If you arrived here because of an encounter with toxic people or a negative experience with a service, please don’t worry, so did we. In order to deter the behaviour of bullies toward us, we developed countermeasures. Often we were asked to help others and when we could we would. In our working lives we encountered so many toxic people we inevitably asked the fundamental questions; Why, why us, what is it, and do we have to put up with it? You see we thought it was just how people are.
Over the course of time we became experts by experience and realised that our role in the organisations we had served was that of Toxin Handler. We had the ability to predict and manage toxic behavior in the community and at work. More importantly because we had asked the questions above and studied it first hand – the knowledge we gathered gave us the insight to deal with it with a degree of accuracy and when we did we left behind not just individuals who benefited but organisations.
According to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, in Britain 1 in 6 Women and 1 in 12 Men will become the victim of a stalker.
It seems toxic people develop an interest in malevolence from an early age and thrive on it. They see it as how they can get what they want and be “top dog” and stay there. To them a successful attack gives pleasure and satisfaction. To their victims and targets the impact is the ruin of their life, their work or their pleasure and a period of misery in their life.
Its not just that. To the victim the impact can be lasting damage to his or her physical and mental health depending on his or her own mindset. Bystanders are prone to ignoring this damage, or being misled. Toxic attacks are easily shrugged off, or hidden behind legitimate or bogus activities – a stalking horse or cover up.
You might be lucky and have a defence mechanism but many people don’t.
Man Up (really?)
Deliberate harm to a person is a factor of contact with toxic people. The usual response to a plea for help is often “get over it” or “Man up”. Paradoxically “Getting over it” and “manning up” implies the target changing his or her mental attitude to one of acceptance. Nobody should be forced to accept being treated badly.
When we talk about physical or bodily harm to a person it draws a different response as it is covered by criminal law.
The hidden pain of mental harm has been ignored for centuries – despite it leading to physical harm. One in four people will suffer a mental health problem in their life. Toxic behaviour is a mental health issue and itself plays a major part in this. There are numerous examples where people have responded to being victimised out of desperation, sometimes with fatal consequences. New thinking has been around for the last few decades and is gradually changing the way we look at mental health and its causes.
The characteristic of toxic behaviour is hard to spot and difficult to prevent. Those with the potential to help, in our experience, especially people whose duty it is, in the authorities i.e. heads of schools, bosses, the police and council workers often simply turn a blind eye. They can also be drawn into collaborating with the perpetrator and\or sweep it under the carpet so they don’t have to deal with it (in fear of becoming a target themselves). One case we have documented shows clearly how council workers were sucked into an overwhelming abuse of power against a 75 year old pensioner by his neighbour while others stood by.
Part of the treatment is to label the victim with a mental health problem. People with mental health issues are stigmatised. This tool can be systematically (ab)used to draw a victim into the mental health system almost instantly drawing attention away from the assailant.
Once this happens people who the victim thinks can help, can become tools for the assailant.
We don’t talk about mental health, or the way people treat us as it makes us look weak, although recent media campaigns are opening up to mental health and the stigma is beginning to lift, people are beginning to talk about their experiences. Here we think there is a long way to go before toxic behaviour is finally neutralised and we will continue to raise the issues and document what it is like for the target.
Negative Health Outcomes.
The mental health of the target and the assailant are usually considered separately:
- The target. Besides stress, depression and PTSD, toxic behaviour is responsible for provoking extreme response by the victim. If not murder, they often commit suicide – or both. The assailant is prone to escalate if he or she isn’t successful and as they are likely to go to extreme lengths to achieve their aim to get rid of the victim this can lead to the ultimate disposal of the victim. Then there is the selection of a new target etc.
- The Assailant. We seldom consider the fact that toxic people are the product of mental ill health.
- Bystanders. Witnesses to toxic behaviour tend to take on characteristic behaviour, rather than act some prefer to go into a state of denial, avoidance and acceptance.See here for an overview. Bystander behaviour is a useful tool for toxic people. In history bystanders have been coerced into action by selecting a victim for special treatment. This traumatises others into action or “toeing the line”. This alternative form of leadership normally associated with warfare and African politics, is quite a common tool for the toxic mindset, useful in workplace and community settings.
The ultimate aim of toxic people – Misery and Stress
In internet trolling there is a perfect modern example of how technology has been adapted to what is essentially the pleasure of a toxic mindset, that is to cause misery and stress to their victim, usually in order to demonstrate control, domination, power or superiority, to block their aims or steal from them.
As stress causes an unpleasant physical reaction in people, it has the effect of changing their lives forever, symptomatic of being denied the right to steer their own course in life, due to deliberate interference.
The behaviour is becoming a criminal activity in its own right. Some authorities are starting to recognise bullying as anti social behaviour. The harassment act has been updated in 2012 to include stalking behaviour and charities like the Suzy Lamplugh Trust continue to refine the law. New policies like this don’t help many people, this is due to staff ignorance of the topic. The police are resource poor and have a high workload. Greater Manchester Police recently revealed that they resort to risk assessments before proceeding with minor crimes like burglary and theft, leaving much to the insurance companies and\or the victim to deal with it alone. We suspect spin to be raising expectations and policy that can’t possibly be complied with. This is unacceptable. In Kent for example one police run council community safety unit, is reluctant to acknowledge stalking and will direct the victim to take civil action. The cost of this will be prohibitive, £50K approx, leaving the victim to decide whether to spend money on legal fees or manage the problem alone. This situation is putting people at severe personal risk, maintaining the toxic cycle.
To exploit or gain advantage over others, toxic people or organisations deploy a number of behaviours and well practised techniques. While most of us learn values like scruples, honesty, standing up for oneself and others, openness etc, toxic people are learning the advantages of being exploitative, unscrupulous, dishonest, secretive and deceitful. Once you are in a toxic situation the chances of defending yourself will be slim and you may be drawn in to using the latter as a form of defence.
The chances of getting help are also slim unless the people whose job it is to support a victim can empathise with them. Investigators must remain impartial, avoiding being sucked into the assailants strategic plan. Collusion with perpetrators is quite common as assailants have well worked out strategies for co-opting support and turning it against the victim.
Twist, Spin and Fear
Toxic people are good at justifying and hiding their deeds and it is hard to identify and interpret their behaviour. Those who can recognise the signs, know that toxic people can easily destroy them. Different strategies exist for coping with this. People may simply live in fear, accept the situation and hope it doesn’t turn to them, avoid becoming a target or get out of the way. The “supporting agencies”, police, crown prosecution service and the justice system and local authorities all seem to advertise support for victims or targets. One City Council has a live and let live policy which is aimed at the assailant. The Kent Police Website expounds a positive approach. Both are far from the truth in real terms. You don’t have to look far for real life examples where the policies let victims down, consistently. This is due possibly to lack of resources expertise and knowledge.
It’s the same in the workplace where government, occupational health services and unions, ultimately facilitate toxic behaviour and support the assailant behind closed doors but openly say how good they are as employers. In the NHS in 2015 we discovered one to one meetings between managers and employees for the purpose of supervision that are supported by policy but which can easily turn into abusive supervision.
Challenging toxic behaviour is one of the most dangerous phases of any encounter with a toxic person because their first concern is to eliminate people they see as a threat. Challengers will therefore be isolated by well developed techniques and policy that supports the assailant.
Experts by Experience
This is our viewpoint. It began to interest us between 1996 and 2000 while engaged with a toxic team, working in the NHS. A previous toxic episode in the armed forces had already provided a severe learning experience. Then, (in the nineties) it was thought it was just “how life is” and people just had to put up with being treated badly. At the turn of the century when subject to more toxic behaviour, an epiphany came about when it was realised through a friend that the behaviour experienced in both the military and the NHS was in fact bullying. By then the late Dr Tim Field (RIP) had spelt out the difference between management and bullying providing valuable insight via his website BullyOnline. That NHS toxic team was successfully challenged and the experience input to HR policy to help prevent further attacks. Study included participating in the anti-bullying movement Tim started, meeting and validating the experience with other targets and interested and active people from the academic world.
Since then, a number of toxic encounters have been experienced, the worst and most recent while testing out the organisational policy of the NHS in respect of Bullying and Whistle blowing. This gave a fascinating insight into the likelihood (or not) of cultural change in the wake of the Frances Report (into unacceptably high death rates in Stafford Hospital). Our encounter brought home the damaging effect on whistle blowers. it also opened our mind further to the policies that support the Toxic Workplace in the NHS. For the NHS service user, the outcome of interactions with these organisations can either enhance your life or help to poison it.
The Suzy Lamplugh Trusts 2016 report explains the depth of ignorance and how difficult it is to get support from the police with stalking and harassment. Our experience is that this is fairly universal. A conflict of interest exists. Unscrupulous employers would rather exploit the behaviour than do something about it. They would rather be able to use pressure to get employees to perform than spend money managing them properly. This is unacceptable. People burn out. Short term employment policies hide this. Access to Justice is limited. The unions are equally as bad at fulfilling their promise to members and taking up their role in protecting them from exploitation – they just don’t have the power.
We acknowledge the work of the late Dr Tim Field for pioneering the exposure of bullying and suggesting and leading on the fact it should be challenged back in 1996. In the 20 Years since defining this there have been some horrific examples of bullying, bullycide, and extreme psychopathic behaviour in the headlines. Also a recession, and several wars. A wealth of knowledge has amassed however bullying is still prevalent at work and in the community. You could have your job stalked or a neighbour assault you, but literally nobody will hear you scream.
Changing that is the ultimate goal.
Stuart Dixon – FRSA