How to Not be a Victim

Establishing justice is important, there is no doubt about that. But in order to change a situation, one has to recognize the dynamics at play.

Walking the path

“I feel afraid.”

This is what one of my clients, “H” said to me when I was intervening as a conflict management specialist for a work team of 25. H had filed a harassment claim against the team lead, “M”. The Review Board determined the claim was founded and issued a penalty to M, who went out of office for six weeks. M was now returning to the workplace, and the whole team was apprehensive, particularly H.

I had been mandated to help restore a functioning workplace following the harassment complaint and investigation. What I saw from the group was a lot of sincerity, guilt, and genuine feeling from all sides. I also saw that trust had been broken, and that there was a high perceived risk and a great deal of fear. The whole team was affected.

After interviewing the team, as individuals and as a group, I felt strongly that a relatively small intervention that introduced the right tools would be of big benefit. I relied extensively on HSD Pattern-Spotting questions, as well as Adaptive Action, to set conditions for a more cooperative environment.

It is about patterns

Many assume that once justice has been served, all wrongs have been righted, and everyone can return to a pre-incident kind of balance.

But living inside this kind of experience gives one a different perspective. The reality is, the team has to be able to work together again. Now, on top of the usual pressures, they have to work together while managing a lot of emotions that weren’t there before. There is no going backward.

Establishing justice is important, there is no doubt about that. But in order to change a situation, one has to recognize the dynamics at play. It’s easy to lay blame on a victimizer, but laying blame on an individual never changes the dynamics (in this case, the dynamics that created conditions for a harassment claim to be filed). To change the dynamics, one needs to take the focus off the victim/victimizer and identify the patterns that created a system where the parties feel victimized.

Start with questions

My first step was to interview everyone on the team. I asked each of them a set of questions, based on the Pattern Spotters, that HSD has adapted from Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT). I asked them to complete the following phrases:

  1. In general, I notice…
  2. Except for…
  3. On one hand… On the other…
  4. I was surprised by…
  5. I wonder…

I listened and took notes on their answers. I then synthesized their responses, looking for Similarities and Differences in their responses. I identified patterns in their responses that I could share with the team, without breaking any individual’s confidentiality.

I identified three main trends in the responses:

  1. Communication was not flowing throughout the team. Rather, information was being shared in small sub-groups. As deadlines approached and workloads increased, those pockets of information were exacerbated.
  2. Everyone was very, very busy. The team manager was not aware of everything happening on the floor (he did not necessarily need to). But this was an important part of the dynamic.
  3. Nobody realized how bad it was getting for the victim until the harassment complaint was filed.

I also observed some important differences:

  1. While everyone was busy, one sub-group had a lot more work than others.
  2. The team lead had a very different management style from the team manager.

With this information in hand, I went back to the group and held a debrief session. Much of this information was eye-opening for the team members, and it got them talking about patterns. They started discussing what could be identified as a vulnerability for repeating patterns of harassment, and what might serve as indicators of these.

For example, they knew it was getting busy. What support structures do they need when it gets so busy they don’t have time to think? They developed an important set of question to ask themselves to ensure a more smooth flow of information:

  1. “Does the whole group need to know about this…?”
  2. “Am I not talking to the full group because I’m not comfortable or because they don’t need to know? If so, what’s making me uncomfortable?”

These simple questions that team members started asking themselves made an enormous difference to the flow of information throughout the team.

Building capacity

I also did some personal coaching sessions with H. H and I went back over the old patterns, then identified together what patterns she could create so she could not feel like a victim, and obtain the support she needed. We looked at patterns around her dynamics with M, and what indicators showed her that she was feeling like a victim. These indicators could act like an early warning system, so she doesn’t repeat the old patterns.

A lot of people want to change people. But we all know you can’t change people. You can, however, influence the patterns between you and the other person. This is the space where anyone has the most leverage.

H was able to build her capacity to adapt and create new patterns. By thinking about patterns and not problems, she could feel empowered. She could take control of her own actions to shape the patterns she wanted. 

I did similar work with the team manager. He was in shock that all this had happened right under his nose. He was normally a very careful and diligent manager, and this claim had caught him by surprise. By focusing more on patterns, and not problems, he was able to gain a new important perspective. He felt able not only to catch problems but also to identify signals of emerging problems between team members.

Follow up

When I followed up with the team two months later, they informed that they were communicating better. While they were still working through trust issues, they felt these were manageable. H and M were working together again. Everyone was coming together as a team to ensure the same patterns didn’t emerge again that allowed for the previous conflict. All team members asked themselves questions daily to remain aware of the patterns.

Perhaps my most satisfying moment was seeing H change the dynamic for herself. By seeing, understanding and influencing patterns, H was able to shift her feelings of being a victim into ones of strength and influence in the face of challenge. No outside judgment could have done that work for her. She did it for herself, and all with a simple set of tools.

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