Workplace bullying: Does adversity nurture compassion?

 

Does experiencing bullying at work or another form of interpersonal mistreatment make us more compassionate towards those who going through similar situations?

Ideally, we’d like to think that experiencing such adversity would build our sense of empathy for others who are dealing with like challenges. However, a 2014 study (link here) by Rachel Ruttan (Northwestern U.), Mary-Hunter McDonnell (U. Penn.), and Loran Nordgren (Northwestern U.) advises us to check those assumptions. Here’s the article abstract:

For those who are struggling with a difficult experience and who seek the support of others, it is a common assumption that others who have been through the experience in the past will be more understanding. To the contrary, the current research found that participants who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment) more harshly evaluated another person’s failure to endure a similar distressing event compared to participants with no experience enduring the event. These effects emerged for three naturally occurring distressing events, as well as one experimentally-induced distressing event. The effect was driven by the tendency for those who previously endured the distressing event to view the event as less difficult to overcome. Taken together, the paper’s findings present a paradox such that, in the face of struggle or defeat, the people we are most apt to seek for advice or comfort may be the least likely to provide it.

Let’s understand that this study is not claiming any absolutes. It suggests that those who have “previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment)” may be less likely to support others who going through similar experiences. It’s not a blanket characterization of all people who have experienced mistreatment.

Personal observations

In fact, I know darn well that people who have experienced bullying and mobbing can be extraordinarily supportive of those who are enduring like abuse at work. The core of the workplace anti-bullying movement has been built on the shoulders of these folks. This includes countless numbers of people who, on a professional or volunteer basis, have helped and are helping targets of workplace mistreatment through counseling, coaching, and informal support.

Of course, as the study suggests, this is not always so. And I have witnessed this, too. For example, years ago, I took part in an extended online conversation in which a self-identified workplace mobbing target dismissed the experiences of self-identified targets of workplace bullying, claiming that her suffering was much greater than theirs. It was not an easy exchange.

In essence, the psychology of abuse is complicated and yields a variety of responses from those who have been subjected to it. Nevertheless, the large cadre of bullying and mobbing targets who have joined together to support each other and to advocate for change embodies our efforts to enhance the dignity of work and workers.

Understanding workplace bullying and mobbing: Creating your own personal learning network

Many people who read and subscribe to this blog do so because they have a specific interest in workplace bullying or mobbing. This includes workers who have been bullying or mobbing targets, as well as practitioners and advocates in various fields who are trying to address these forms of abuse. Over the years, I have been gratified by comments and e-mails from readers who report that they have found these writings helpful in building their understanding.

But obviously a single blog is insufficient to provide a proper grounding in this subject area. Thus, to guide readers who want to learn more, I have shared recommended reading and resource lists, with an eye toward enhancing depth and breadth of understanding. They’ve included (click on title to access):

Recently I also provided some suggestions and resources for peer support groups:

What about a personal learning network?

In addition, for those of you whose interests in workplace bullying and mobbing are more than casual, I would like to suggest the possibility of creating a personal learning network (PLN). As defined and explained in Wikipedia:

A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection.

***

Specifically, the learner chooses whom to interact with in these media and how much to participate. Learners have certain goals, needs, interests, motivations and problems that are often presented to the people they include in their PLN. Moreover, the learner will collaborate and connect differently with various members. The learner will establish stronger relationships with some members and have a low level of connection with others. Not all nodes will be equal. Some of the member roles include searcher, assemblator, designer of data, innovator of subject matter, and researcher.

In other words, a PLN involves a pooling and sharing of knowledge and resources. In the context of workplace abuse, it is similar to a peer support group, but its focus is on building knowledge and understanding, rather than dealing directly with personal impacts and consequences. Of course, it’s quite possible to have these functions overlap in a single group, as well.

For those seeking to make these connections, I hope that my new Facebook page (link here), which has attracted some 750 followers since I created it earlier this spring, can help to serve that purpose.

***

P.S. A note to subscribers: Oh, the curse of writing on a tablet instead of a real keyboard! Earlier today I inadvertently posted, rather than merely saved, a headline for this planned post, without the content. I apologize for cluttering your inbox!

Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)

For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”;
  2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”;
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”;
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; and,
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.

I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.

***

Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):

  1. “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
  2. “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
  3. “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
  4. “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
  5. “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”

Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.

Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.

***

Cross-posted with my “Musings of a Gen Joneser” personal blog.

Decades of repeated sexual misconduct complaints finally lead to a resolution at Harvard

Here in Greater Boston, the local news is reporting that Harvard University has stripped retired professor Jorge Dominguez of his emeritus status, following a review of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct towards women at the university spanning decades. From the Harvard Crimson (link here):

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced in an email to FAS affiliates Thursday that she has stripped former Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez of his emeritus status and disinvite him from the FAS campus following the conclusion of a months-long investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under the sanctions Gay imposed, Dominguez will lose the rights and privileges afforded to emeritus faculty members. He will be unable to hold an office on campus, teach and advise students, or receive support from administrative or research assistants.

The Office for Dispute Resolution investigation into Dominguez found that he engaged in “unwelcome sexual conduct” toward several individuals multiple times over a decades-long period, according to Gay.

. . . In a February 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report, at least 10 women publicly accused Dominguez of repeated acts sexual misconduct. A follow-up Chronicle story revealed that Dominguez faced sexual misconduct allegations spanning four decades from 18 women.

“Emeritus” status is a courtesy title commonly given to retired professors who have provided long service to a university. While presumably the university’s actions do not affect his past compensation, they essentially render him persona non grata on the Harvard campus and serve as a very public rebuke of his career.

Four decades?

Okay, so it’s good that Harvard stepped up, did a real investigation, and acted upon its results.

But I think the lede is being buried here: The real story is that it took them four decades — with allegations from 18 women — to engage in real action on this professor.

Why so long?

I’m not privy to the inner workings at Harvard, but I’ve been studying and experiencing academic life for years. It’s safe to say that, on balance, colleges and universities are not the most courageous organizations around, especially if they are led by senior administrators and boards who are primarily focussed on preserving and advancing institutional reputations.

For example, as the horrible revelations of sexual abuse at Michigan State University (Nassar scandal concerning sexual abuse of women gymnasts) and Penn State University (football program and child sex abuse) have documented, academic administrators repeatedly swept concerns under the rug in order to save their schools from public scrutiny and accountability.

Through it all, there’s an ongoing belief system that holds sway, namely, that those who are subjected to abuse and mistreatment count for much less than the reputations of the institution and those who hold privileged positions. It’s about moral and ethical failure.

***

If you’re on Facebook, please “like” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m regularly adding content and hosting conversations that don’t appear here. Go here to sign up.

 

On the social responsibilities of writers

(Photo by DY, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

I’d like to take a Sunday dive into the nature of writing to fuel positive individual and social change. This may be especially relevant to readers who write about fostering psychologically healthier workplaces that are free from bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

The writing bug bit me a long time ago. Most tangibly, I can trace it back to being an editor and reporter for my college and law school newspapers. More recently, I’ve been blogging for over 10 years and writing academic articles and book chapters for over 25 years. In addition, over the decades, I’ve written dozens of other shorter pieces, op-ed columns, and newsletter articles.

Over this long span of time, I’ve tried to be responsible about what I put out there for public consumption, however modest that readership might be at times. I have debated and argued with editors about how certain information is characterized. For the briefest of pieces, I have sometimes spent hours tweaking sentences and paragraphs. When writing about legal matters, I have tried to exercise care in how I discuss ideas, concepts, and potential rights.

But I confess that only within the past few years have I started to regard writing for a public audience as a more sacred responsibility that requires close consideration of how my words will be received. That understanding has come about mainly via reader feedback to this blog, especially from those who have been experiencing workplace bullying or mobbing. On several occasions, I have received e-mails or comments from readers, saying that my writings helped to save their lives, mostly by giving them validating knowledge and understanding about the nature and effects of work abuse, and sometimes by giving them ideas for how to address their respective situations.

Of course, I do not assume that all readers pore over my words with close scrutiny. After all, for better or worse, especially during the digital age, we’ve become used to skimming more than reading. Furthermore, as I sometimes chide my professorial colleagues when we’re whining about students not paying sufficient attention to our golden insights, we shouldn’t expect them to await our every word with breathless anticipation.

Nevertheless, when someone shares with you that your writings have been validating and even life-saving, then it’s time to sit up straight and grasp the potential power of the written word. Those of us who are writing about work abuse need to comprehend that at least some of our readers may be experiencing terrible mistreatment at work and suffering greatly as a result. For me, this includes, among other things:

  • Keeping in mind a readership of bullying/mobbing targets when I write about this topic;
  • Avoiding any suggestion that work abuse situations lend themselves to easy, one-size-fits-all responses and solutions;
  • Staying away from use of clickbait-type titles that promise more than the article delivers; and,
  • Maintaining a Need Help? resource page on my blog (link here).

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to get it right every time. I’ve written over 1,700 pieces for this blog, and some of them have fallen well short of excellence — or even very good. Especially during my earlier years of blogging, some of my posts were unnecessarily punchy or facile in tone. Within the past few years, however, I feel like I’ve found my “blogging voice” in a way that presents my most authentic self.

We badly need writing that embraces authenticity, careful judgment and analysis, and the speaking of truth to power, at a time when the Powers That Be aren’t listening closely enough. Our quest is a long-term one, so words that endure are more valuable than those whose relevance disappears within a news cycle. In this spirit, I hope that fellow writers who are devoted to making the world a better place are also finding their best voices to enlighten us.

***

A quick P.S. about Twitter: I know lots of people who use Twitter very effectively. And some have graciously used Twitter to share posts from this blog. However, I’ve avoided opening a Twitter account. For me, writing in 280 character (or less) blocs, and paying attention to the same, is not my preferred form of engagement. Furthermore, it tempts a more biting side of my sense of humor that is best reserved for friends. 

***

If you’re on Facebook, please “like” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m regularly adding content and hosting conversations that don’t appear here. Go here to sign up.

Workplace Bullying University, “All Star” edition

Workplace Bullying University (link here) is an intensive, interactive, three-day, graduate-level educational and training seminar offered periodically by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) and facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie, one of the world’s foremost experts in workplace bullying. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to become involved in addressing workplace abuse as part of their professional or avocational work. It captures so much of the work that Gary and Ruth Namie have been doing through their Workplace Bullying Institute, now spanning back over 20 years, and the collective research and expertise of the workplace anti-bullying movement.

Most Workplace Bullying University programs are done in a small group fashion, with perhaps 6-8 registrants and Gary as facilitator. During the just-concluded extended weekend, however, WBI hosted a unique “All-Star” edition of University in San Francisco, featuring roughly double the normal number of registrants and a roster of guest participants who are subject-matter experts about workplace bullying and mobbing. Along with the shared expertise of WBI co-founders Gary and Ruth Namie, registrants were joined by a veteran group of activists, advocates, practitioners, and scholars who have been involved in workplace anti-bullying and anti-mobbing work for years. In addition to yours truly, the invited guests included:

  • Carol Arao, M.A., California Healthy Workplace Bill Advocate & WBI Columnist
  • Jane E. Bethel, Employee Advocate
  • Jessi Eden Brown, M.S., LMHC, LPC, NCC, Licensed Psychotherapist in private practice, Professional Coach for WBI
  • Carrie Clark, M.A., Educator, Co-founder of California Healthy Workplace Advocates, 2004
  • Ellen Pinkos Cobb, Attorney & Author of New Developments in International Law, Workplace Bullying & Harassment
  • Linda Crockett, MSW, RSW, SEP, Advocate, Activists, Author, Speaker, Trainer, Trauma Therapist and Change Maker
  • Teresa A. Daniel, J.D., Ph.D., Dean & Professor-Human Resource Leadership Programs, Sullivan University, co-author, Stop Bullying At Work (SHRM book)
  • I. David Daniels, M.H.R.M., CSD, VPS, CFO, Public Sector Workplace Safety Professional
  • Maureen Duffy, Ph.D., Workplace consultant on matters involving bullying and mobbing, family therapist & author Overcoming Mobbing and Mobbing
  • Lisa Farwell, Ph.D., Social Psychologist, Professor Santa Monica College, contributor to Adult Bullying
  • Carol Fehner, B.A., Early (pre WBI) Anti-Bully Union Activist and Trainer
  • Allan Halse, Director, CultureSafe New Zealand & Lay Representative for Bullied Workers
  • Denise Halverson, Utah State Coordinator – WBI Legislative Campaign
  • Denise López Haugen, Psy.D., Health and Trauma Psychologist
  • Gary S. Metcalf, Ph.D.., Professor, Organizational Systems and Leadership co-author, Stop Bullying At Work
  • Beth Plachetka, Ed.D., LCSW, MAEL, M.S.W., Educator, Therapist, Researcher on Workplace Bullying Issues
  • Christina Purpora, Ph.D., RN, Nurse, Educator, and Researcher
  • Deborah Singleton RN, B.SpExSc, PGDipHSc, Researcher
  • Michelle Smith, M.A.Ed., Co-founder of California Healthy Workplace Advocates, 2004
  • Tom Witt, New York State Coordinator – Healthy Workplace Bill

It was a lively, intense, and engaging experience. Workplace Bullying University is a “soup-to-nuts,” immersive introduction to what we know about the dynamics of workplace bullying, its effects on individuals and organizations, and work being done to prevent and respond to it. The All-Star edition ramped it all up, with insightful contributions coming from newbies and veterans alike.

Moreover, as often occurs in smaller conferences, workshops, and seminars with a manageable number of people, the conversations during break times and meals added immensely to the experience. This was a really wonderful group of people, an observation I make about most folks who are doing this work. The program enabled the renewal of old connections and the creation of new connections. For those of us who are long-term veterans of this movement, it was a reunion of sorts and a welcomed opportunity to meet a cadre of talented new folks.

In terms of broader shared purpose, this sends several dozen people back out into the world, equipped with additional knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about how to bring more dignity and humanity into our workplaces. I’d say that’s a very good use of three days of our time.

***

Upcoming Workplace Bullying University programs are scheduled for July 12-14 in San Francisco and November 12-14 in the Miami area. You may go here for more details. A special Boston session for union activists is in the works for October as well.

(For those who might be wondering, I derive no financial benefit from endorsing or participating in this program. It’s just that I believe this is the best available education and training program on this subject matter.)

Related post

Conferences as community builders (2015)

On following evil orders at work

In a piece for Medium (link here), Sarah Griffiths interviews psychological researcher Julia Shaw (University College London) on her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019). Here’s what Dr. Shaw says about the negative implications of our tendency to follow orders:

Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

Among other things, these dynamics can lead us to take part in cruel and abusive behaviors. History is riddled with examples of this, including participation in torture and genocides.

In response, Shaw suggests three things that we can do to avoid engaging in mistreatment of others, at the behest of someone in authority:

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad.

…The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” … (s)o you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

…The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow.

At work

Naturally I’m translating this into workplace settings: What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker? How should that individual respond? What are the costs and consequences of resisting versus going along?

Certainly we can all grow as individuals and develop stronger moral and ethical groundings in terms of how we respond to directives to do wrongful things to others. In that sense, it seems that the three things suggested by Dr. Shaw require a lot of foundational work on ourselves, well before the precipitating events arise. Those events will test us, and decisions on how to respond will emanate from our core foundations.

That said, I am only mildly optimistic about our collective ability to respond to work abuse in the individualized manner suggested by Shaw. Typically these forms of interpersonal mistreatment are enabled or endorsed by organizational leaders. Our tendency to take our cues from the top — the very tendency centrally acknowledged by Shaw — creates shared presumptions that succeeding on the job means accepting, or at least not resisting, the accompanying values and behaviors. By contrast, someone “playing the hero” in the face of wrongful behaviors is often left to do so on their own, with all the accompanying risks.

Rather, the solutions are more systemic. We need a stronger, more inclusive labor movement to provide a countervailing voice for everyday workers. We need laws against workplace bullying. We need stronger enforcement of existing workplace protections. Ultimately, we need to embrace dignity as the primary framing value for our society, joined with a commitment that dignity should not be sacrificed for the right to earn a living and pursue a vocation.

True, advocating for these changes often requires speaking truth to power, but at least if we do so more collectively, our chances of success are much greater than going it alone.

%d bloggers like this: