In 2012, a Department of Transport engineer celebrated his promotion as supervisor by triumphantly needling a coworker over his expense claims. “Why twist the knife?” a labour adjudicator wrote later. The coworker responded by slapping the manager so hard it sent his eyeglasses flying. Interestingly, the supervisor was cited for what author Alexander Abdennur calls “camouflaged aggression”, while the employee who responded with a slap was awarded $25,000 in damages.
Dr. Abdennur examines office politics in the same manner Jane Goodall studies primates in the jungle. He likens bureaucracies to an “animal world” of “petty grievances” and vendettas, “vengeful rumination” and predatory score-settling, where managers are like small birds that “freeze when they see the shadow of a circling hawk”.
Camouflaged Aggression In Organizations does not single out public sector employees per se. They are only human, and as a 10th century Arab poet put it: “When nature grows a straight branch, humans attach a spear head to it.”
Rather, the same common forms and strategies of aggression occur in all workplaces, public or private, that share the same elements of the federal bureaucracy. They must be large (plenty of places to hide), money must not an immediate worry (meaning there are no immediate consequences for shenanigans), and coworkers must not burdened by pressing deadlines as in, we must put out that warehouse fire or we must ship this many microwave ovens by 6 pm.
“Some social and psychological manifestations of aggression can be suppressed or denied, but aggression will not go away,” writes Abdennur. “Like a chameleon, it only changes its appearance. We can express our aggressive feelings toward individuals and make them suffer without confronting them.”
Take moral segmentation, for instance. “Moral segmentation occurs when one isolates the norms that pertain to the work environment from the values that govern one’s family and other aspects of one’s life,” explains Camouflaged Aggression. “For example, a manager may casually partake in a decision that results in a devastating blow to the career and family of an employee but react with exaggerated guilt and self-recrimination upon forgetting to feed the neighbour’s cat.”
Then there are outright disorders like contrived histrionics. “The essential feature of this disorder is immaturity, emotional instability, pervasive and excessive emotionality and attention seeking behaviour,” writes Abdennur. “Individuals with this disorder are self-centred, vain and uncomfortable when they are not the centre of attention.”
Here we are thinking of the Department of Employment manager who claimed PTSD and barricaded herself in her office by taping together cardboard boxes, or the Statistics Canada analyst who claimed harassment when a supervisor left a sticky note reading: “Come and see me right away.”
“How is it that accomplished individuals who occupy secure positions are so easily and irrationally intimidated by rather nebulous threats?” writes Abdennur.
Camouflaged Aggression is raw and fascinating with a quirky voyeuristic quality, like watching primates in a zoo. It is beyond sociology. It is entertaining.
By Holly Doan
Camouflaged Aggression in Organizations, by Alexander Abdennur; University of Alberta Press; 216 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-4910; $33.99