Trauma

What Is the Impact of Lateral Violence?

Scenario:

Sam used to love his job. He was excited to be doing something that felt important and meaningful. Lately, however, he’s been doubting his abilities and whether he has what it takes to do this type of work. After weeks of strange looks in the halls and confusing comments, it seems his colleagues no longer trust him, and he doesn’t feel safe around them.

Sam began noticing this behaviour after he was promoted – that’s when the whispering started in the lunchroom. He was left off important meeting announcements, and the manager avoided him.

Sam is considering calling in sick for the fourth time in two weeks with a migraine and stomachache – he wonders if maybe there really is something wrong with him.

Lateral violence can occur in any setting, but it is most often discussed in the context of a closed setting, such as a workplace or small community.

What Is Lateral Violence?

Lateral violence is aggressive behaviour that occurs among members of a group, because of accumulated and internalized stress and oppression. Helplessness and powerlessness to respond directly to psychological and systemic violence can result in redirecting this violence toward peers, colleagues, or neighbours. The impact of lateral violence flows “sideways” to other people – in other words, it spreads.

Lateral violence can occur in any setting, but it is most often discussed in the context of a closed setting, such as a workplace or small community. The network of relationships within these closed settings provide the pathways along which lateral violence travels. Over time, the tone and behaviours become normalized and institutionalized – meaning they are expected and rationalized as a rite of passage or “hazing.”

Nuances of Lateral Violence

Within marginalized or racialized communities, there are additional layers of historical and contemporary racism, discrimination, and oppression that add to the complexity of lateral violence..

The experiences of Indigenous communities have been examined through the lens of complex and intergenerational trauma. This could be from pervasive staff-perpetrated and student-to-student abuse experienced in residential schools, as well as layers of traumatic oppression in other institutions. In this way it is an ongoing destructive outcome of colonialism.

Lateral violence becomes a mechanism through which the pressures of suppressed rage, shame, and fear are released indirectly in ways and spaces where there is less threat. A person who has absorbed such experiences now enacts them through manipulating, controlling, or diminishing others.

Lateral Violence as a Response to Trauma

Although lateral violence is harmful, it is important to recognize the thread of adaptive and healthy responses to oppression-based trauma in these scenarios. Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst Beverly Stoute explores a similar concept within the experience of Black communities as Black Rage: “[A] functional adaptation for oppressed people of color who suffer racial trauma and racial degradation, an adaptation that can be mobilized for the purpose of defense or psychic growth.”

Inherent in the indignant judgement or criticism of a colleague is the misplaced energy of trying to reclaim dignity for oneself. The rage of being treated unfairly cannot safely be expressed directly, yet this energy is a life force crucial for survival. Understanding this can help create strategies to channel this energy in other ways.

How Lateral Violence Shows Up

Lateral violence thrives in environments with little trust, respect, or creativity. When people don’t feel comfortable, let alone safe, they get stuck in survival mode – often doing the bare minimum to get by and not be noticed. In these environments, when someone does receive accolades or experience success, it can be perceived as a further threat to other people’s well-being.

A classic analogy of this behaviour is “crabs in a bucket.” If one crab is elevated above the others, the lower crabs will grab it and drag it back down to share the mutual fate of the rest of the group; or they’ll try to climb on top and get ahead.

There are common situations or transitions in these closed environments that might add just enough additional pressure to the group, causing lateral violence to spread. Some examples are:

  • New employees joining a team and others seeing this as a threat to their jobs.
  • Employees receiving a promotion or advancement that their co-workers may think they do not deserve. 
  • Younger employees with more education and training may be seen as a threat by older employees.
  • Shifts in power or decision-making within the community may cause those affiliated with different groups to take a stance against one another.
  • Employees who are good at their job and popular with others may stand out if they excel at certain tasks or receive a promotion.

Lateral violence may begin between a couple of people, but because much of the underlying emotion that is triggered in these situations is a shared experience (oppression, resentment, shame), the behaviours can quickly spread.

Lateral violence becomes a group or systemic experience embedded in a workplace culture over time.

Groups or work teams may begin to pick up, absorb, and replicate these patterns of behaviour. In this way, lateral violence becomes a group or systemic experience embedded in a workplace culture over time. Some common emotions and behaviours that make up these patterns include:

  • Jealousy
  • Bitterness and a lack of trust
  • Bickering
  • Cliques and isolating certain group members
  • Gossiping and spreading rumours
  • Character attacks
  • Shaming and bullying
  • Eye rolling and other expressions of contempt
  • Sarcasm, belittling, and teasing
  • Unrealistic expectations or deadlines
  • Invasion of privacy
  • Withholding information
  • Avoidance and silence

Scenario:

Toula got a new job after 17 years at her old workplace. She was looking forward to a fresh start, but during orientation, she noticed some strange behaviour:

  • Other staff ignored her and did not return her greetings.
  • She also overheard gossip about her, and one of her new coworkers said that she needed to “earn her stripes.”

Toula mentioned these instances to her manager and was told she needed to be “less sensitive.” Little things continued to happen, such as her filing cabinet key going missing and being left out of a lunch gathering. She also heard rumours going around that she wasn’t really a First Nations woman.

Toula became depressed and regularly dreaded going to work.

Lateral violence can have deeply pervasive and destructive impacts on individuals, teams, and communities.

How Lateral Violence Impacts Over Time

“Oppression leads to aggression, regression, and depression.” – Cindy Deschenes, CTRI Trainer

The accumulated effect of ongoing psychological violence and aggression is felt at individual, group, and organizational levels. The more embedded these patterns become, the deeper the impact may be.

Individual impacts:
  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Questioning one’s judgement or competency
  • Disconnectedness and lack of motivation
  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Decreased immune function resulting in increased sick days
  • Difficulty with emotional control; projecting anger or shame onto others
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Dreading work
  • Lateness or avoidance of work commitments
Group impacts:
  • Surface relationships and lack of openness
  • Marginalization and suppression of other people’s competence and knowledge
  • A blame mentality
  • Cliques and jealousy between groups
  • Unhealthy competition and a lack of teamwork
  • Discrimination of anyone different
Organizational impacts:
  • Apathy and low morale
  • High absenteeism
  • High turnover
  • Lower productivity
  • Loss of creativity and inspiration
  • Loss of organizational identity
  • Decreased customer service or engagement with the wider community

 “When individuals feel inferior, inadequate and afraid, they take on the qualities of the oppressor as a way of acquiring strength and an illusion of power.” – Jane Middleton-Moz

Lateral violence can have deeply pervasive and destructive impacts on individuals, teams, and communities. Understanding the complex systemic factors that contribute to the persistence of these patterns is key to addressing lateral violence in a way that allows healing at multiple levels.

Stay tuned for our next blog on this topic: Transforming Lateral Violence Into Lateral Kindness


If you found this post helpful, check our website for additional blogs by Vicki.  For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author

Vicki Enns

MMFT, RMFT – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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