The science behind endemic bullying and harassment
By Bob Murray
Law is not the only profession to experience bullying and harassment but, as Dr Bob Murray points out, law firm culture could be exacerbating the problem
I have been working as a consultant, executive coach and speaker at law leaders’ conferences, as well as a strategic advisor to lawyers and law firms for almost 30 years. During that time, I have observed considerable adverse changes to the state of mental health in the legal profession. I have noticed the rates of burnout, depression, anxiety, harassment and bullying increase at an alarming rate. Last month the International Bar Association (IBA), of which I’m a member, published a report which found that bullying and sexual harassment were rife among lawyers worldwide and that Britain was above average in the worst ways. As a clinical psychologist and behavioral neurogeneticist I am interested in trying to explain why this should be so. First, it’s worthwhile pointing out that the legal profession is not alone in this.
The medical and caring professions have higher rates of depression. The suicide rate among lawyers is high – well above average – but well below doctors, dentists, farmers, firemen, forestry workers and policemen. And these are below white, middle-age blue collar workers generally. Sexual (and other) harassment and bullying are also rife in medicine and, perhaps, in most workplaces. Second, bullying and harassment have an array of causes. These can include a genetic propensity to be a bully or a harasser. Being bullied by parents, siblings or fellow pupils at school can lead a child to become a bully in adulthood. Observing that bullies or harassers get attention and followers in school or at work is a powerful spur to becoming one. However, none of this explains why lawyers should become bullies more than architects, accountants, journalists or musicians. What is it about the business of law that creates workplaces so toxic that several large firms over the last month have been declared “unsafe” by government workplace safety agencies? No study has ever shown that the law attracts an unusual share of bullies, therefore to a greater extent than other professions it must create them. Why? The answer lies in recent scientific research. At present the majority of senior partners in law firms are male and most bullies and sexual harassers are men – though women can certainly be bullies. It used to be thought that testosterone was the culprit because high levels of the hormone were found in both bullies and harassers.
The hormone is more prevalent in men (though female bullies, compulsive gamblers and white-collar criminals also have elevated levels of the stuff). However recent studies have thrown doubt on the testosterone/bully theory. In fact, we now know that men are more likely to have an affair, bully subordinates, and sexually harass their PA during their andropause (the so-called male menopause) when their testosterone levels are going down. Something else is going on. One of the things that we know from recent research is that anger and aggression in men are often symptoms of depression. In the twentieth century most studies of depression focused on female depression. It was assumed that the symptoms of depression that women displayed – sadness, guilt, loss of interest in sex, feeling worthless, hopelessness and pessimism – would hold true for men as well. Unsurprisingly studies carried out before the turn of the new millennium tended to show that women were more liable to depression than men. We now know that that “ain’t necessarily so” in the words from the song from Porgy and Bess. More recent studies have shown that the depression rates of both sexes are more or less the same. Men just display symptoms of the illness differently.
Anger, aggression, bullying, irritability, seeking sexual adventure and sexual harassment are possible symptoms of male depression. Over 30 per cent of UK (and other) lawyers suffer from depression therefore it’s unsurprising that the rate of bullying in the legal profession is high. Another group of studies published last year pointed the finger at “abusive supervision.” Abusive supervision refers to subordinates’ perceptions of supervisors engaging in sustained hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors, excluding physical contact. It is aimed particularly at juniors and can affect their wellbeing, health and work performance. In a law firm the abusive supervisors could be senior partners or leaders in any function of the business. The researchers found that even though the immediate source of injustice may be a partner, the abused employees perceive the injustice to come from both the partner and the firm, so extend their scope of retaliation to both. Also abusively supervised juniors are likely to turn into bullying or abusive partners. In a 2017 study, neuroscientists linked rudeness, abusive supervision, bullying and harassment to workplace stress.
Stress lowers the level of the neurochemical glutamate in the brain. In a stressful workplace a supervisor or partner must keep his or her anger or frustration under control. He or she must do the “right” and “ethical” thing by followers and clients. But, as the study showed, our capacity to be tolerant, ethical, forgiving or calm is limited. The limitation is in the glutamate supply. As the stress on a partner increases – generated by overwork, dealing with overly demanding clients, having to increase their revenue in a flat or declining market, ferocious internal or external competition and being expected to do more with fewer resources – the level of glutamate decreases. What almost inevitably happens is that a supervisor, a leader, or a partner takes it out on their staff as their resilience collapses. The greater the stress the greater the bullying, unethical conduct and the sexual and other harassment. Finally, we frequently adopt bad conduct if we are asked to change. Humans are creatures of stasis. We dislike disruption in our daily or work routines.
Any change in the workplace or the way we work can seem to threaten the relationships we have forged, which are the basis of our support nexus. A human’s capacity to be resilient depends largely on being surrounded by supportive people. Change, particularly relationship change, goes through the same pathways as physical and emotional pain and we fight back. The villain here is the stress hormone cortisol. When threatened with change this chemical gets into areas of the limbic system – particularly the amygdala (the fear center of the brain) and the thalamus (which perceives external threats) – to prepare for flight, fight or freeze. We cease to be able to reason and we go into what Daniel Goleman called in his book Emotional Intelligence an “amygdala hijack.” Everything in the neurogenetic system is geared towards survival.
The heart beats faster, the blood pressure can raise to dangerous levels, the physical and emotional immune systems cease working properly. You flee (which might look like quitting your job suddenly), or you freeze (you’re unable to do anything at all) or you fight (this is where the abuse and bad behavior come in). Fortunately, there are a few things law leaders can do to prevent the worst behavior:
— Learn the symptomology of depression, especially male depression and how to deal with it.
— Watch out for a pattern of “abusive supervision” and lay down – and enforce, even with rainmakers – effective boundaries.
— Keep the level of glutamate up by encouraging regular snacks, breaks and physical exercise.
— Make sure that when you make changes you preserve as much as possible the pattern of relationships that exist.
That way you can create or preserve a harmonious workplace and reduce the bullying and harassment which the IBA found is endemic to most law firms.