Forgiveness in the aftermath of workplace bullying and mobbing

People who have been subjected to workplace bullying or mobbing may be urged by well-meaning family or friends to forgive, forget, and move on. But given what work abuse can do to lives and livelihoods, the idea of forgiveness  — at least in its conventional meaning — may seem downright impossible and even wrong to those who have experienced it.

Among all of the human responses to abuse and mistreatment, forgiveness may be the most challenging and perhaps misunderstood. I’d like to take a closer look at a more nuanced conceptualization of forgiveness and its application to bullying and mobbing at work.

The story of Lyndon Harris

At the recent annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, I had the privilege of spending some time with Lyndon Harris, a forgiveness coach and workshop leader who, by his own admission, “came kicking and screaming to the work of forgiveness.” Here’s a bit of his story from his website:

His journey to forgiveness began at Ground Zero on the morning of 9/11/01.

Serving as the priest in charge of St. Paul’s Chapel, he initiated a volunteer force that rose to over 15,000: serving meals, offering supplies and giving encouragement to the rescue workers 24/7 until the site was closed eight and a half months later. ​ His work has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and featured in the award winning documentary, The Power of Forgiveness

After 9/11/01, Harris partnered with forgiveness researcher, Dr. Frederic Luskin (Stanford) and several other activists and forgiveness luminaries to founded the educational non-profit Gardens of Forgiveness. 

Lyndon’s story is not one of a linear, hearts-and-flowers path to enlightenment. Rather, his journey from Ground Zero to today was painful and hard:

With over 240+ days exposure at the site, Harris was diagnosed with severe PTSD, depression, and compromised lung function. Becoming bitter and increasingly isolated, the combination of adverse circumstances and mistakes he made would cost him his marriage, his home, and his career. He would spend years in darkness.

Lyndon would go on to work with leading forgiveness researcher Dr. Fred Luskin (Stanford U.), author of Forgive for Good (2002) to develop approaches for education and coaching about forgiveness. He is currently the co-director of Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center in Zirconia, North Carolina.

Understanding forgiveness

Immediately upon listening to Lyndon’s workshop remarks, I saw with much greater clarity the potential application of forgiveness for targets of work abuse.

Lyndon emphasizes that forgiveness is not about excusing wrongful behavior, compelling reconciliation with an offender, denying or minimizing one’s pain, or foregoing attempts to obtain justice.

Rather, forgiveness is about taking back one’s power, healing, recovering mental and physical health, letting go of unresolved grievances, and “becoming a hero instead of a victim.”

Lyndon’s website goes into more detail, drawing upon Dr. Luskin’s research to share “The Nine Steps to Forgiveness” and “What Forgiveness is and is Not.”

Applying forgiveness to workplace bullying and mobbing situations

Okay, I understand the reluctance to go here. I know what it’s like to carry anger and grudges due to injustices at work, and my awareness of so many instances of horrific workplace bullying and mobbing has sometimes fueled those emotions. I won’t claim to be completely free from all that.

But I’ve also learned that to carry it with me all the time is personally toxic and debilitating. Ironically, perhaps, it makes me less effective at advocating for positive change in our workplaces and society in general. And it feels a heckuva lot lighter not to be carrying around grievances and resentments.

A decade or so ago, I would not have been so receptive to these insights about forgiveness, but now I do get it. It’s not about excusing abuse or letting an offender avoid accountability. It’s about healing, self-empowerment, and our own well being. In that sense, the idea of forgiveness as articulated by Lyndon Harris and Fred Luskin is a response to many challenges that I’ve discussed here before, such as:

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Rumination, obsession, and the challenge of getting “unstuck” (2018)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

I understand that this is not easy stuff for those who have been through terrible experiences of injustice and mistreatment. But ultimately, it is about reclaiming one’s life from abuse and abusers. To borrow from Lyndon’s summary of Luskin’s work:

Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.

 

Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Affirming dignity at work and elsewhere

The United Nations has designated December 10 as Human Rights Day, and this year it commemorates the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the 70th anniversary webpage:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

Article 23 of the UDHR specifically addresses work, and there’s a lot more that applies to workplace conditions in more general terms as well:

You can access the full UDHR here.

If you’d like a more interactive way of learning about the UDHR, take a look at this neat card set designed and published by Dr. Diane Perlman, a clinical and political psychologist and dispute resolution specialist. I met Dr. Perlman at the just-completed annual workshop organized by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, and I was delighted to pick up a set.  

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I cited the UDHR in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review), in which I posited that human dignity should be our framing concept for designing and implementing labor and employment laws.

“Dignitizing” conferences and workshops

A HumanDHS workshop dialogue session (photo courtesy of Rambabu Talluri)

Every December brings a post or two (or three) about the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Teachers College of Columbia University in Manhattan. It is one of the most meaningful events of the year for me.

HumanDHS is a transdisciplinary, global network of educators, writers, activists, artists, practitioners, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experiences of humiliation in society. The annual New York workshop typically includes a mix of these activities:

  • “Pre-planned dignilogues” with invited participants giving very short presentations (seven minutes!) about work they’re doing to advance human dignity;
  • “Co-created dignilogues” comprised of small group discussions on topics selected by workshop participants, culminating in short presentations shared with the full group;
  • A mix of extended talks, award presentations, and musical performances, along with break and lunch periods that foster a lot of individual conversations and connections.

This year’s just-completed gathering was a deeply engaging experience, grounded in a spirit of learning and fellowship. I’ve been participating in this workshop for around ten years, and they’ve all been good experiences. But for some reason this one had an unusually personal meaning to me. And I came away with valuable insights and knowledge, some of which I’ll be sharing in posts soon to come. Equally important, it was heartwarming to connect and reconnect with fellow workshop participants.

The general theme of this year’s workshop was “What is the language of dignity?” In keeping with the theme, during my brief dignilogue presentation, I drew upon two recent blog posts, “Dignity work” (November 2018) and “Instead of ‘weaponize,’ let’s ‘dignitize’” (December 2018), to invite us to think about how we work and talk about dignity in our daily lives.

Dignitizing conferences and workshops

When it comes to recurring conferences and similar events, I’m more likely to return to those that engage both my heart and mind — fueled by interactions with fellow participants who make such events rewarding, while hoping that I can contribute in the same way. My short list includes:

  • This workshop, as well as smaller HumanDHS get-togethers in New York City;
  • Therapeutic jurisprudence events, such as small workshops held in North America, e.g., 2016 in Toronto, and the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, which includes a dedicated stream of TJ-related panels, e.g., 2015 in Vienna;
  • The biennial “Work, Stress, and Health” conference co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology, e.g, a memorable 2015 conference in Atlanta that was the subject of my guest contribution, “Conferences as Community Builders,” to the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog; and,
  • Conferences sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research, e.g., 2017 in the Bay Area.

In sum, I’m drawn to events that aspire to dignitize and enlighten those who attend and participate, rather than the other way around.

Paying attention to conferences

I think we need to pay greater attention to the role of conferences in sharing and disseminating knowledge and creating networks and communities. 

All too often, conferences are simply competitive marketplaces. In his 2017 book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities, Donald Nicolson offers “the argument that academic conferences are a (neoliberal) commodity; that is, they are something of use/value, being bought and sold.” Building on this point, he asserts that conferences serve as marketplaces for knowledge, compete with other conferences for attention and participation, and reinforce the core notions of the neoliberal academy.

I find these tendencies especially in play at the flagship conferences of academic and professional disciplines, replete with individual and collective status obsessions and insecurities and varying airs of superiority, ambition, striving, and desperation. The unhealthy cultures of these events can be exhausting to witness, engage, and navigate. They can be impersonal, stiff, and cold. Some involve a lot of “badge watching,” whereby the perceived prestige of one’s institutional affiliation equates with an individual’s worthiness. Others are simply dull and disengaging.

Three years ago I wrote an essay on the value of smaller academic gatherings that allow for genuine interaction on a human scale (“Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which may be freely accessed here). I’m more convinced than ever before that conferences should serve a community-building purpose. In such settings, shared knowledge and insights can create even deeper understanding, and the associated human connections are enriched in the process.

Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor

Dear readers, if you can spare two minutes, please watch this uplifting BBC video segment featuring Dr. Edith Eger, a noted psychologist, writer, and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Here’s the BBC description:

Edith Eger was 16 when she was sent to Auschwitz with her parents and sister. Her parents were executed. She survived – but barely. She endured unimaginable experiences, including beatings, starvation and being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. When the camp was finally liberated, she was harrowed by trauma and survivors guilt. In order to understand her experiences she trained as a psychologist, a role she still works in to this day. She’s written a memoir called “The Choice” about her experience. She tells us her top tips for living your best life.

Dr. Edie, as she is known, has experienced and witnessed the worst of what humanity can serve up. Yet she proclaims, “I want to practice love, joy, and passion for life.” She offers four life lessons toward doing so:

First, “don’t be a victim.”

Second, “love yourself.”

Third, “feed your brain.”

Finally, “forget your age.”

The video segment is two minutes well spent. And if you’d like more, then I highly recommend her memoir, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017):

These lessons are especially valuable for those who are dealing with the effects of workplace abuse. I met Dr. Edie last year at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research. Here’s part of what I shared on this blog:

I had a chance to talk to Dr. Edie during Saturday’s conference events, and getting to know her was such a gift. During the evening session, I had the intimidating task of immediately following her moving and insightful keynote remarks with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. I confessed my nervousness about comparing the eliminationist instinct that fueled the Holocaust to that manifesting itself on a much smaller scale in workplace abuse situations, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. When I finished, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a nod of approval. Yup, her opinion of my presentation meant so much to me that I looked to her as soon as I was done.

Edith Eger offers inspiring, healing words for those who are dealing with trauma. She is a treasure.

Related post

The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018)

 

Instead of “weaponize,” let’s “dignitize”

I’ll take the opposite, thank you (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The word “weaponize” has been appearing frequently in our public discourse in recent years. John Kelly, in a 2016 Slate piece on the topic, had this to say:

But it’s outside of military contexts that weaponize has really proliferated in the last decade. We’ve weaponized: women, architecture, black suffering, anthropology, the facts, texting, femininity, marketing, secularism, religion, ideology, traditional forms of dress, virtue, sadness, social constructions, iWatches, and fictional experiences in video games. The word, of course, has enjoyed glibber applications: Writers have weaponized everything from flatulence to kale salads. This website appears, to some, to weaponize the narcissism of small differences.

The 2016 presidential election has been a hotbed for weaponization. . . . This weaponization has transformed just about every political act “into a powerful means of gaining advantage,” as Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark argue in their election glossary, Doubletalk.

In essence, it’s about using words, communications, and artistic expressions as weapons to hurt others. “Weaponize” thus becomes an easy way of describing the act and its underlying intention.

Given the work I’ve been doing concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, I’m well aware of how words can wound. We can weaponize annual reviews, e-mails, and meetings. We don’t need missile launchers to do incredible damage to others. 

Well folks, put me down as someone who yearns for a more peaceful, humane opposite of weaponize to enter our conversations with greater frequency. However, an internet search did not yield an appropriate antonym.

Okay, so here’s my suggestion: Dignitize. It’s not a perfect opposite, but it’s close enough.

Thus, instead of weaponizing our everyday interactions at work and elsewhere, let’s dignitize them. How does that sound?

Childhood bullying: Research analysis suggests long-term reduction in adverse effects

A major analysis conducted by a group of London-based university researchers and published in the Psychological Bulletin suggests that the adverse effects of childhood bullying can subside over time.

The London researchers (Tabea Schoeler, Lauren Duncan, Charlotte Cecil, George Ploubidis, and Jean-Baptiste Pingault) examined 16 separate studies of the short and long-term adverse effects of bullying victimization as experienced by youth. They found:

Based on the most stringent evidence available to date, findings indicate that bullying victimization may causally impact children’s wellbeing in the short-term, especially anxiety and depression levels. The reduction of adverse effects over time highlights the potential for resilience in individuals who have experienced bullying. Secondary preventive interventions in bullied children should therefore focus on resilience and on addressing children’s preexisting vulnerabilities.

In the article’s Public Significance Statement, they concluded:

This meta-analysis of quasi-experimental studies suggests that bullying victimization leads to poorer developmental outcome in the short-term, including higher internalizing and externalizing symptoms and reduced academic achievement. These adverse effects diminish in the long-term, highlighting the potential for resilience in individuals who experienced bullying. In addition to tackling bullying, interventions should therefore address the immediate adverse consequences of bullying victimization, while fostering resilience in victimized children.

Unfortunately, the short-term effects — depression, anxiety, reduced academic performance — are not surprising. The more hopeful finding, however, is that the same, significant body of research indicates that these adverse impacts may diminish over the long term.

Relevance to adult and workplace bullying

Response and resilience. Those are the takeaway points from the study that I get when looking at how to help targets of adult and workplace bullying. We need to respond to the immediate adverse consequences (which may include trauma and accompanying health impairments). We also need to foster resilience in bullied workers and, well, in everyone else, too.

This individual focus does not reduce the vital importance of addressing bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors from the perspective of organizational cultures. Organizations typically discourage or enable such behaviors, so this is the starting place for prevention and intervention. We must always remember that these abuses rarely occur in a vacuum, whether we’re talking about schools, workplaces, or any other institutional setting.

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Hat-tip to Dr. Kenneth Pope for the journal article.

“Why do we reward bullies?”

In a New York Times op-ed piece from earlier this year, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), ponders why our society all too often rewards bullies for their behavior. He offers three reasons:

First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.

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Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.

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The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In a famous study published in 1999 in the Journal of Adolescence, three psychologists investigated how children act when they witness an act of bullying. Hundreds of schoolchildren were videotaped on the playground, and nearly 200 bullying incidents were recorded. . . . And how did the peers react? Twenty-one percent joined the bully, while 25 percent defended the victim. The rest — 54 percent — watched the incident passively, neither joining in nor defending the victim.

Brooks’s perspectives on bullying were shaped by his experiences performing with a professional symphony orchestra during his twenties. He calls orchestra conductors “notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding” who “turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence.”

One of the most telling aspects of this op-ed piece is how the experience of being bullied can stick with people for decades. Brooks in his mid-fifties. He is a regular contributor of op-ed pieces to the New York Times. His editorial voice tends to be deliberate and pointed, rather than overtly emotional. Accordingly, his sharp criticisms about orchestra conductors show, in hard relief, the lasting impact of bullying.

Brooks suggests that standing up to bullies is the best way to curb their power and ability to abuse others. He may be right in some instances, but there are plenty of stories where taking on bullies has backfired badly. There is no magic response; power dynamics and surrounding circumstances all matter. What we need are more people who oppose bullying and abusive leaders, thereby creating a broader and deeper cultural norm that does not tolerate such mistreatment as a matter of course.

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Related posts

Toxic workplace cultures and bullying at work (2018)

Creating a society grounded in human dignity (2018)

 

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