On immersing yourself and finding the ground floors of positive change

Hackers

For many years, I have counted Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984 orig ed.; now in a 25th ann. 2010 ed.) among my favorite books. It’s the story of the pioneers of personal computing, starting back in the late 50s and going into the heart of the 80s. It’s a wonderfully written book, full of personalities, discoveries, and innovations.

Nevertheless, from a distance this doesn’t look like the kind of book that would hold my affection. I’m not a tech geek. In fact, I am among a minority of professors at my law school who prohibit the use of laptops in my classrooms, and I have used PowerPoint only once in the many talks I’ve given at conferences and programs over the years.

So what’s the ongoing draw of this book?

For me, Hackers captures the great pull of immersing yourself in something that matters deeply to you; doing something positive, constructive, and/or creative; and being part of a group of people whose collective efforts exceed the sum of their parts. At times, it’s about being able to join something truly exciting on the ground floor.

Within the past decade or so, I’ve found those kinds of connections:

  • The workplace anti-bullying movement has become a core piece of my work and life. I feel very blessed that I discovered this movement early in its inception and am playing a meaningful role in growing it.
  • The emerging intern rights movement has also become deeply important to me. I’m delighted over my supportive, “senior” role to this predominantly younger cohort of activists.
  • The therapeutic jurisprudence network, only a quarter century old, is about to launch a global non-profit organization, and I am excited to be working closely with a small group of organizers.
  • Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, founded in the early 2000s, is poised to help shape dialogue, research, and practice toward a more dignified society. Last year I joined its board, and I am stoked about the possibilities for expanding the influence of this wonderful network.

Most of the crowd in Hackers found their passions early in life. For me, these pieces didn’t truly come together until my fifties. Call me a late bloomer, but it took me a long time to grow into and find this groove. Now, it feels right, and I’m very grateful for that.

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You may read more about my work in these realms in my recently published law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice).

 

 

Harvard Business Review on working with toxic colleagues

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On Point, a periodic collection of themed articles drawn from the archives of the Harvard Business Review, devotes its fall 2016 issue to “How to Work with Toxic Colleagues.” Here’s a summary of the table of contents:

This issue of Harvard Business Review OnPoint identifies common scenarios and personality types that are difficult to work with and offers psychological, managerial, and tactical insights on how to combat, and even reverse, the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. Articles include “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo; “Coaching the Toxic Leader,” by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries; “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” by Michael Maccoby; “Is Silence Killing Your Company?” by Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams; “HBR Case Study: What a Star-What a Jerk,” by Sarah Cliffe; and “Make Your Enemies Your Allies,” by Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap. You’ll also find selected content from our website, such as “How to Deal with a Mean Colleague,” by Amy Gallo, and “Defusing an Emotionally Charged Conversation with a Colleague,” by Ron Friedman.

I’ve browsed through this issue, and it looks like a worthy purchase for those interested in how to deal with varieties of toxic co-workers at the ground level, particularly in professional office settings. It will be less useful for those seeking advice on how to transform or fix toxic workplaces. These pieces are not openly available online, so you’ll need to buy the issue if you want to read them.

In fact, I think the closing of the editors’ intro note is telling:

Armed with insight, your own sense of self, and the right strategies, you can combat — and even reverse — the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. You might even come out looking like a hero.

The Harvard Business Review isn’t about worker solidarity. And this collection of articles implicitly recognizes that determining how to deal with a difficult or nasty colleague or boss in today’s professional workplace is usually an individual choice, not a collective assessment. This is often the reality of things, though we don’t have to be happy about it.

Searching for great bosses

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For better or worse, it may be easy to find a bad boss, but how do we engage the search for that seemingly more elusive good boss?

Isvari Mohan, in a piece for the Boston Globe, reports on a 10-year study by management professor Sydney Finkelstein (Dartmouth) that included over 200 interviews — all in a quest to identify the qualities of great bosses and how to find them. A few highlights from the Globe piece:

  • “Great bosses roll up their sleeves and work closely with their employees. They are ambitious, drivers of change, interested in the message of the company, and willing to delegate authority.”
  • “Superbosses are geniuses at helping other people accomplish more than they thought possible, and they focus on generating talent on a continuous basis, says Finkelstein. They want to see you leave and do well; they optimize talent flow, not talent retention. They find unlikely winners to hire. They don’t care about traditional resumes.”
  • “Finkelstein says there are three groups [of great bosses]: iconoclasts like Jon Stewart who are so obsessed with their jobs that their dedication motivates others; glorious bastards like Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. who are driven by a desire to win and know they need talent to do so; and nurturers like cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash who simply like helping others get ahead.”

Finkelstein’s findings appear in his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016). I look forward to checking it out.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time talking about bad bosses, especially those whose behaviors cross into the realm of bullying and abuse. It’s also vitally important, of course, that we talk about the qualities that make for good bosses, so we can have something to aspire to for ourselves and our co-workers.

Here are some previous posts that offer more commentary on this topic:

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces? (2015)

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2012)

You want good leaders? (2010)

 

“The right to be let alone”

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In 1890, the Harvard Law Review published a seminal article by attorneys Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis — “The Right to Privacy” — asserting that American law must recognize a right to privacy grounded in tort (personal injury) law. Paying primary attention to the growing ability of the press and modern communications technologies to delve into and make public the personal lives of private citizens, they reasoned that invasions of privacy now subjected individuals to “mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury.” Accordingly, “(t)houghts, emotions, and sensations demanded legal recognition,” which should be in the form of “the right to be let alone.”

The right to be let alone. In 1890, attorneys Warren and Brandeis weren’t thinking about the workplace when they invoked that phrase. However, their words capture a big piece of what should constitute the experience of work. This includes freedom from disabling bullying and mobbing.

While we’ve seen strides in the evolution of privacy laws since the publication of “The Right of Privacy,” countless numbers of workers who are subjected to severe bullying at work do not enjoy a right to be let alone. This is among the many reasons why I will continue to engage in public education work concerning the need for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and similar legal protections.

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This post was adapted from my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review).

Workshopping workplace dignity

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Yesterday and today, I had the deep privilege of facilitating a small group workshop on dignity at work, hosted at Suffolk University Law School.

Although I often feature and highlight speakers and participants from programs I host, because of the personal nature of some of our discussions, I will refrain from doing so here. Suffice it to say, however, that the ten participants — drawn largely from the Boston area — made for an extraordinary group, individually and collectively. Here are among the topics we discussed:

  • Framing dignity in relation to the experience of work;
  • Examining workplace dignity in the context of a specific employment sector, in this case, health care;
  • Discussing how participants are addressing workplace dignity issues in their own lives, while getting feedback from the group; and,
  • Looking at future advocacy efforts for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

When it came to describing their own workplace dignity activities, many of the participants offered stories of their own life experiences. It was a testament to the supportive atmosphere of the workshop that people felt sufficiently confident and safe to share their stories in this manner.

For me personally, here are among the lessons learned and reinforced by this workshop experience:

  • There is power in creating intentional communities of good people devoted to positive social and individual change.
  • With the right mix of people, gatherings such as this one can be both healing on an individual level and constructive on a social change level.
  • When you bring together folks from different backgrounds, professions, and areas of expertise, the exchange of experiences, ideas, and information can generate new insights and understandings.

The workshop was a trial balloon of sorts, with a loose structure that relied on the participants to provide the content — without a PowerPoint slide in sight! I realize that not every such program will be so rewarding, but I saw and heard more than enough to be able to proclaim the event a success, with designs on working with others to expand this circle.

The mantra of bad organizations: “That’s in the past, forget about it, let’s move on”

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When a dysfunctional organization seeks to move on from one failed chapter to the next, one of its biggest challenges is ensuring that the mistakes, miscues, and injustices of the immediate past disappear. After all, accountability can be brutal, especially for those in charge, so why must the previous events and actions muddy up everyone’s boundless excitement for the glorious future?

Thus, the message is sent from on high: It’s a brand new day. We can’t afford to dwell upon the past. Let’s move forward with our great new leadership ideas initiatives slogans!

Those who aren’t on board with the regime facade change may be marginalized or worse. They may even vanish and be rendered unpersons to help erase institutional memories that are best forgotten.

This pattern occurs over and again at lousy organizations in every sector — public, private, and non-profit. It is the tactical refuge of bad leaders who somehow get repeated chances to screw up. Sadly, it also appeals to the words of philosopher George Santayana quoted above, for organizations that cannot remember their past are surely doomed to repeat it, typically with recurring negative consequences.

Coming in 2017: An organization to advance therapeutic jurisprudence

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Regular readers of this blog may know that I am associated with therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal philosophy and practice that “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being.” For some 25 years, TJ adherents have been creating a global network of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. My own attraction to TJ arose out of my work on workplace bullying and my broader commitment to creating systems of employment law that embrace human dignity. TJ, I realized, was a natural match for those interests.

In fact, I am something of a full-on convert. I now believe that our legal system must, as a primary objective, embrace psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings and transactions, while honoring other important political and economic concerns and core notions of rights and responsibilities.

Accordingly, I am working closely with a group of TJ-affiliated professors, judges, and lawyers to create an international, non-profit membership society that will build the therapeutic jurisprudence community and expand TJ’s scope and influence. We are looking at a 2017 organizational launch. Here’s a passage from a piece describing this effort that we just posted to the Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog:

For over a quarter of a century, the growing therapeutic jurisprudence movement has existed as an informal, multidisciplinary community of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. We are now ready to take things to the next level.

Plans are underway to create a new, international, learned society dedicated to TJ. This non-profit organization will consolidate many existing TJ activities, support new TJ initiatives and programs, and serve as a virtual gathering place for those interested in advancing TJ as an important school of legal philosophy and practice.

The new TJ society will be a lean operation, built on modest membership fees and a simple organizational structure, with its eyes trained on facilitating and supporting good works rather than getting overly caught up in internal machinations.

Many details have yet to be settled, and many individuals have yet to be contacted. However, the TJ society will hold its opening event at the July 2017 Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, to be held in Prague. This will include a substantial, participatory roundtable discussion about initial plans for the organization, followed by a luncheon for those who would like to commemorate this very promising new venture.

This is a very exciting development, and during the coming months I will be sharing occasional updates about this initiative.

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Related posts

Here are three previous blog posts about therapeutic jurisprudence:

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession? (2015)

A view from Vienna: New wine and new bottles for the practice and substance of law (2015)

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014)

Law review articles

I’ve written several law review articles that incorporate insights from TJ, and you may freely download pdf copies by clicking the links:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest LawSouthern California Review of Law and Social Justice (2016)

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship – University of Memphis Law Review (2010)

Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace — Florida Coastal Law Review (2010)

Human Dignity and American Employment Law – University of Richmond Law Review (2009)

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