04 April 2016

When people behave badly: How to recover if you're the target

For well over a decade, I have studied and contributed to the body of science on fostering civility, and creating and sustaining healthy workplaces. The utter cruelty of certain individuals never ceases to amaze me. Fortunately, the vast majority of people are respectful and civil. Yet, sadly, others treat people with disdain and contempt. I am often asked what motivates people to behave badly. It’s not a simple question to answer. Although there are reasons behind negative and harmful acts, some of which make sense, others simply fail to explain disrespectful human interaction.

For example, do you consider yourself a reasonably respectful or civil person? Most of us would say yes. If this is true for you, here’s another question: Have you ever been rude or disrespectful to someone? If you are like every other human being, the answer to the second question is also yes. So then the question becomes, why would an otherwise civil or respectful person behave rudely or badly?

Stressed out
Very often, the answer is, “Because I’m stressed out.” I agree; heightened levels of stress brought on by any number of life’s demands often account for much incivility. Stress may be caused by the challenges of managing the myriad roles and responsibilities associated with family, work, and life in general. Being overworked, underpaid, and sometimes unappreciated also may contribute to increased stress. While not acceptable, responding rudely in highly stressful situations is more easily understood than other forms of incivility.

–  People Images
In the workplace, incivility can add tension to an already highly stressed environment, and its potential impact cannot be overestimated. Being treated badly or in an uncivil manner, particularly over time, can have devastating results. In a practice-based discipline, such as nursing, this is especially troubling, because incivility can weaken confidence and moral courage, impair clinical judgment and reasoning, create vulnerability and self-doubt, and cause anxiety, resentment, and anger. Ultimately, it can negatively impact patient care.

Stress is not the only contributor to incivility. I’m reminded of a story told to me by a nursing instructor in her mid-50s. She was so excited because she had finally, after much soul-searching and research, decided to pursue a doctoral degree. She could hardly wait to share her excitement and ideas with her program director. When she had an opportunity to meet with the director and disclose her scholarly intentions, the director laughed and said: ‘‘Are you kidding, at your age? You can’t be serious. By the time you finish your degree, you’ll be ready to retire. We prefer to invest in younger faculty.”

The exchange left the instructor feeling demoralized and diminished, and she decided to forgo pursuing the doctoral degree. Whether the director’s comments were intentionally or unintentionally delivered, the result was the same. A talented and energetic faculty member was left to feel devalued and unimportant.

Rank rankism
This example illustrates the negative impact that low emotional intelligence, ineffective communication skills, and an attitude of superiority—a sense of power over—can have. The instructor in this story is the target of rankism, a term coined by Robert W. Fuller, PhD, former president of Oberlin University. In his book, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank, Fuller tells us that "rankism" lies at the heart of discriminatory behavior, is evident in nearly every institution in society, and occurs when people abuse their power to demean and disadvantage those they outrank.

Intended or not, disrespectful and rude behavior toward others may indicate prejudice and rise to the level of discrimination—in some cases, outright abuse. The antidote to rankism is to foster work environments based on human dignity for all. It is abuse of power and rank—not power and rank per se—that damages relationships and puts people at a disadvantage.

Those who are targets of rankism and other forms of incivility often describe their experiences in vividly emotional ways. Many are still negatively impacted by their uncivil experiences, even when the encounters occurred years before. Some people describe intense psychological symptoms, such as feeling traumatized, helpless, and powerless. Many feel caught in a no-win situation, with little possibility of successful resolution. The lingering effects of incivility can cause serious and sometimes lasting psychological and physiological effects.

Although each of us deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, people report varying degrees of discomfort when addressing conflict and incivility. For further discussion of this topic, read my two-part series on conflict negotiation.

If you have been the target of repeated incivility or bullying, attending to your physical, emotional, and spiritual health is a critical first step. It may be necessary to see your healthcare provider or seek counsel from a mental health expert. Getting yourself physically and emotionally prepared to deal with the problem will require you to be in a healthy state. When reporting a problem, it’s important to follow confidential policies, procedures, and guidelines (assuming they exist). In any case, inform your employer or supervisor about the problem, and request institutional support. Be sure that human resource and employee-assistance program personnel have your best interest in mind and are poised to assist you in following healthy workplace policies and procedures.

10 tips for recovery
For anyone who experiences incivility, either inside or outside the workplace, it is imperative to reverse the negative effects it can have on his or her physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If you have been the target of bad behavior, here are 10 tips for successful recovery.

1. Share your story with a good friend, family member, mentor, counselor, or member of the clergy. Avoid sharing your experience with co-workers. Instead, seek support from those who can offer a more objective perspective, such as an ombudsperson, conflict negotiator, or civility coach. Relating the experience and sharing it with others can provide healing. However, avoid dwelling on it too long. Tell your story, validate that it occurred, and make a plan to move forward.

2. Journal about your experience. For many people, writing their story and reflecting on it can be therapeutic and may help provide insight.

3. Engage in activities you enjoy, and don’t retreat from relationships that matter to you. Continue to make time for exercise, friends, family, pets, and social activities.

4. Enjoy a massage, meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques.

5. Get plenty of sleep, stay hydrated, and eat a well-balanced diet.

6. Get (or stay) involved by helping a friend, neighbor, or co-worker. Volunteer in the community, or champion one of your favorite causes.

7. Focus on building resiliency. No one size fits all, so find the plan that works for you. Surround yourself with positive people and with those who bring you joy.

8. Try to find meaning in stressful or traumatic events and experiences, and incorporate this meaning into moving forward.

9. Recognize what makes you uniquely strong, and own it! Don’t let others define you. Memorize and practice reciting a positive script, such as: “I am poised, balanced, and in control of my life. I am talented, courageous, and confident in my ability to succeed.”

10. Remember, symptoms of distress can last from a few days to many months, and recovery takes time and progresses at varying paces and degrees. If symptoms are persistent, you may need to talk with an expert. Don’t hesitate to reach out for support if you need it.

Clark, C.M. (2008). Student perspectives on incivility in nursing education: An application of the concept of rankism. Nursing Outlook, 56(1), 4-8.

Fuller, R.W. (2003). Somebodies and nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.