There is a woman named Gail with whom I sometimes work. One day she felt inspired to share a traumatic story she never before shared:
My first husband was a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive man. I had grown to fear him and was as careful as I knew how to be [in order] not to trigger his rages.
One evening, when I arrived home after being late to pick him up after work, he was waiting for me with a leather belt in his hand. He began screaming obscenities and beating me with the belt. As usual, I was totally unprepared and unable or unwilling to defend myself. As usual, I felt victimized.
I am not certain how long the attack continued, but at some point, something inside me literally clicked. Time slowed down, and I remember hearing a voice inside me say as clearly as if there had been someone in the room talking to me, “You know he’s crazy, but you must be crazy too for putting up with this.” In that moment, I was transformed into a woman who had choices, and I knew, even though I was not ready emotionally or financially, that I would leave the relationship.
I never said a word or lifted a finger to defend myself, but the most amazing thing happened. He stopped hitting me and screaming at me, dropped the belt, and walked away. We never spoke of the incident, and he never again raised his voice to me or lifted a finger to harm me. It was as if he somehow sensed that he would never be able to treat me that way again.
In a moment of profound awareness, I had taken personal responsibility for my own sense of well-being, and I had changed on a deep, fundamental level. Within months, I had enrolled in graduate school, moved out of our apartment, and filed for divorce. I had changed the world by changing myself.
Organizations are often systems of intimidation. Bullies emerge and employees absorb abuse. They feel powerless and immobilized. They become victims. Gail shows us there is choice in such situations. The moment we take full responsibility for our own well-being, we change and the context changes. Authority figures cannot intimidate people who know and respect themselves.
- What forms of abuse emerge in your organization?
- Do people ever feel like victims?
- How do you promote personal awareness and personal accountability?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?