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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Chris Guillebeau’s advice: Do your own annual review

Chris Guillebeau is a prolific writer, entrepreneur, and global sojourner who is playing a lead role in encouraging people — Gen Xers and Millennials especially — to think creatively and independently about what to do with their lives. One of his recommended life-planning activities is to do your own annual review as the year comes to a close. Using his blog, he shares his annual reviews with readers and asks for their feedback.

In a recent e-mail update to his list subscribers, he describes his annual review process this way:

Every year in December, I go away for a week and spend time reflecting on the year that’s drawing to a close, and then (and more importantly) make a lot of plans for the next year.

I’ve been sharing this process online since 2008, and many of our readers take part in it too. This is a free exercise and you can do it in your own way.

…Since I’ve been following this practice, it’s been the single most important ritual in ensuring I achieve meaningful and challenging goals.

In contrast to employer-provided performance reviews, which even Business Week has tagged a “worthless” corporate practice, the DIY annual review is, well, largely self-generated and self-directed. If, like Chris, you want feedback from others as part of your review process, it’s up to you do solicit it.

In one of my early references to Chris’s work, I praised his first book, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010), while adding that it suffered “from a touch of youthful arrogance.” Yikers! Well…today I’d change my words, suggesting that he writes with a (comparatively) youthful confidence that manages to convey both boldness and intelligence. If, at times, I feel a tad uncomfortable with the confidence Chris exudes, it may be due to the fact that I — at middle age — feel less certain about some things that I was completely convinced of back in my 30s. But that’s about me, not anyone else!

In any event, I like the idea of a personal annual review as a centering and planning exercise. I haven’t decided whether I’ll do it at the end of this year of at the conclusion of the academic year next May, but I’m sold on giving this a try.

Recycling: Five years of November

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.

November 2013: Creating new workplaces – “When I named the New Workplace Institute in 2006, I did so with institutional transformation in mind, hoping that it would contribute to the development of better workplaces. Some seven years later, I now realize that the term “new workplace” has at least three meanings. One involves transforming existing organizations into better places to work. Another involves creating brand new workplaces that are healthier and happier than their predecessors. And yet a third involves individuals finding new places to work, hopefully much better than the ones they left, and possibly including a career shift.”

November 2012: Does the term “collateral damage” help us to understand how some organizations treat workplace bullying? –“Though [collateral damage is] commonly used in a military context, the term resonates with my understanding of how some organizations regard the mistreatment of employees, especially bullying, harassment, and discrimination….(W)hen bullying or other forms of mistreatment occur, bad organizations often regard the targets of such behaviors as collateral damage. Hey, bad stuff happens in the rough and tumble world of work, and occasionally some really bad stuff happens – that is, to others. Organizational leaders assume that everything is going well, except for this distracting problem.”

November 2011: Some real “job killers”: Executive salaries, bullying managers, health care costs, and demanding stockholders — “The Chamber of Commerce and other powerful trade organizations are fond of using the term “job killer” to denigrate virtually any proposed legislation or regulation that protects workers, consumers, or the environment. They claim that costs of prevention and compliance drain monies that otherwise would be used to create jobs….I)n the interest of fair play, let’s consider an alternate list of job killers….”

November 2010: Do organizations suppress our empathy? — “That conditioning mechanism may be the culture of institutions that teach us to abandon the target, lest we, too, become one of them….In the case of schools, kids learn very early that targets of bullying are outcasts. Heaven forbid that we risk our social standing or sense of security to help someone being picked on, even if those whose approval we seek happen to be mean-spirited jerks. Not infrequently, the schools themselves fail to take assertive action to prevent or stop bullying, especially if the latter situation involves popular kids being the aggressors….Fast-forward to the workplace: A feared boss, or perhaps a popular co-worker, bullies another employee. Once again, the target is abandoned by colleagues and the employer alike. Cycles of abuse and abandonment repeat themselves among adults.”

November 2009: Why concentrated power at work is bad — UC-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner reports: “My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.”

 

What can military planning teach us about creating transformative change?

Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change? With America’s Veterans’ Day upon us tomorrow, I thought I might acknowledge some of those lessons.

Yup, I know, some readers may wonder why a civilian with liberal politics (uh, that’s me) is looking to the military in this way. But I’m also a devoted amateur student of history, I have a lot of respect for many of those who serve in the military, and I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders. Here goes:

Plant the seeds for future success now, even if that success seems far away

During the early years of Second World War, Hitler was running rampant over Europe and the Japanese were doing the same in the Pacific. By any realistic account, the Allies were losing the war on just about all fronts. Nevertheless, their leaders assessed what needed to be done, and they developed rough timelines for achieving their goals. Among other things, Churchill and Roosevelt made the critical decision to defeat Germany first, then beat the Japanese.

Lesson: At times, changing things for the better seems like an insurmountable obstacle. If your assessment of a situation indicates that major change will require many steps and stages, plan out what must be done and take the first steps toward advancing.

Avoid tunnel vision: Plan using parallel tracks

Sound military strategy usually involves a multifaceted approach toward achieving goals. For example, those planning the D-Day landings in France needed to think about personnel, equipment, geography, weather, communications, and a host of other logistics and contingencies. Take the “simple” question of building landing craft to reach the beaches: Someone had to develop proper designs, the factories had to start mass producing them, and they had to be shipped to England. All those plans had to be in the making well before the June 6, 1944 landings.

Lesson: Most significant social change goals also require parallel tracks of planning activity. Making the world a better place typically involves multiple stakeholders, actions, and timelines. Understanding how those dots connect is vital toward achieving success.

Be passionate about your goals, but plan and evaluate dispassionately

The stakes over warfare can hardly be greater. But when it comes to military planning, the best leaders don’t let their emotions carry them into making bad choices. They stay focused yet appropriately flexible, with a constant eye on their endgame.

Lesson: Change agents are similarly urged to disentangle their passion for a cause from the cool planning and evaluation needed to create transformation. This is not easy. The more invested we are in addressing injustice or a societal challenge, the easier it is to be ruled by our hearts rather than our heads.

Learn from mistakes, even (especially!) gruesome ones

If you study the biographies of great military leaders, you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. They learned from those mistakes and remained determined to succeed.

Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes the lessons we learn from our miscues.

Sometimes you compromise, and sometimes you fight

Not every situation in life can be a “win-win,” and armed conflict is a prime example. At times, negotiation, compromise, and settlement are the right thing to do. On other occasions, one must press on to overcome the enemy. Hitler is an easy case of an enemy who had to be stopped completely, but there are countless other situations more complicated than that. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, offers valuable lessons about how military force, diplomacy, and compromise combined to narrowly avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Lesson: This dilemma applies to nearly every attempt to engage in meaningful change. When do you broker an agreement, and when do you go for it all? A capacity for understanding the bigger picture helps us to make smart choices in this regard.

Be gracious and humane in victory

Wise wartime victors know that treating a vanquished foe with dignity is the right thing to do, both morally and out of self-interest. In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious Allies set out to punish Germany, imposing humiliating conditions of surrender. They stoked the destruction of the German economy and planted the seeds for Hitler’s rise to power. After the Second World War, however, the Allies realized their mistake and imposed conditions upon Germany and Japan that promoted renewed relations with those nations and the rebuilding of their economic and social structures.

Lesson: In social change efforts, too, good victors don’t attempt to humiliate their opponents. Such mistreatment only serves to fuel cycles of anger, resentment, and aggression.

Envision something better

As the tides of the Second World War turned, the Allied nations began planning the United Nations. Today, the U.N. is far from being a perfect world organization, but it plays an important role in brokering diplomatic relations and humanitarian efforts.

Lesson: As your social change goals near a milestone victory, think hard about how that success can lead to more lasting, positive transformations. What comes next?

“I am powerless….” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it)

Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised move on or withdraw.

I want to think about this out loud for a few minutes.

I haven’t gone back to find and link to those various writings, as it’s not about questioning or highlighting individuals or their causes. Rather, it’s about recognizing that trying to change things for the better — however one defines “better” — can be hard, challenging work, especially when forces against that change have a lot of power (economic, political, personal, what have you) and exercise it freely. And we happen to live in an age where extreme concentrations of power are ever more common.

In my work on workplace bullying, I see this all the time: Aggressors at work who treat others abusively, and often get away with it. Executives and senior administrators who stoke climates of hostility. HR officers who safeguard abusers and toss targets under the bus. Powerful business interests that want to keep workplace bullying legal.

Nevertheless, I also have been a witness to, and at times a participant in, positive change. A form of mistreatment that didn’t have a widely-recognized label a decade ago (at least in the U.S.) has entered the mainstream of discussions about employee relations. Articles and coverage about workplace bullying appear regularly in the print, electronic, and social media. Some organizations take bullying behaviors seriously and cover them in employee policies. Unions are negotiating about bullying and abusive supervision at the bargaining table. Legislatures are deliberating on and slowly starting to enact workplace bullying legislation.

My experiences are hardly unique. People are exercising their power all the time to change things for the better. Oftentimes they are cast in the role of underdog, yet they are moving the world forward within their spheres of influence regardless.

But what if you are feeling exhausted, hopeless, and maybe a little beaten up?

First, let’s acknowledge that steps to reconsider, regroup, recover, renegotiate, reassess, and reenergize are wholly permitted.

If the work you’re doing to make a difference is overtaxing your body and soul, then you need not be a martyr. Maybe you’re at the point where you’ve done what you can do, and it’s time to pull away.

Or maybe an angle you haven’t considered or fully explored can serve as a breakthrough — or at least as a more rewarding pathway. Perhaps you’re close to that breakthrough with the approach you’re using, but you don’t fully comprehend it.

If you want to cogitate on the stay vs. go question, check out Seth Godin’s short, thoughtful, quirky book, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007). Here’s a snippet:

Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

The decision may look simple, but we know it’s a lot more complex than that.

Finally, we must keep strive our egos and expectations in check, which is no small task when we’re emotionally invested in something. Especially when our popular culture demands immediate satisfaction and embraces short term “deliverables,” we are primed to expect and celebrate quick results. But deeper change can take time. Even dramatic tipping points are often preceded by a long run up.

The old social activist adage, be the change you want to see in the world, applies now more than ever. In addition, a vital lesson I’ve learned as an educator is that we must also be willing to work for change that we may never personally see. (My friends who are parents may understand this implicitly.)

When we put these two pieces together, we have a lot more power than if we did not.

Labor Day 2014: It’s up to us

On this Labor Day 2014, here’s the basic, fundamental question for each of us:

“What will I do to nurture dignity, opportunity, and well-being in the workplace?”

The world of work needs a lot of improvement right now. Many readers understand this through their own work experiences. Others have witnessed friends and family members struggling with bad workplaces.

It’s up to us to create the changes we want to see. It can range from living up to the Golden Rule at work, to joining collective efforts to create better workplaces.

In any event, we must be the change agents. It won’t happen otherwise. It’s as easy and as challenging as that.

Of possible interest

“I want to help stop workplace bullying” (2014)

“Rebellious Lawyering” conference: Discussing origins and meaning of the intern rights movement (2014)

Intellectual activism and social change (2013)

Insiders, outsiders, and change agents (2013)

Setting agendas for positive social change (2013)

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013)

10 ways to make a difference: Advice for change agents (2013)

What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (2010)

Advice to Young (and Not So Young) Folks Who Want to Make a Difference (2009)

Recycling: Five years of August

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.

August 2013: Notes on the workplace anti-bullying movement — “If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve figured out that workplace bullying and related issues of human dignity at work have become focal points of my career. …These experiences have been defining ones, personally and professionally. They also have taught me a lot about the challenges of organizing a movement and building public support for it. I’d like to step back for a brief moment to share some of those insights and observations, centering on the types of people who have been drawn to be a part of this. Concededly, these are fairly broad generalizations, and I apologize in advance to anyone who believes I’m overstating my points. But here goes…”

August 2012: Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying — “You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; and (3) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of “left-brain” logical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence. You then unleash them unto the world of work. Uh oh.”

August 2011: Hiring decisions, hard times, and personal & institutional integrity — “Employers, managers, and HR folks have a lot of power in an economy where jobs are hard to come by. Sometimes, the hiring decisions they make reveal something of their personal and institutional integrity, or lack thereof.”

August 2010: Can an apology help to prevent and settle employment litigation? — “It would take considerable reworking of the commonly assumed role of an employer’s lawyer to encourage, when appropriate, apology and disclosure as a healthy approach toward resolving employment disputes.   Right now, too many management-side lawyers assist their clients in creating a public fiction: We do no wrong — never, ever.  However, is it possible that a different turn will lead to less litigation, less contentious dispute resolution, and — ultimately — better employee morale?”

August 2009: Bully rats, tasers, and stressNew York Times science reporter Natalie Angier has an interesting piece in today’s edition…about an experiment using lab rats to assess the effects of chronic stress, feedback loops in the brain, and how to reverse the damage.  It’s a good report on a thought-provoking study, but for me it confirmed what has become obvious…”

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