Getting Out Of Gangland

Bullying is psychic paint stripper, effortlessly removing shiny surfaces and protective shields. It is a powerful chemical which can strip away our sense of ourselves and our place in the world.  Bullying at work is painful in part because it is pretty much always involves a crowd – the witnesses, the didn’t-see-nothing-s, the cheerleaders and the bullies themselves – turning departments into ghettos and teams into gangs.

There’s a lot of excitement these days about tackling gangs.  As someone who lives in the Elephant and Castle I’m not sure that gangs are always much more than excluded kids with bad housing, but for sure gangs exist and they’re a real threat to getting a good nights sleep.  There is something disturbing however at watching bald white MPs talking excitedly about tackling gangs, and not just for obvious reasons. I recently watched Ian Duncan Smith speaking at a quango event describe tackling teenage girl gangs as his moral calling. As a former leader of the conservative party (him, not me) it left me with the unpleasant experience of needing to be sick into my own hand.

Tackling gangs is actually a moral crusade for all of us. It is with great regret that I have to inform you that depending on your state of mind you can move from that nice bloke in accounts to the North West’s Charles Bronson within in a matter of weeks.  Gangs are formed as a defence, against fear and the experience of being vulnerable. Gangs create a fantasy world where you can be part of a powerful group of cool kids, who take on the bad guys and push around the little people. Gangs deny differences – particularly between members, and as a result nobody gets to question the rules or dabble in free expression.  Thems the rules.

Gangs can exist everywhere there are groups of people, starting way back in those glorious days of the playground.  Most children will experience bullying at some point either as bullies, victims, witnesses or an uncomfortable mixture of the lot. As a result of a chronic rise in bullying in schools and its graphic rise in social media, there’s been a lot of money pumped into anti-bullying campaigns for kids and they are way ahead of us. Unfortunately managing to grow up doesn’t mean you don’t have to re-enter the playground when you go to work. Workplaces easily fall into a gang mentality in times of recession. The job of work starts to look pointless, people feel on the edge and some turn inwards to consolidate what they have. This paranoid regime involves securing a position in the workplace aristocracy, where being top dog no longer means being a team player, rather it’s about how to keep a critical mass below you on the evolutionary scale. In order to deal with the sheer volume of applicants, gangs adopt bullying as a way of weeding out the weeds, weirdoes and anyone who doesn’t have the right haircut.

In the face of being bullied at work, there’s a huge temptation to withdraw from other people. Most of us at some point have taken long routes to work and experienced a spectacular loss of orientation skills around staff meetings. I’ve recently seen a lot more women spending their lunch breaks locked in toilet cubicles as a spectacularly undignified way to have a peaceful lunch and to manage group relations. Not so far from the playground now then.


So how to get out of Gangland?  Let’s cut to the chase, its other people. This can be anyone from friends, likeminded geeks, people who really want to do some work or that tried and tested option of joining a union.  The reason for this is because when you’re being bullied, you are on the receiving end of a projection which says that you are on the losing side. It plays on our vulnerabilities, cutting us off from our own and other peoples’ humanity. The only way to tip the balance back is to rely, I would suggest heavily, on our own humanity and that of others. This requires making contact with other people and asking for their help. In a bullying workplace, joining a group can give us a profound sense of place and support. The power of groups is that they are living proof that nothing is predetermined and that we are all capable of change and adaptation. Yes, even the  rules can change. Trade unions are particularly good at dealing with bullies – they don’t like em, and reps can be dogged in their devotion to shouting back on our behalf when we can’t summon up the strength to unlock the toilet door. It does mean accepting the uncomfortable reality of needing other people but when you’ve got over that, you might find that some of them can help you move from being a victim to a survivor of work.

Although running away might look like a ticket out of Gangland, without other people it’s a visa to nowhere and whatever the brochure says, there’s likely to be a gang waiting at our destination.  Save yourself the air miles and join a group that wants to go to work.

Next week we will be rather cheeky about the link between leadership, bullying and corporate psychopathy. Chuckle chuckle snort.

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