On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees “The party has just begun!” The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.
After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.
— Dr Joseph Carver, “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser”
This emotional attachment and protective behavior of an abused or captive person towards his captor, abuser or tormentor is known as “Stockholm Syndrome” and is coined after the 1973 Stockholm robbery incident. Though seemingly illogical and unnatural, this syndrome is common among hostages and those who are victims of abuse in a relationship. They exhibit behaviors that are protective and empathetic to those causing harm to them and ensuring to maintain the situation where they keep getting abused.
Psychologists have given many explanations for Stockholm Syndrome. One is basic survival – those exhibiting it develop these irrational emotional bonds and behaviors to protect themselves from further damage. For example, an abused person may defend his abuser with his family because he fears not doing so may invite more trouble. Another is the emotional and time investment the abused has made in the relationship with the abuser over a period of time. They develop these irrational emotions and behaviors as a protection for their investment and with a hope that things will get better. For example, an abused spouse may stay in a bad marriage because they have been together for a long time and ending the relationship means losing out all they have invested.
The important fact is that the Stockholm Syndrome is more common than we may think – The FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System shows that roughly 27% of victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome.
And here is why I got interested in it. I believe the syndrome exists in its spirit in many organizational cultures as well. You will find organizations, specially higher management, engaged in self-destructive and irrational behaviors all the time – something which ultimately becomes part of the organizational culture. As in Stockholm Syndrome, they may not be deliberately and consciously engaged in the destructive behaviors. They would have developed an “emotional bonding” with such behaviors over a period of time and are unwilling to let them go, when it should be clearly obvious that they are causing harm to them as well as the organization. Such behaviors may be because of survival reasons – that is the only way they know how to do things even when they know they are not effective. Or they may be because they have made too much investment in them – for example, not shutting down a project, overturning a decision, letting go of a bad hire or changing a policy when its clear that it’s not working. If they were involved in such decisions from the start, then they can tend to build such irrational and hurting bonds with them. They are hostages who are defending their captors!
Can you identify any such behaviors in your organization culture which reflect the Stockholm Syndrome?