was also a massive fan of the team. This disdain was rounded off by continual meetings with the same colleague to which he was never invited.

I also remember another coachee whose boss ordered him to do tasks without any kind of guidance or orientation, demanding that he find out how to do it himself, and then once he had completed a task, told him that he had done everything wrong. The boss would then proceed to tell him off, humiliating him with a look of disdain and telling him he was useless.

In the case of Roberto, he had work taken off him day after day, making him think, as in the previous cases, that he wasn’t capable of doing it. When he managed to change jobs, in spite of his new work being easy because he had done things far more difficult, he kept thinking that he couldn’t do it. 

Finally, I remember Manuela, who was asked to do presentations with 35 minutes’ notice, or was given impossible tasks, and when she was unable to do them, rumors were spread that she was a disaster and worthless.

In all these cases, what was happening was systematic bullying, carried out over time, in front of the rest of the people in the office, without anybody reacting. Given that we are not all the same, some of the cases of bullying ended up in treatment for depression, while others made it out the other side by managing to change beliefs about themselves and building their self-esteem. All changed their jobs. But many, unfortunately, have not forgiven and continue being the victims of their tormentors.

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