I spent a day hearing Lundy Bancroft share his 30 years of research. Of course it could have been a month! I have written of Bancroft’s defining of “repentance” before. As one seminar participant said, “I felt like I was in the presence of greatness!” This awe is due to the fact that Bancroft has spent 30 years standing for those oppressed by abusers. The number of women and men, Christian and non-Christian, who Bancroft has helped over the years is staggering.
Bancroft said of batterers, “They are all unique, but the similarities are striking.” He knows. He has counseled over one thousand abusers in those years. I asked him if he had researched workplace abusers and he said no. However, he imagined the principles would be very similar. Indeed, as he spoke it was quite evident that the “similarities are striking.”
Bancroft spent a significant amount of time listing and describing the defining characteristics of abusive people. Below, I have listed some of those and relate them to the workplace.
Coercively Controlling and Intimidating (often including social isolation)
Bancroft said, if you want power it makes sense to be really good at charming. Because abuse is about power primarily, many abusers are quite charming, in a non-genuine way.
Bancroft suggested that charming people should have to work extra hard to convince others they are not manipulators, rather than people normally trusting them because of their charm. Bancroft joked, “I never met a batterer I didn’t like.” Their control is not simply intimidating, but coercive. They must win over their victims.
Isolation may mean finding ways to separate the victim from friends or co-workers. One woman told me her abusive husband contacted as many of their friends he could in order to “pocket them,” getting them on his side. In our case, the CEO told us our co-workers disagreed with the position we were taking. We were fortunate to know he was lying and his attempt to isolate us failed.
Entitled and Self-Centered
The toxic leader believes he has a right to have his behavior judged according to a completely different standard. Others are always wrong and the abuser’s actions are always right. This may be why leaders of Christian organizations, who are toxic to their subordinates, are often living duplicitous lives including sexual and financial immorality.
Always Believes He is the Victim.
If the victim attacks back (even in self-defense), they are the aggressor in his view. Usually, the full story of what happened first – his history of aggression – will not see the light of day in his telling. And he truly believes his story.
Manipulative and Builds a Good Public Image
Because they carefully choose their victims, others can easily be hoodwinked into thinking it could not possibly be true. This is the song of nearly every victim. Family, friends, church-goers, co-workers…often they turn against the victim. “It cannot possibly be true,” they say.
One woman shared with me that nearly her whole family was on her abusive husband’s side when she sought a separation from him after 20 years of suffering. A board of directors would not fire a CEO though he had sexually molested multiple subordinate women in the organization. A major donor to the organization who was a good friend of the CEO threatened the board with his checkbook if they fired him. Abusers are very good at building their image.
Watch out for the charmers.
Disrespectful, Superior, and Depersonalizing
When Bancroft first began counseling abusers 30 years ago, he fully expected them to be carrying some shame regarding their behavior. These men were in jail. They seemed to have lost everything. He said it took a couple years to realize they had gotten beyond any shame they may have had early in their history of abuse. They are always better than their victims. They have a right to rule.
In my interviews with those who have suffered workplace abuse, it is common for the subordinates to be treated like children. Some bosses yell at their employees in a demeaning way. One administrator in our organization screamed and cussed at her subordinates. Many in our organization were told by the CEO, “You just don’t understand this culture.” We just were not as smart, experienced, wise, whatever…
Good Early in Relationships
Often, court systems order abusers to complete anger management classes. Though Bancroft noted this is changing in the United States, nonetheless many think the abuser’s problem is his out of control anger. However, anger issues involve a lack of control and abusers are always in control. Their actions are intended to control their victim and angry behavior is a means of intimidating. They pass those classes with flying colors. They can control themselves just fine.
So, often in the early stages of relationship – in the office or home – a toxic person will first charm and manipulate others into relationships. There is a reason they get a partner or a job. See “Good Public Image” above. We often think since the abuser has an out-of-control anger problem, a future partner or employee would see it and run for the hills. But, they are in control.
It is always someone else’s fault. This is Adam and Eve’s blame-shifting par-excellance. Though he (or she) may admit some wrongdoing, it will always be “because of this, this, and this…things she did!” The slight admissions are simply manipulation. If they do not admit some wrongdoing, no one would believe them. As Bancroft argued, outright denial does not gain the confidence of those they wish to manipulate.
Mentality of Ownership (often including severe possessiveness)
In domestic settings, the abuser holds his victim in slavery. Note from above: isolation is key. Working from an entitled attitude, he believes his partner (or subordinate) owes him her constant attention and loyalty. Bancroft warned that the more the abuser believes in his ownership of the victim, the “more dangerous he will be in the breakup.” He does not allow the loss to go without punishment if at all possible.
When one mission employee was fired for ratting on the CEO, the CEO contacted ministries across the United States to blackball the worker. Every time a missionary would leave our organization, we heard about their failures over and over from the CEO and founders. The board was told that the missionaries who left needed psychological evaluations. In actuality, they needed trauma care.
Lack of Empathy for Victim
One of the key treatments for helping batterers is seeking ways to break through their complete lack of empathy. They simply feel nothing for their victims. This alone can give Christians pause who are taught (rightly) that caring for others is fundamental to loving as God does. It is nearly unimaginable that someone could be empathy-less. This adds to the problem stated above as stories are told about the abuser. He could not possible have so little empathy!
These defining characteristics should help the person caught in an abusive relationship whether in the home or office. However, it is also intended by Bancroft as a means for our communities to identify abusers and bring accountability. He said, “The solution for domestic violence is for the society to stop the offender.” This does not happen when we side with him or coddle him.
Stand up with those who are suffering.