Lateral Violence in the Workplace

July 22 2019

Local citizens who’ve been privileged to work for their own tribal organizations are familiar with lateral violence. Wikipedia defines lateral violence as “displaced violence directed against one’s peers rather than adversaries. This construct is one way of explaining minority-on-minority violence in developed nations.”

Whether we work in private, public, government or tribal sectors on the reservation, we’ve all been subject to lateral violence. When lateral violence is allowed to run unchecked, it can cause permanent damage to any organization. Let’s look at some examples of lateral violence in the workplace. Consequently, the examples outlined in the following paragraphs are fictious and don’t represent any real person or tribal organization.

One instance of lateral violence would be when an employee who has worked with the organization for ten years or more, begins voicing disparaging remarks to her coworkers. All the disparaging remarks are directed at the new supervisor. Even though the supervisor is an educated, experienced tribal citizen, the employee will claim that the boss doesn’t know anything about the work the organization does.

In addition, lateral violence is perpetuated when the staff aligns with the disgruntled employee and continues the discussion amongst themselves. The on-going group discussion is focused on how unqualified they perceive the supervisor. In reality, the person hired in the leadership role has the credentials (experience and education) to qualify for the position.

Another instance of lateral violence will happen when new leadership comes into the organization. The new leader does an assessment to determine how to restructure the organization to better serve the public. When the assessment is complete and all employees informed of their role, a mandatory meeting is called to announce the restructuring plan to all staff.

Yet, the restructuring effort is undermined when one or more employees back out of the previously agreed upon job changes and refuse to attend the mandated staff meeting. Instead, the employees adopt a victim mentality by soliciting letters from their co-workers about how dissatisfied they are with the new supervisor. The letters are written on work computers and are all unsigned.

So then, the anonymous letters are handed over to a board member with questionable integrity. The fact that the staff didn’t follow the chain of command and went straight to a board member is a violation of the organization’s personnel manual. The letters are only presented to the one person on the governing body because the disgruntled staff members know they can manipulate that single board member.

As a result, the organization is thrown into turmoil. Several staff members abandon their jobs or resign due to the extremely hostile work environment. A handful of employees are left to pick up the pieces. The people served by the organization suffer.

I’m sure these examples are familiar to many of you working in organizations both on and off the reservation. One way to begin turning lateral violence around is through on-the-job training. That is, employers could empower their staff by offering regular sessions about what lateral violence can do to an organization. Another way to quash lateral violence is to offer professional training on team building and emotional intelligence.

However, there are many tribal citizens who can’t or won’t accept new ideas in the workplace. They refuse to view any training set up to empower them as something good. They will continue with disparaging remarks, like “training like this is only for wasicu.”

It’s sad our people would rather perpetuate lateral violence in the workplace. As a tribe, we will never move forward until our own people accept the fact that they need to begin their own healing. I can’t change anyone. I can only change myself and pray for everyone else.

Vi Waln (Lakota) is an award-winning Journalist. She can be reached through email


Published by Vi Waln


%d bloggers like this: