Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream

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Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the term “gaslighting” is now going mainstream. The American Dialect Society has declared it one of the “Words of the Year,” defining it as “psychologically manipulat[ing] a person into questioning their own sanity.” Wikipedia may not be as academically authoritative a source, but its current explanation of gaslighting is right on point:

Gaslighting . . . is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. . . . Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I’ll get to the Trump connection in a minute, but for now, a bit of background.

Origins of the term

It starts with an old movie.

I first became familiar with gaslighting several years ago when folks in the workplace anti-bullying movement used it to describe crazy-making behaviors at work. In my December 2012 piece about gaslighting as a form of workplace bullying (which has become one of this blog’s most popular posts), I shared Dr. Martha Stout’s explanation of the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

In the movie, Bergman’s psychological deterioration accelerates when she cannot get anyone to believe her claims.

America’s Gaslighter-In-Chief?

Gaslighting started to appear in the mainstream media last year, largely associated with Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail. Last spring, for example, U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer wrote an insightful piece about Trump’s gaslighting behaviors via his campaign tactics and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

The gaslighting tag continues. Here’s a snippet of Frida Ghitis’s commentary for CNN about Trump’s behavior, published earlier this week:

Is Donald Trump really a “big fan” of the intelligence community, as he claimed on Twitter, or did he disparage intelligence professionals when he repeatedly referred to them and their work in sneer quotes about “Intelligence” briefings and the “so-called ‘Russian hacking'”?

Did Trump mock a disabled reporter, or did your eyes, and the Hollywood elite make you think he did?

Did he convince Ford not to move a car plant to Mexico, saving American jobs, or was it all a fabrication for publicity?

Did he win the election with a historically narrow victory, or did he score a “landslide”?

. . . Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident.

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.

Trump’s behavior has pushed buttons on a very personal level as well. After the election, Suzannah Weiss, writing for Everyday Feminism, invoked gaslighting in describing how Trump’s candidacy was a triggering event for abuse survivors and now relates to our political future:

As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.

. . . Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.

Lately even the academicians are getting into the act. For example, English and journalism professor Ben Yagoda (U. Delaware) delves into the history and use of the term, leading to Trump, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:

The new prominence [of the term] came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

Significance for workplace anti-bullying movement

It appears that Donald Trump’s gaslighting behavior was not simply for the campaign trail. As Frida Ghitis writes in her CNN piece, “If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day.”

How will this modeled behavior impact the workplace anti-bullying movement? Will Trump actually validate gaslighting and bullying behaviors, in essence sending a message that if it’s appropriate behavior for the President, then it’s right for everyone? Or will the nation recoil at this recurring manipulative, deceitful conduct and realize that we need a lot less of it everywhere, including our workplaces?

These questions of personal conduct have quickly transcended political lines. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes for the Washington Post:

Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.

Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.

Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations

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Can bystander intervention training help us to address workplace bullying and other forms of on-the-job mistreatment?

That was a major question on my mind when I made a quick trip to New York City this past weekend for a bystander intervention training session hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn and facilitated by trainers Kirsten deFur and Julia Martin.

The overall focus of this excellent introductory training was not on bullying per se, but rather on everyday types of harassment and aggressive conflict that we may encounter in various public settings. Many of the scenarios discussed by participants involved harassment on the subways. For we urban dwellers, a public subway system is often the great equalizer, where we’re all randomly tossed into a mix of humanity. It’s hardly surprising that situations often arise in such close-quartered settings.

The training gave us a valuable overall framework for understanding the dynamics of bystander intervention, emphasizing points to think about instead of pretending to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  • “Bystander paralysis” is normal; we freeze up for a variety of reasons and don’t take action. Intervention training is designed to help us get beyond that.
  • In terms of steps, among other things, we have to assess the situation (very challenging at times), decide whether to get involved, and intervene effectively. We typically don’t have much time to go through this process.
  • Specific interventions vary, including the “Four Ds” of direct, distract, delegate, or delay.
  • At times, not getting involved is the right decision.
  • De-escalation of the situation is the ideal process outcome.
  • This is not easy.

I deeply appreciated the grounded quality of the training and dialogue. This was not about preaching against inaction or indifference. Rather, the session assumed we were all there because we cared about this topic, and then implicitly understood that taking action in these situations must be done wisely.

What about the workplace?

So how do I answer the question I posed above? Yes, bystander intervention training may help us to develop approaches for dealing with bullying and abuse at work, but we need to take the discussion deeper than this terrific intro session to reach that point. Indeed, in a short conversation I had with trainer Kirsten deFur after the session, we concurred that bystander intervention in workplace scenarios can be especially complicated.

For those of us interested in bullying in any environment (school, work, community, and so on), bystander reactions and responses have become an increasing point of attention. As I’ve observed many times here, all too often those experiencing bullying also bear witness to bystander abandonment. In the workplace, this can include co-workers who were regarded as friends. For what it’s worth, here are some of my initial observations and caveats concerning bystander intervention at work:

  • Assessing a situation can be especially hard in a work setting. Obvious verbal and physical harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, and other factors is easy to comprehend. But so many other workplace mistreatment scenarios — especially bullying — involve combinations of overt and covert behavior. Claims of covert, indirect mistreatment may be especially challenging to to unpack and understand.
  • Legal protections come into play, too. A bystander intervening in a sexual harassment situation may be protected under anti-retaliation provisions of employment discrimination laws. However, a bystander intervening in a generic bullying situation may be without legal protections, because — at least in the U.S. — we have yet to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying laws.
  • At times it may be wise to get permission of the targeted individual before intervening. Someone may, for example, be willing to tolerate a certain level of mistreatment while quietly seeking a new job to escape the toxic work situation. Perhaps that individual has good reason to know that an intervention, however well-intended, may backfire.
  • Power relationships matter greatly in this context. Let’s say you have a supervisor mistreating a subordinate. That supervisor’s boss could likely intervene without getting into any trouble. But an intervention by another subordinate of that supervisor may simply add another name to the target list. It’s not to say that the subordinate shouldn’t intervene, but the risks of doing so are much greater — and with a much lower likelihood of success.

Yes, this is a pretty sobering assessment. But as the training session in Brooklyn reinforced, bystander intervention, while motivated by some of our best instincts, is not easy stuff. It’s a topic to be embraced with both heart and wisdom.

Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying)

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Rita Pyrillis, writing for Workforce, details the ongoing realities of age discrimination as America’s proportion of older workers continues to rise:

The number of older workers is on the rise. As their ranks grow they will play an important role in the U.S. economy, according to the National Council on Aging. By 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans over 55 will be employed, making up more than one-fourth of the U.S. workforce, according to the not-for-profit advocacy group. In 2014, older workers made up 22 percent of the workforce, according to the council.

Today’s mature workers are generally healthier and more active than their predecessors and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet they are far more likely to experience age-related job discrimination than their younger counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the AARP. In fact, age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1997 and 2007, 16,000 to 19,000 annual complaints were filed, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 filings per year since 2008, according to the EEOC.

Concerns about age discrimination continue to dovetail with this blog’s focus on workplace bullying. Workers who are bullied in middle age and beyond often face difficult odds in securing new jobs after leaving or being pushed out of bad work situations. Along with the common challenges that often confront older workers seeking new jobs, when workplace bullying enters the picture, targeted individuals may experience depression, psychological trauma, and a loss of trust and confidence — among other things.

Last month, I highlighted a Next Avenue blog post and forthcoming book by Elizabeth White about the challenges facing older workers who have lost their jobs. I’ve now had a chance to spend some time with Ms. White’s new book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal (2016), and I’m happy to recommend it. Although not specifically about workplace bullying, it will be especially helpful to those 50 and older who are trying to get their practical and emotional bearings in a job market inhospitable to mature workers. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s online description:

You’re in your fifties and sixties and have saved nothing or not nearly enough to retire. . . . Are there actions you can take (or not take) to have a shot at a decent retirement?

Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal culls wisdom from boomers navigating the path ahead. It invites you to join with others to look beyond your immediate surroundings and circumstances to what is possible in the new normal of financial insecurity. . . . 

Containing over 100 online resources, Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal is the book to read to help you navigate the emotional aspects of where you’ve landed. It is where to turn when you want to know what steps you can take to steady yourself enough to go another round.

Also, for more about linkages between ageism and workplace bullying, these earlier posts may be of interest:

Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too (2015)

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

Workplace bullying, social connection, and social support

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

Last week I mentioned an excellent 2015 Vanity Fair article by Sebastian Junger, detailing the history of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a diagnosis, primarily as it has applied to soldiers in the military. As the piece moves toward its conclusion, Junger thoughtfully and provocatively looks at PTSD in a social context to explain why so many returning veterans struggle with psychological trauma upon their return:

In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “lack of social support” was found to be around two times more reliable at predicting who got PTSD and who didn’t than the severity of the trauma itself. You could be mildly traumatized, in other words—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan—and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.

He even appeals to anthropology for a deeper understanding of trauma:

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

This long-form piece is well worth your attention if you want to learn more about PTSD in a deeper historical and societal context.

Relevance to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

All of this, of course, carries great significance for workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. We know that PTSD is one of the major impairments associated with this mistreatment. An underlying reminder of the Junger article is that strong social support, both in and out of the workplace, can make a positive difference to targets of work abuse, perhaps even to the point of preventing long-term PTSD.

Unfortunately, we also know that for too many targets, social isolation rather than a human safety net is the norm. Some may not have had a strong social base before the abuse began, which left them instantly bereft of support once things turned bad. Others experienced the disintegration of their social base during the bullying, with co-workers abandoning them or diving for cover, while close friends and family couldn’t get their heads around the dynamics of the abuse.

This is among the many reasons why greater public education about workplace bullying is an absolute necessity. We need to make the public more aware of the prevalence of bullying and mobbing at work and its pernicious effects on individuals and organizations. Moreover, we need to be part of that broader movement to educate the public about PTSD and similar mental injuries and conditions.

How do you take and keep notes?

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Janet uses a hardcover sketchbook for her notes.

Okay, dear readers — especially academicians, students, lifelong learners, frequent conference goers, and other “information society” folks — here’s my question: How do you take and keep notes?

This Way Out (1972), a classic early guidebook to non-traditional higher education by John Coyne and Tom Hebert, includes some marvelous chapters on lifelong learning skills and practices, pre-digital style. It says this about taking notes:

Make a decision now for life, just how you are going to keep your lecture and reading notes. We wish we had done this earlier so that we could have saved them. We’re always in situations where we take notes. Watching a TV discussion, public lectures, conversations. We have finally settled on 4-by-6 inch scratch pads, and yellow legal pads for interviews and long lectures. There must be better systems. One friend takes notes (any size), quotes and interesting miscellaneous Xeroxes, stapes them to 5-by-8 inch cards which he labels and keeps in a card file.

Of course, their note taking system is a blast from the past. The mere idea of recording notes onto paper is foreign to a lot of folks, especially in this digital age of tablets and software programs like Evernote and OneNote.

That said, I remain drawn to taking notes the old fashioned way. It is an aesthetic as well as educational preference.

For some reason, this topic has been on my mind recently. In a recent post I wrote about a fellow singing class student who keeps written notes on each voice class session. At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.

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And at times she goes artistic.

Alas, unlike Janet, and ignoring the sound advice of Mssrs. Coyne & Hebert, I have not developed a uniform personal note taking system. When I have my act together, I am biased toward Moleskine notebooks. But I also use other brands of notebooks and sketchbooks, my weekly (paper) calendar, scraps of paper, and yes, my computer and tablet. (Sidebar: Even Moleskine has bowed to technology, now offering a “Smart Writing System” that integrates paper and digital writing using a “paper tablet.”)

Individual preferences aside, for purposes of learning and retention, taking notes by hand may very well be more effective than typing them into a laptop or tablet, as suggested by a study published in the research journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So, this is my gentle case for taking notes like some of us learned in grade school. Here’s to heading over to your local stationery or office supply store and picking up a notebook or sketchbook, along with a nice pen that makes writing a pleasure.

Organizational authenticity and workplace bullying

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I’d like to offer a proposition: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse are much less likely to occur in organizations that embrace and practice authenticity.

This statement requires some unpacking, but I think the inquiry itself is worthy of our consideration.

First, let’s adopt a definition. Management consultant and scholar C.V. Harquail defines an “authentic organization” this way on her Authentic Organizations website:

An organization is authentic when its actions, its character, and its sense of purpose are aligned with and support each other.

Dr. Harquail further elaborates that an authentic organization “actively supports its members, customers, and constituencies in their own authenticity as they work with the organization to achieve its purpose.”

More informally, I read this definition as saying that an organization is authentic when it is comfortable in its own skin. This quality, of course, must come from and extend to key organizational leaders. 

When organizations and people are not comfortable in their own skins, then they are out of alignment. This can fuel insecurities and conflicts (internal and external) that, in turn, lead to bullying and similar behaviors.

Think about it: If you’ve experienced or observed workplace bullying, mobbing, or abuse, did it occur in an organization that had its act together, or did it occur in one that was dysfunctional and felt, well, kind of shaky? When assessing individual instances of bullying, understandably we often focus on specific tormenters. However, it’s highly unlikely that they could get away with it while working in an authentic organization. In fact, at such an organization, they might not even be on the payroll to begin with, right?

Even early 401(k) supporters believe the U.S. retirement funding system is broken

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Slate‘s Helaine Olen summarizes recent articles and research studies to paint a scary view of America’s retirement funding crisis, including a Wall Street Journal piece reporting that early advocates of the 401(k) retirement account are now admitting that it’s doing a lousy job of helping folks save for retirement:

The Wall Street Journal’s Timothy Martin tracked down several early proponents of the 401(k) and asked them what they think of their innovation, which has supplanted the traditional pension at most companies. . . .

Herbert Whitehouse, a former Johnson & Johnson human resources executive who pushed the then-new savings vehicle in the early 1980s, now says even he can’t retire until his mid-70s if he wishes to maintain his standard of living, because, Martin writes, his 401(k) “took a hit” in 2008. He’s 65. And Ted Benna, the man most frequently credited for the 401(k) as we know it, says he doesn’t believe “any system currently in existence” can help most Americans finance their financial needs in retirement.

Olen summarizes recent research studies documenting the depth and breadth of this crisis:

The Center for Retirement Research currently estimates that about 52 percent of households are “at risk of not having enough to maintain their living standards in retirement” with “the outlook for retiring Baby Boomers and Generation Xers far less sanguine than for current retirees.” The Economic Policy Institute says just under half of households headed by someone between the ages of 32 and 61 have nothing saved for retirement.

Cassandra Calling

In a Slate piece from last March, Olen reveals her exasperation in writing over and again about a retirement funding crisis that America is sweeping under the rug:

News flash: Americans still aren’t saving enough money for retirement.

No doubt you are tired of reading this story. I’m certainly tired of writing it.

“The United States is on the verge of a retirement crisis,” I proclaimed in 2013. I repeated myself in 2014. And again in 2015. And, now, 2016.

I can relate. On a much more modest level (in terms of readership, that is!), I’ve been sounding this call for many years on this blog:

Two tales of the Times (2016)

Two articles published in last Saturday’s New York Times drive home a pair of contrasting narratives about aging and retirement prospects in the United States. One paints an idyllic picture of retirees who have the flexibility and financial resources to engage in adult learning activities for pleasure and intellectual company. The other details the challenges facing women who became unemployed in their 50s during the Great Recession and who have struggled to find work since then.

Is America “On the Beach” about its retirement funding crisis? (2015)

Is America simply waiting for the huge, coming crisis in retirement funding to overtake us? What happens then?

The situation reminds me of the 1959 movie, On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In the film, Australians are attempting to carry on with their everyday lives, while knowing that massive, deadly nuclear fallout, which already has wiped out most of the rest of humanity, is heading their way. When that occurs, they, too, will have no hope for survival.

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Many members of “Generation Jones,” that span of late Boomers and early Gen Xers who are in their middle years, face tough times right now. This cohort has been hit especially hard by the ongoing economic crisis, with many losing jobs in mid-career and finding it difficult to obtain new employment and to save for retirement.

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few) (2013) 

In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack, and much of this broadside is coming from well-monied corporate interests, aided by supportive far-right politicians.

This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together because, frankly, concerns about America’s retirement funding crisis tend to be examined in silos, such as (1) Social Security; (2) public employee pension funds; and (3) 401(k) balances.

Retirement expert: “Most Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

According to economist Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement policy, “(i)t looks like most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees,” adding that “(t)he baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents.”

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

Do I have it completely wrong, or is most of America ignoring the coming economic and social train wreck that will occur when millions of Baby Boomers realize they do not have sufficient resources to fund a relatively comfortable retirement?

I’ve been trying to connect the dots, and the emerging picture of the Boomer retirement crisis frightens me….

In her March Slate piece, Olen urged the presidential candidates to make the nation’s retirement readiness a major campaign issue. Instead, we got the ugliest, most vulgar campaign in modern American history. I don’t know what it will take for the nation to wake up to what is before us, as millions of Boomers (followed closely by Gen Xers) move into their later years. Even the relatively quick-fix responses, such as raising the payroll tax limit to allow Social Security to maintain current benefit levels and — hopefully — to increase benefits for those in need, do not appear to have a lot of political support in Washington D.C.

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