The Bystander Effect ...
Updated: Jun 9
February this year will be etched in my memory for a very long time.
As a matter of fact, Feb 2020 might leave permanent scars in all our minds going forward but for me, this very personal ordeal began right after everyone got back to work in the first week of January when things were perceived to be ‘normal’ at least in the UK.
It’s about 8PM on 6th of Feb, a day before my birthday. I am calling up my husband right after stepping out after a long day at work. He picks up the phone and asks where I am which is to estimate how long would I take to get back home for dinner and immediately follows up with another question which is what would I like for dinner. I reply with a mundane ‘anything will do’ and immediately burst into tears. I tell him how I’ve been an utter failure in my new job and I have contemplated self harm in the past week. Before my husband gets a chance to reply, I cut the call, switch off my phone and start walking along a park in Central London.
My mind is racing with all that went on at work through five consecutive weeks without a single weekend off. For a brief moment, my mind shuttles back to what I imagine my husband’s reaction to my call must have been, how concerned he would be. But it darts right back to the present. I was simply too overwhelmed to think. I just walked and walked some more that night.
Cut to four weeks back, on a bleak January morning, I am sitting at a pitch briefing with my line manager, a C-level executive who had recently joined our agency. I was a recent hire myself. I had been a client side marketer for fourteen years before choosing to moving to agency side as a strategy partner at a major media agency.
My primary motivation was breadth and depth of learning as I was simply blown away with the quality of seasoned strategists from agencies I was lucky to have worked with. Some working at the very same agency I chose to switch to. I wanted to experience the discomfort, the wonder that I felt back as an intern. And I was determined this agency would provide that and a lot more.
It’s 7th of January and I have been given a few hours to digest the brief and asked to share my thoughts with about fifteen people stuck in a ‘war room’. As marketers, we love to glorify our work with battlefront metaphors so ‘execute’, ‘groundwork’, ‘first mover advantage’ and the most annoying one of them all, ‘alignment’ are routine phrases in a pitch environment.
My boss asks me to provide examples of disruptive innovation in this category. Instead, I decide to focus on identifying the problem the brand faces. Everyone praises me for my clarity in diagnosing the main issue and eloquence in articulating the job to be done and ask my work to be the blueprint from there-on. All except my boss who asks me to repeat every word I uttered as she is struggling to understand my accent.
No big deal says my mind. I am after all, not a native English speaker.
That night, I get back home and try to check on Youtube, British pronunciation of every word I could remember using in the meeting.
Fast forward ten days later, we are told to meet up in a more ‘casual’ setting. I am asked to dial up the charm a bit and give my resting B* face a breather.
I laugh. I actually guffaw nodding my head and admitting that I do such an expression so will try.
I am told that the pitch is for a well known cosmetics brand so I should make the effort to look the part. My boss asks me to sign up for some make up lessons and pay for a make up session at Selfridges for the all important ‘chemistry session’ with the client.
I mention how pitches are won based on solid narrative linking strategy with execution not based on the colour of my lipstick. I am told to look for tips for chic dressing instead.
Another two weeks pass by and pressure is now mounting on everyone. I ask for more help as there is just way too much work for one person to accomplish. Seniors at work insist that I get more resources as it is physically impossible for me to do it all. My boss informs me that she has ‘chosen me to be a part of an elite pitch cast and that I am to devote 100% of my time to this pitch. I point out that I have my day job for an incumbent client and I am told this is par for course and I need to learn to say yes and not no.
It’s 5PM on 4th of Feb and I am presenting my pitch response to the CEO together with other senior executives. They all agree with the strategy except my boss who decides to change all my work that very night with three days to go for the final pitch presentation.
I ask for a rationale for the revised strategy. No credible explanation is given except that she leads the function and has decided to change the course. Without further ado, I am to memorise the slides and work with voice over script she will provide.
By this point, I am questioning whether I should be a part of this pitch as I disagree with core premise of our strategy. I explain how it would be best for her to present slides she has designed as it would be more compelling and that I am happy to support in the background as I don’t take myself as seriously.
The CEO steps in and I am instructed in no uncertain terms that I am to carry on the orders so to speak. By now, I have had at least three weeks where I have slept for barely two hours each night.
On the afternoon of 6th, I am told in the 3rd consecutive pitch review meeting that day that I have a dry and perfunctory personality and my boss finds it a real challenge to connect with me. I am asked to figure out a way to be more approachable. I ask how such feedback is constructive and the reply is that I need to grow a thicker skin. I call up my mentor and narrate the incidents and he tells me such feedback is not constructive and that I should immediately pull out of the pitch as this has started affecting my mental wellbeing.
Deep down, I am convinced I have overreacted. How could I be so overly sensitive and break down? Am I so fragile that I cannot handle a few weeks of stress at work?
By evening, my boss has started dictating every single word and I am being forced to type the script out. I am convinced by now that this pitch will be an absolute disaster. I raise specific pointers and am told to stay within my lane. My immediate reaction is to step back and witness my own plight from a distance and question my own credentials. I am now deaf to any words of praise, any mention of my accomplishments. My mind is playing on loop, every word of criticism from my boss, every vile joke she cracked over the past few months. It relishes the experience.
Cut to that phone call with my husband at 8PM. I have been walking for a good two hours in Central London without switching on my phone when out of sheer guilt and exhaustion, I turn the phone on and see twenty missed calls from my husband. I call him, let him know the train time and reach home at midnight. My husband has been waiting for me at that platform. My daughter is fast asleep but has made a birthday card for me while my husband has a cake ready.
I gather that night that my husband and my mentor shared concerns about the level of distress I have been facing. Next morning, my mentor escalates the issue to HR citing mental health concerns to ensure I am pulled out of that pitch presentation.
Well, much as I would have liked, this was the beginning not the end.
Over the next three months, many of us share feedback about my boss’s toxic leadership style and constant bullying tactics with both HR and the CEO. I am told to resolve without raising any formal grievance. Furthermore, my CEO and boss inform me of their decision to demote me from my current role despite overwhelmingly good feedback from clients and other seniors at work.
But that resignation didn’t offer the comfort that comes with closure. Despite numerous complaints others have since made about my boss’s toxic leadership style and incompetence, I continue seeking confirmation and reconfirmation of my perception and pre-emptively mitigate those bad behaviours. I refuse to use my own judgement and started reeking constant reassurance and advice for the smallest of decisions.
My husband and my mentor constantly shine a light on the truth, the evidence which continues to point out how I have been bullied for months.
This story hasn’t ended yet as of June 1st. I am serving my notice period at my current company whilst staring at job loss through arguably the worst recession in decades.
Meanwhile, my clients have escalated the issue of my resignation asking for my current employer to retain me ‘under any circumstance as her work has been stellar’.
Throughout the past six months, my mind has asked me ...
“What if none of this was your boss’s fault? C’mon those were harmless comments any grown up can and should be able to handle. In fact, HR never ignored any bullying. There was none to begin with. It was my sheer victim complex that drove me to retaliate. I wasted everyone’s time imagining some slight that never took place. Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. If only I had manned up and learnt to act on feedback. I should remember I can’t control what happens to me but I can control how I react to situations. Absolutely no exceptions. Life is harsh and unfair. Learn to deal with it.”
Except this is what 99% of bystanders say to every person who has ever been bullied.
So what’s the point of this sad story?
As much as our minds tempt us to be bystanders to our misery, blame us for every act of corporate bullying we have faced, we cannot allow ourselves to enjoy the spectacle of ourselves getting bullied. We have people who love us and adore us for who and how we are. Harming ourselves or even doubting ourselves would be hurting and questioning them. It would be encouraging these bullies to hurt others. If we believe in empathy and compassion, we need to practise them on ourselves before helping others.
It took me five months to get to this realisation. That gaslighting is for real and it happens to the best of us.
Here’s hoping, others reading this make that journey to freedom and liberation from guilt much faster than that. No matter when I will find employment again, I take solace in looking at the mirror each night and feeling good. Feeling strong that I stood up for myself. Feeling at peace that I can sleep well at night.
Believe me, now that’s the kind of bliss you would never want to deny yourself.