“Are you a psychopath? Have I got the career for you!”

They may be click bait, but articles listing professions said to attract the most psychopaths are very popular. At least I couldn’t help myself when I saw the latest from AlterNet, by Kali Holloway, summarizing a now oft-repeated list:

  • CEO
  • Lawyer
  • Media (television/radio)
  • Salesperson
  • Surgeon
  • Journalist
  • Police officer
  • Clergy
  • Chef
  • Civil servants

The origin of this list is psychologist Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success (2012). According to Holloway, Dutton:

…believes that psychopathy can actually be advantageous in some careers. Using (not the most scientific) survey, he compiled a list of careers in which psychopaths are overrepresented. Mostly, they’re fields where the hallmarks of psychopathy allow people not just to get by but to thrive and succeed.

similar 2013 piece by Kelly Clay in Forbes.com adds more from Dutton:

Dutton has said that ”a number of psychopathic attributes [are] actually more common in business leaders than in so-called disturbed criminals — attributes such as superficial charm, egocentricity, persuasiveness, lack of empathy, independence, and focus.”

For what it’s worth, three occupations on the list surprised me: Journalist, clergy, and chef. (Off the top of my head, I would substitute certain categories of university administrators, but that’s for another post, possibly after retirement.)

In any event, it’s especially distressing that all of these occupations play important roles in our society, and some wield considerable power and influence, both individually and in the aggregate. Even if Dutton’s list is only sort of accurate, this adds up to a lot of damaging behaviors visited upon many unsuspecting targets.

 

The power of perseverance

A pair of major U.S. Supreme Court decisions this week has reminded us of the power of perseverance in striving to achieve positive social change. Yesterday, the Court upheld provisions of the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare) that provide tax subsidies for those with low and middle incomes to purchase health insurance. And today the Court held that same-sex couples have a Constitutional right to marry.

Both comprehensive health care coverage and marriage equality are worthy of a humane, inclusive society, so I am very pleased by the Supreme Court’s rulings. Moreover, the Court decisions remind us that significant social change and legal reform are often the product of sustained, dedicated perseverance. Calls for health care reform trace their origins deep into the last century. Organized support for marriage equality goes back well over a decade.

Those who have found this blog because of their interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying understand well the challenges of creating transformative change. On the legal front, I circulated the first version of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill some 12 years ago. As I wrote last month, we are now starting to see measurable progress:

Not too long ago, any reference to workplace bullying laws in the U.S. was purely aspirational. During the past three years, however, several states and municipalities have enacted workplace bullying laws that, while falling short of providing comprehensive protection to targets of these behaviors, signal America’s growing commitment to using the legal system to prevent and respond to abusive work environments.

Since 2003, some 30 American states and territories have considered some form of workplace bullying legislation, a variation of the Healthy Workplace Bill . . . .

As the full versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill continue to gain support in state legislatures, several jurisdictions have enacted some form of workplace bullying legislation.

Achieving positive change in the face of headwinds and hedgerows requires, above all, a determination to push forward without fanfare. Dilettantes and others who expect quick results soon learn, to their dismay, that the role of change agent is one more similar to that of a workhorse than a show horse. It’s about committing one’s self to the long haul.

Distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing

photo-114

Sunday’s weekly review section of the New York Times spotlights Christine Porath’s piece on workplace incivility and rudeness. Dr. Porath (Georgetown U.) is a pioneering researcher on workplace incivility, and the fact that the Times has given this topic such prominent play is a good thing. She starts her piece with a personal story:

MEAN bosses could have killed my father. I vividly recall walking into a hospital room outside of Cleveland to see my strong, athletic dad lying with electrodes strapped to his bare chest. What put him there? I believe it was work-related stress. For years he endured two uncivil bosses.

Porath goes on to examine the individual health effects and organizational costs of workplace incivility, much of which is drawn from her own extensive work in this realm. It’s an excellent piece that covers a lot of ground.

Incivility vs. bullying

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

Porath suggests that acts of workplace incivility are not necessarily intentional:

Incivility often grows out of ignorance, not malice. A surgeon told me that until he received some harsh feedback, he was clueless that so many people thought he was a jerk. He was simply treating residents the way he had been trained.

In some cases, I’d agree. Of course, it’s also possible that someone claiming to be unaware of how his behaviors are being perceived is simply lying. Think, for example, of instances of sexual harassment where the harasser untruthfully claims that he had “no idea” how unwelcome his behaviors were or that he was “only joking around.”

Furthermore, we can delve deeper into social attitudes that may fuel individual behaviors, such as those assuming that some people, by dint of their status, aren’t entitled to the same level of respect as others. For example, if a company’s leadership regards entry-level workers as being replaceable or expendable parts, then its employee relations practices will reflect these (lousy) values. Complaints about mistreatment lodged by one of these “uppity” workers will be handled accordingly.

Yup, even the line drawing gets complicated.

The role of the law

Porath does not mention the potential role of the law in regulating uncivil behavior. Some might consider it an oversight, but in the context of how she’s approaching this topic, it’s not. In fact, as the author of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, I have long held that the law must intercede when workplace behaviors are abusive, rather than being merely rude or abrasive.

The role of the law should be to prevent and prohibit abuse, and to provide a means of compensation for people who have been subjected to it. Fostering civility, on the other hand, should be the product of good leadership, not rules or codes.

Of course, determining when conduct has become abusive can be a challenging task, especially in alleged bullying cases where bad behaviors are indirect and nuanced, but there’s often a point at which the light bulbs go on and the situation becomes clear.

Acknowledging abuse

Ask anyone who has experienced genuine workplace bullying, and they’ll tell you: There’s a world of difference between an abrasive boss or co-worker and an abusive one. The same distinction applies between lighter forms of group hazing and full-blown mobbing situations. These differences apply to relationships in general, so there’s no reason not to apply them to the workplace, yes?

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

This has led some to suggest that we should abandon the use of emotionally charged terms such as bullying, and instead fall back on softer, less threatening ones such as incivility and abrasiveness. I respectfully, but very strongly, disagree. When someone is being savagely abused at work, it’s not about bad manners or “jerky” behavior. We need to keep these distinctions in mind, even if it makes some people uncomfortable to face them.

Woe is me (but maybe not you): How powerful people experience injustice

Powerful people may well be sensitive to injustice and unfairness, but a recent study shows that they are much more likely to feel this way if they are the alleged victims.

Tom Jacobs, writing for Pacific Standard magazine, reports on research suggesting that “people who perceive themselves as powerful are faster to detect injustice — but only in situations where they are the apparent victims.” Psychologist Takuya Sawaoka (Stanford) led the study (published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin), which included an online survey and several controlled experiments.

Dr. Sawaoka told Pacific Standard that because “powerful people more strongly expect to receive fair outcomes, they are faster to perceive unfair situations that violate those expectations.” Accordingly, they may “react more quickly against unfair treatment, and maintain their hold on power.”

The Stanford study fits comfortably with other observations and findings on the effects of power and hierarchy. Executives and senior managers are more likely to demonstrate higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy. In other words, they’re very attuned to themselves, but they care much less about the experiences of others.

Granted, these studies reveal statistical likelihoods that do not apply to every CEO or boss. There are plenty of good ones out there. That said, growing evidence suggests that people with certain personality traits are more likely to successfully climb up the greasy pole and that less-than-wonderful outlooks on the world may harden once they make it up there.

All of which helps to explain the current state of many workplaces, the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else, and a political and economic system rigged to preserve these inequities.

AMA study: The costs of reduced employee loyalty

Reduced employee loyalty is costly to companies, but it appears that too many of them aren’t taking this seriously.

In an article for Workforce, American Management Association vice president Sam Davis reports on a new AMA research study showing that 52 percent of managers “see their employees as less loyal than five years ago.” He further notes that this perceived reduction carries negative costs: “A lack of loyalty can clearly be detrimental and result in loss of trust, higher absenteeism and turnover, shoddy work, gossiping, the formation of cliques and, in extreme cases, incite a mutiny.”

The December 2014 study included survey responses from some 1,200 North American executives, managers, and human resources professionals.

Unfortunately, the AMA study also suggests that a lot of employers aren’t taking the cultivation of employee loyalty very seriously. According to Davis, “One in five respondents said ‘yes,’ loyalty is a major focus at their organization. Some 56 percent said ‘no, not a major focus, but valued nevertheless’ and only 24 percent reported ‘no, it was never valued nor a major focus.’

Davis aptly states that “(e)mployees first need their basic needs met, such as fair compensation, a safe and nontoxic work environment as well as opportunities for career development.” Hallelujah! While it may be obvious that treating workers with dignity is the first step toward developing a loyal, engaged, and productive workforce, it doesn’t hurt when organizations such as the AMA repeat this obvious truth in hopes that maybe someday it will sink in to more of their members.

The other day I found myself grimacing at the cover headline of the current issue of The Economist newsmagazine, which blared “Watch out — The world is not ready for the next recession.” For so many workers, the recession that bubbled up in 2007 and hit with a vengeance in 2008 has yet to end. Here in America, the stock market has rebounded handily, but the labor market has never fully recovered all the good jobs that were lost, and compensation levels remain flat.

During this time, many corporations have continued to pay their top executives generously, often with hefty bonuses added on, and their wealthiest shareholders have done well too. In the midst of this growing gap between the most fortunate and everyone else, can it come as any surprise that a lot of workers aren’t exactly feelin’ it towards their employers? 

Cultivating heart quality in professional practices

Carolyn Thomas, a heart attack survivor and women’s health advocate, writes about the importance of kindness in health care practice in her popular Heart Sisters blog, starting with a story about her visit to the emergency room and subsequent placement in the cardiac care unit:

What I do vividly remember, however, is a small but profound act of kindness later that day when I was brought to my bed in the CCU (the cardiac intensive care unit). The nurse who came to greet me as my gurney was pushed off the elevator placed one gentle hand on my shoulder (and more importantly kept it right there as she walked alongside down the long corridor). As we moved, she bent lower over my head to speak slowly and softly into one ear, introducing herself and assuring me that I was “in the right place” – and that her whole team would do their best to take very good care of me while I was with them.

She goes on to reference, among other things, studies showing that medical students’ levels of empathy begin to decline during the course of their training:

Much of this interaction, however, depends largely on health care professionals’ ability to empathize – to imagine what it’s like to walk in the hospital booties of their patients.

So it’s shocking for many people to learn that, even among naturally kind and empathetic medical students, studies suggest that empathy for others begins to wane by the third year of med school as students progress. This is particularly true, apparently, for future doctors entering technology-oriented specialties – like cardiology.

Thomas’s article raises important questions about the training and education of those entering the helping and human service professions, especially fields such as health care, law, and social services.

For example, a healthy dose of training in client counseling should be an important part of a law school program, including the cultivation of greater sensitivity to a client’s emotional state during often stressful legal proceedings. Therapeutic jurisprudence, the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law, legal practice, and legal education, takes these matters seriously.

To illustrate, in a 2010 law review article, “Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace,” I devote a lot of attention to client counseling in the context of employment disputes, including the recognition that clients may be experiencing considerable anxiety and stress in view of the stakes involved.

These considerations should be examined against the broader canvass of emotional and social intelligence. As I wrote four years ago in a post on leadership:

For those who have the personal qualities to be effective leaders but lack the background and experience, leadership and management training programs emphasizing the so-called “soft skills” would help sensitize them to the human aspects of their jobs.

In fact, it’s arguable that basic management training should be part of all professional degree programs, such as medicine, education, law, and business. This initial exposure can be augmented by continuing education offerings for those elevated to leadership positions.

Maybe this seems like a lot in order to get back to the point of Carolyn Thomas’s blog post: How a nurse’s simple words of comfort and reassurance helped her to deal with a life-threatening health crisis. Nevertheless, in professions that, by their nature, must place great emphasis on analysis and problem solving, the human element needs reinforcing as well.

***

Hat tip to Peggy Berry for the Thomas article.

Bullying Research Network holds 2015 Think Tank in Boston

BRNET logo

BRNET logo

This week I had the pleasure of spending two stimulating, engaging days participating in the Bullying Research Network‘s annual Think Tank, held this year at Boston University. Based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, BRNET is the brainchild of Drs. Susan Swearer (Nebraska-Lincoln) and Shelley Hymel (University of British Columbia). Its primary focus is to support research concerning child and school bullying:

Designed primarily for researchers, the purpose of this Network is to promote and assist international collaboration among bullying and peer victimization researchers. To facilitate collaboration, we have sponsored an annual bullying research Think Tank and compiled research, news, and resources that are shared online with our members.

Five years ago, Shelley and Sue started the Think Tanks “to discuss emerging research in the areas of bullying/victimization, school climate, peer processes, and effective prevention and intervention efforts for these areas.”

For several years I’ve been a nominal member of BRNET, but not until this local opportunity arose did I have a chance to meet some of these great folks and to get a bit more involved. Throughout the two days, I was a sponge, drinking in a lot of information on school bullying from leading researchers and evidence-based practitioners. On occasion, my expertise in workplace bullying contributed some (hopefully!) useful comparative insights to the exchanges.

Of course, in my head I was constantly comparing school bullying to workplace bullying. As I remarked to a few fellow participants, for someone steeped in workplace bullying, being in a room full of school bullying researchers was like an American’s first visit to England: In many ways the language is the same, but there are sufficient differences to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Here are some of the takeaway points and insights that I gained from the two-day gathering:

  • When it comes to conducting studies, the school bullying researchers have much greater access to educational institutions than workplace bullying researchers have to workplaces. Some are working with significant amounts of survey data drawn from multiple school districts. By contrast, the overwhelming share of American employers want nothing to do with opening themselves to studies of workplace bullying that will be published in research journals.
  • Almost every state has enacted some form of school anti-bullying law, and these legal and policy measures vary greatly. Sooner than later, it will be possible to compare the efficacy of these different legal and regulatory approaches. By contrast, only within the last few years have we started to see the enactment of workplace bullying laws.
  • In part because of these laws, school districts across the country are developing and adopting anti-bullying policies and intervention strategies. Here, too, there are, or will be, significant opportunities to compare approaches. By contrast, the current lack of direct liability for workplace bullying, at least in the U.S., means that employers are not fully incentivized to engage in effective prevention and response.

I also took note of concepts and ideas very evident in the school bullying discourse that should have greater presence in our discussions of workplace bullying. Chief among them is moral disengagement, a social psychology term that refers to the process of persuading ourselves that specific ethical standards should not apply to us in certain situations. Moral disengagement is frequently inherent in so much worker mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation.

On a personal level, I was very grateful for the welcoming atmosphere of the Think Tank that made it easy for newcomers to blend in and become a part of the group. It’s always a hopeful sign to experience a warm example of good, smart people walking the talk, and I look forward to staying in touch with them. 

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