Combatting psychological warfare

Bryan Whitefield shares his professional advice and tips on dealing with psychological warfare in the office

Whether it’s bullying, authoritarianism or simply a lack of caring for how one responds to a subordinate, psychological warfare is what you have in the complete absence of psychological safety. That is, an environment in which no one dares speak up. And when no one is willing to speak up, while the boss’s ego may grow, hand grenades are being left all over the place. Just waiting for someone to pull the pin.

As an executive assistant you should take interest in psychological safety, or a lack thereof, because you are in a perfect position to spot it. And you’re also in a position to unwittingly promote it. While the boss’s time and even ego may need protecting, it should not be at the expense of staff ceasing to raise issues.

Spotting the issue

While there are obvious signs of psychological warfare such as loud voices and poor language, some are more nuanced.

Late last year I was speaking with an old client about her experience in a toxic environment. Let’s call her Kate. What Kate experienced was a culture of finger pointing, the blame game and “don’t you dare come to me with anything that might make us look bad”.

Kate’s warfare story was about an 18-month period as a senior manager reporting to a member of the executive. She was in a governance role and it soon became evident that her job was to take care of things so that her boss and the rest of the executive did not need to worry about such things.

It took two weeks for Kate to get her first one-on-one meeting with her executive manager. Over the following months her one-on-ones were cancelled or curtailed with great regularity. By the time her tenure came to an unexpected and abrupt end, she had managed just two hours of face-to-face time with her boss in 18 months.

During that time Kate had done her best to create value in the role that was decidedly not evident when she arrived. While doing so, she soon realised the toxic environment that staff were operating in. So, she set about creating psychological safety for her team so they could be more effective in supporting the rest of the organisation. Encouraging them to speak up, to try new approaches and to feel safe in failing.

She then reflected that while she had done the right thing for her team, she had not done the right thing for herself. When she spoke up, her boss and others on the executive felt threatened and reacted with an array of avoidance, delay and blame-shifting strategies.

Raising the issue

Kate and I spoke about how she could have done things differently. In hindsight, she realised she needed to confront the situation much earlier and in a very tactful way.

Kate was familiar with my book about creating persuasive conversations so we discussed how she might have constructed the conversation with her boss. We agreed that her boss was not aware of the damage that was being caused and how that impacted on her ability to shine. So, we focused on a diagram to help explain the situation. Figure 1 is the diagram we came up with.

It shows that staff react to the actions of management based on the emotions stirred in them. And that wrongful actions have impact that fracture the fabric of an organisation’s culture. And in seeking safety, staff put up barriers. They don’t speak up. They hold on to, even hide, bad news.

Diagrams like this work very well as a conversation starter. Something to interest the other person and to explain what a complex situation is actually. In fact, if you were to draw this in a notebook or on a piece of paper or on a whiteboard for someone, they would be even more interested. It is because they feel part of its creation rather than feel it is being thrust upon them. One of my key tips for anyone needing to influence someone in a tricky situation.

What you can do

The impact you can have on combating psychological warfare will depend on circumstance of course. For example, if you know the person you need to influence very well, you can simply talk about the issues of how people react emotionally to the actions of their managers and how people put up barriers to protect themselves. However, if you don’t know how to broach the subject with the person, grab a notebook, have a coffee with them and draw three circles and start filling in the blanks. You may well be surprised at how much they sit up and listen to what you have to say.

Bryan Whitefield mentors executives in organisations to increase their influence and improve decisions across their organisation. He is author of Persuasive Advising: How to Turn Red Tape into Blue Ribbon and delivers his Persuasive Adviser Program across all sectors of the economy.