Have you ever felt trapped in an abusive workplace relationship? So have others, and it may now become a recognized problem

For six months I worked for a luxury fashion brand and I have lived a terrible experience. I felt like I was trapped in a circle of negative thoughts because the people around me, and the company culture itself, were permeated with such a negative and constraining mood I could barely breathe.

After at least six interviews and spending six months under a magnifying lens, having met the entire important ‘Gotha’ related to my future possible role, and after deciding to leave my previous job for a new venture, I discovered with horror, that my new boss took great satisfaction in insulting the assistants, obviously including myself. His second hobby was to play off one against the other to keep supreme control over everybody in his area, dispensing privileges and favorable treatment like a medieval king.

I began to feel very bad, both mentally and physically, and as a result of this treatment I was admitted to hospital because I was suffering an acute case of gastritis. My mind was continuously swirling like a spinning top around the idea I was not able to do my job anymore.

If this can be considered a psychological disease, and I think it is, I would call it the ‘Manager/Assistant Stockholm Syndrome’, and it happens when the assistant is the prisoner and victim, without any possibility to defend herself, and the boss exercises any kind of power on them.

This was the situation in the company I worked for, not only for myself but for many of the employees, most of whom were assistants. We spent more than eight hours working every day, elbow to elbow, with managers who were not able to manage their stress properly, and allowed their frustrations to cascade in the direction of their subordinates. The result was that in this situation, we were like prisoners in many ways: we couldn’t leave our job as we needed the money, but we did not believe in our possibilities; we lacked self-confidence and we’re not strong or courageous enough to say no and leave the company; or we thought that we were inadequate to work for such an important person that we believed our boss to be. Even the strongest among us, and I think I was, being continuously contradicted and criticized, transformed into some sort of punching-bag. After some months of this brain-washing, we began to falter and to make more mistakes, confirming to ourselves that we were not as good as we thought.

So at the end of these excruciating six months, I gave up and I left the company.

Examining the situation from outside, trying to look at it from a different point of view, I understood that the problem was not about my abilities, skills or my professional experience – when we discussed my performance my boss said I did a great job organizing the General Secretary – but it was instead, a problem of values. We didn’t share any of the same values and the conflict between us had reached a point of no return because the fight was about our different way of being and our behavior, and my boss perfectly understood that I couldn’t be an ally but a fierce enemy.

When a Personal Assistant reaches a certain level in their career, skills and abilities are not enough anymore, and during interviews the evaluation is based on their behaviors, attitudes and the way they communicate a precise style of management, in and outside the company. This style must be shared with the company and with the boss.

If we don’t share any values with the company we are interviewing with, and we are not interested in what they do or produce, we are going to have big problems. If we do not share the company’s style of management and completely embrace their vision and your boss does, this particular relationship cannot work. Whatever you try to do will always be wrong both in terms of how you perform your tasks and how you communicate. Without their support we are in the middle of the arena stark naked.

In the book The Devils Wears Prada, this situation is well demonstrated through the negative attitude the main character has towards the fashion business at the beginning of the book, and further highlighted at the end when she throws the phone in the fountain, leaves her boss in Paris and applies for a job in what she considers a ‘real’ newspaper, where the focus is on the economy and what is happening in the world, and not about the color of a skirt or the height of the heels in the next season.

I’m not sure how many people considered the end of the story from this angle, as I’m sure most people stopped at the happy ending, thinking that after the hell she went through, she deserved to find the job she wanted. My interpretation is that while she despised the experience when she was living through it, it demonstrated that she could survive anything.

She too was trapped, but only for a while, in the ‘Manager/Assistant Stockholm Syndrome’.

The real issue is that usually we don’t clearly understand the situation, and we cannot discuss this matter with our boss or anybody else in the company. We would like to offer a different approach to follow for managing situations, information or even people, but can’t because we would touch a nerve at the core of the company, and this cannot be accepted. It is impossible for them to change simply because an assistant is suggesting there could be a different way to think and to do things.

My previous work experiences have resulted in me being more prepared and educated in these fields than even my bosses, and I’m sure I would have been able to provide suggestions and options to help them overcome problems, but I was never given the opportunity to speak to them at the same level and offer them all of the available possibilities and paths.

This was my third role in fashion or related fields such as shopping outlets and fashion magazines, and now it is very clear to me that I do not share the same values as the typical managers and employees who work in this industry. I really don’t get as excited about the nuances of two different colors as they do!

Similarly, someone may have the same problem if they were working in the petrol industry if they had very strong ‘green’ values, or held values about world peace and were required to work in the weapons industry. My suggestion is to evaluate this information before accepting a new job.

The theory behind this is very simple: working in such a situation is almost impossible because we are denying our values and our highest principles on which our life is built, meaning that the result of our actions is always wrong because we don’t feel confident, we lack of self-awareness and we lose control of our lives.

For example: when we write an e-mail, our boss may judge that the tone of the communication is incorrect, either too friendly or too formal; when we decide to take an action we don’t feel confident with, the impression we give to colleagues is of lack of professionalism; or if we are asked to do something that we don’t approve of, our internal ‘red warning light’ begins to flash.

So we feel completely out of control, like a moth being drawn to a flame. We don’t know how to solve the problem, we try to be assertive and cooperative, but all the while there are some details that keep slipping through our fingers and the result is a disaster, a catastrophe.

As I wrote in the beginning of this article, this is the ‘Manager/Assistant Stockholm Syndrome’ and I have met many colleagues trapped in this situation, and have seen them to come back to life when they changed boss or left the company. I am sure nobody has identified this as a disease yet, but it can be seen clearly in so many workplaces.

To further credit my thesis, the day I left the company I was at home, a little bit shocked, watching television and thinking about my future, when I came across a program where a man was asking for financial compensation for being hired only due to his appearance and being mistreated by his female boss. Although he had been hired as a Marketing Consultant, in the seven months that he worked for the company he didn’t do any of the work he had been hired to and was barely allowed to speak as his job was to accompany the female boss to dinners and weekends at famous and fashionable tourist resorts.

Only once he tried to say something during a meeting and his boss stopped him, saying, ‘With that pretty little mouth you can say whatever you want’.

There was a psychologist on the show, and after a debate, his conclusion was the following: ‘The man has the right to compensation, because in the seven months he has been considered not a person but an object without any consideration for his dignity and emotions. If he was a woman everybody would have shouted that it was an obvious case of sexual harassment, so he deserves a reward to repay his offended dignity’.

In Italy, sexual discrimination and violence towards women is a hot topic. In this case, due to the fact he was a man, everybody on the show were amazed and puzzled because they couldn’t understand why he accepted the situation for such a long time and didn’t leave the company, saving his face and dignity as soon as he understood the situation.

I know the reason why, he was trapped and affected by the Manager/Assistant Stockholm syndrome.
*In psychology, Stockholm Syndrome is an apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

Stockholm Syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.
Source: www.wikipedia.com”

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Mariachiara Novati lives in Milan, has a degree in Foreign Languages, a Master in HR Management and a second one in Marketing & Communication Management. She works as a Manager Assistant since 1992 covering different roles such as Scientific Secretary ... (Read More)

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