Let’s talk about a psychological concept called institutional betrayal. It’s a useful idea, especially for understanding the workplace traumas that non-white individuals, women, and other marginalized groups face.
Psychologist Jennifer Freyd first developed the concept to describe how institutions perpetuate or look the other way on harm done to individuals who depend on them. A type of trauma, institutional betrayal can have a severe negative effect on mental and physical health.
A lot of Freyd’s research on institutional betrayal has focused on sexual assault victims, looking at the impact of backlash against those who come forward, such as on college campuses or the military. Even inaction compounds the trauma, tantamount to invalidating what the victim has experienced.
But institutional betrayal happens well beyond cases of sexual assault. Freyd and other psychologists have applied the concept to the wide range of ways that institutions do harm to those in their care. For example, when governmental, employer, or school COVID-19 response jeopardizes the well-being of citizens, employees, or students/staff/teachers, individuals may feel like their trust in these institutions has been betrayed.
In workplaces, too many individuals experience biased treatment, psychological abuse, and more. Raising these issues often leads to being seen as high maintenance or over-sensitive. Mistreatment is explained away or ignored. This denies the harm done to the individual, twisting reality and leading to self-doubt and shame. It’s a type of systemic gaslighting.
As a society we think of “betrayal” as something that tends to be done by individuals (i.e., the cheating partner, the friend or colleague that stabs you in the back), ignoring or not even seeing the deep impact on well-being and health when we’re invalidated by our institutions. At work, it can be hard to reconcile when we’ve experienced betrayal from an institution that we depend on for our livelihoods and even our identities.
Anyone can experience institutional betrayal in the workplace, but those in marginalized groups are at particular risk. Hidden biases and systemic oppression increase the likelihood of experiencing both the initial harm (at the individual level) and the institutional betrayal when these harms are swept under the rug and/or raising them leads to retribution. In addition, many communities of color have a long history of stigmatizing mental health discussion and support — both essential to recognizing and healing from institutional betrayal.
Check out my related piece, Psychological abuse, bullying, and gaslighting in the workplace.
The hidden and undiscussed nature of institutional betrayal — and the resulting trauma — makes it even more pernicious. Below are resources to learn more, as well as to heal if you’ve experienced institutional betrayal.