On being a change agent: The role of “Edgewalker”


In her 2006 book, Edgewalkers: People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground, author Judi Neal writes that the “Edgewalker is someone who walks between the worlds,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way. Neal draws heavily from diverse cultural and spiritual traditions in defining this role.

I discovered this book a few months ago, and I find that the concept of Edgewalker describes many of the change agents I find myself drawn to in my own work. A multitude of the folks who are at the heart of several communities near and dear to me — including the Therapeutic Jurisprudence network, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, and workplace anti-bullying movement — would fit comfortably into the Edgewalker framework.

I also realize that I have been unconsciously trying to define an Edgewalker-like identity for myself. The term “silo” is now one of the most overused in organizational life, but it captures the kind of insularity that inhibits creativity and frustrates the search for solutions. An Edgewalker strikes me as being a silo buster, and I like that. Whether it involves transcending professional and academic disciplines, melding the roles of scholar and practitioner, or integrating different strands of traditional and non-traditional higher and adult education, I find that this role resonates with me.

Neal also recognizes that the Edgewalker role can be a lonely one at times. After all, if so many people are crowded into more traditionally defined groups, then being an Edgewalker can mean walking alone, or at least it may feel that way. The solution, I’m finding, is to seek out and connect with other Edgewalker-type people. What can be more exciting than to foster communities of bridge-building visionaries?


Recycling: Five years of December

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

December 2013: UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative – Yesterday the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the flagship entity of a major public university system, publicly launched a workplace anti-bullying initiative with a campus symposium that attracted over 500 UMass employees. This remarkable turnout, which included staff, faculty, and administrators, was over triple the number of RSVPs for the event. . . . I had the privilege of presenting the keynote address, and one of the lasting memories I’ll have is that of standing at the podium and seeing the large auditorium fill with people, with some having to stand even after dozens of extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the overflow.

December 2012: American elders: Human dignity and an aging population — At some point soon, America is going to have to come to grips with the massive psychological and economic implications of its aging population. It won’t be easy. . . . These challenges will have significant implications for the world of work. They will impact the demographics of the workplace and employee benefit programs. They also will create an expanding sector of the labor market devoted to elder care and health care. If we’re capable of philosophically redefining a crisis as an opportunity, then perhaps this is the best we can hope for. I believe these coming decades will be a test not only of our policy and economic ingenuity, but also of our hearts.

December 2011: Workplace bullying and families of targets — Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case. Here are two helpful pieces . . . .

December 2010: “Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here” — Do you like the quote that headlines this blog post? Isn’t it an important statement for a workplace with a heart? Uh oh. Too bad it came from Enron’s code of ethics. Alas, great policies do not always translate into great leadership.

December 2009: Workplace bullying in health care IV: Nurses bullied and responding — “After you read this post, go to Google and type in these two words as a search request: nurses bullying. If you had a dollar for every hit, you could retire right now and live very, very comfortably. When it comes to workplace bullying in the healthcare workplace, nurses get the worst of it. They are bullied by doctors. They are bullied by fellow nurses. And when patients act out, they’re more likely to take it out on a nurse than someone else, at times using physical violence.”

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization

Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?

This happens a lot in highly factionalized workplaces, especially when a core group enjoys considerable power and tends to marginalize those not in their circle. It’s a way of affirming who and what “counts” in the eyes of the Powers That Be. When favoritism and clique membership are baked into an organization’s culture, those on the outside will be reminded of their place when their good work is greeted by silence or a grudging acknowledgment.

Furthermore, especially in fields or professions where many assessments are subjective, it’s easy to make up reasons why some work is worthy of recognition and other work is not. Smart, manipulative individuals in leadership positions can raise such rationalizations to an art form.

In many cases, the outsiders may not be in danger of losing their jobs, but they will have to derive more of their work satisfaction from within, rather than wait for kudos that are unlikely to come their way. This hardly ranks among the greatest of workplace injustices, but it’s a needless way of lowering overall employee morale. It also can plant the seeds for more serious worker mistreatment if things start to turn sour within the organization.


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After 700 harassing robocalls from Bank of America, couple wins $1 million judgment

(Graphic courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org)

(Graphic courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org)

From Good Morning America, here’s a story about a couple who won a $1 million judgment against Bank of America for subjecting them to some 700 threatening robo-calls over a period of four years, in response to late mortgage payments:

Bank of America is being forced to hand over more than $1 million to a Florida couple after the bank flooded them with hundreds of loan collection calls for years – the latest example of alleged behavior that has cost the bank tens of millions.

In a complaint filed in July, attorneys for Nelson and Joyce Coniglio said that the couple had been on the receiving end of “patterns of outrageous, abusive and harassing conduct” by a subsidiary of Bank of America that included 700 calls in four years, after the bank said the couple fell behind on mortgage loan payments in 2009. The Coniglios also received “threatening collection letters asserting false and misleading information,” the complaint said.

The couple sent multiple letters from legal representation asking the bank to stop, but the calls — sometimes up to five a day — continued. The complaint describes automated calls leaving repeated pre-recorded messages.

Incredibly, a Bank of America vice president told ABC that the calls were meant to “help them avoid foreclosure,” adding that BoA “has helped 2 million homeowners avoid foreclosure.” This claim alone gets a special chutzpah award! Bank of America’s own former employees have submitted written testimony stating the company rewarded workers who put homeowners into foreclosure, as this 2013 piece from ProPublica explains. In addition, as reported in the full GMA article, harassment of this nature from Bank of America and its affiliates is hardly unique.

Surely there are more humane and ethical ways of doing business. In BoA’s case, the same corporate arrogance that helped to fuel the economic meltdown in the first place continues, backed by hollow and disingenuous attempts to explain these practices.

Workshopping human dignity

Day 1 participants, HumanDHS workshop, Dec. 2014 (Photo: Anna Strout)

HumanDHS workshop, December 2014 (Photo: Anna Strout)

It’s not often that one can attend an academic/professional gathering that includes separate sessions on improvisational expression and the distinctions between shame and humiliation, but that’s one of the compelling qualities about the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, held in December by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network and hosted by Columbia University in New York City.

HumanDHS, as I’ve written before, is an international assemblage of educators, practitioners, activists, and students devoted to advancing human dignity. I’ve been devoting this week’s posts to the workshop held last Thursday and Friday. I’ve become a regular participant, and for various reasons, this year’s offerings really struck a chord with me.

Open “dignilogues”

Among the highlights for me were the open “dignilogues,” participant-driven breakout sessions on topics generated by the group. The two I participated in could not have been more different, and both were immensely rewarding.

On Thursday I joined a session on improvisation, led by music educator and performing artist Christine de Michele. I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure what Christine meant when she proposed this topic, but it sounded intriguing enough to give it a try. For the next hour or so, our small group jumped right in with improvisational exercises, mixing sounds, music, movements, storytelling, and drawing. It’s hard for me to describe in words just how freeing and “un-conference like” this was, but suffice it to say that it was a fun, creative, and energizing experience.

On Friday I joined a session devoted to exploring the differences between shame and humiliation in our society. It was an earnest, heartfelt exchange, mixing theoretical ideas with personal experiences. Although it wasn’t required that the group reach a consensus on such complex matters, it’s fair to say that many of us agreed that while the experience of shame can, at times, lead to personal growth, the experience of humiliation is more often a diminishing one.

Dignity at work

One of my contributions to this year’s workshop was a Thursday evening talk on advancing dignity at work. It gave me a chance to share many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I tied together these topics under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

I then asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.


Related post

For a closer look at the work of HumanDHS, here’s a post I wrote earlier this fall, “Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity.”

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Posturing vs. authenticity in our work lives

If you’ve spent a lot of time in meetings, seminars, conferences, and other such gatherings that are part of our information society, then you’ve probably encountered the contrasts between posturing and authenticity. I’d like to explore this for a few minutes.

This week I’m reflecting upon the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network and hosted by Columbia University in New York City last Thursday and Friday. Participating in this workshop has become a more-or-less annual ritual for me, and one of the most meaningful. It’s a global gathering of scholars, practitioners, activists, and students committed to advancing human dignity. I like these folks a lot; simply being around them makes me a better person.

One of the workshop’s most endearing aspects is the quality of authenticity that participants bring to it. There is something very real about this gathering. There’s more genuine exchange and a lot less posturing over the course of this two-day event than you’ll find at many programs heavily populated by academics and professionals.

What do I mean by posturing? In the context of meetings and conferences, posturing is the practice of saying “learned” things or raising “clever” questions primarily to make an impression, rather than to enrich a discussion. The two fields I am most familiar with, academe and law, are positively rife with posturing.

Yup, I’ve engaged in posturing, especially as a younger professor. But thankfully, especially during the past decade, I feel like I’ve discovered my authentic voice. In this mode, I’m in alignment with my values and consequently much less prone to getting caught up in superficial attempts to manage impressions.

The authenticity vs. posturing question brings up deeper, important questions about how we reach that place of alignment and present ourselves to our colleagues and co-workers: What is one’s natural persona in a vocational or professional setting? How are we authentic or not in such settings? What’s the difference between becoming real versus constructing an artificial self?

Especially when we’re new to a given field or group of people, we tend to want to make a good impression. That’s natural. Especially as neophytes, we may engage in posturing as a mask for feeling unsure of ourselves or to mold ourselves to external expectations. That’s natural, too. But what happens when managing impressions becomes the end game, rather than creating and discovering our more authentic, substantive groove? Evolving away from the former and toward the latter is a key part of our growth and development, on the job and elsewhere.

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Great work, bad workplace?

What if you’re doing meaningful work in the midst of a nasty, dysfunctional workplace? In other words, the work is good, maybe even great, but the work environment is unpleasant or even toxic. And what if, for assorted reasons, it isn’t that easy to find a comparable opportunity?

My friend and colleague Ya’ir Ronen — a social scientist and human rights lawyer at Ben-Gurion University in Israel — got me thinking about this during one of many enriching, impromptu conversations I had during the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City last week. 

The theme of this year’s workshop was “Work that Dignifies the Lives of All People,” and our sidebar chat resonated with both of us. In fact, I’ve written about the challenges of “getting to tolerance,” the dilemma of “should I stay or should I go?” when dealing with bad work situations and workplace bullying, and the myth of the “dream job.” I promised Ya’ir that I would process this a bit, and we may well join forces to write up a little paper on the topic. For now, please allow me to do some thinking out loud:

The good work/bad workplace scenario captures a dovetailing of blessing and curse. Let’s start by acknowledging once again that anyone whose work brings both sufficient income and genuine emotional satisfaction enjoys a blessing that countless millions of people do not enjoy. Many toil simply to keep themselves and people dear to them clothed, fed, and sheltered.

However, the nature of one’s work and the quality of one’s work environment can be very, very different things. What looks at a distance to be a great job may actually be stressful and unpleasant in a bad workplace. I hear this lament from so many people in helping and creative professions such as health care, education, the media, and non-profits and public service generally. 

As I’ve suggested before, emotional detachment can be a partial antidote to a bad work environment, but what if it means sacrificing some of the very psychic satisfaction that makes the job worth doing?

Ya’ir talked about the role of resilience, and I believe that’s a topic very worthy of discussion in this context. When we have a followup exchange on this, I will look forward to his thoughts on it.

Much of life is about weighing costs and benefits; rarely is everything completely good or bad. And so it is with work. At times we may overemphasize the bad aspects of a work experience and downplay its positive qualities. But as I recently suggested here in a slightly different context, if our work is overtaxing our body and soul, it may be time for a reassessment and possible change.

Yup, I’m thinking out loud. No epiphanies, at least not yet.


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