Setting agendas for positive social change

In considering how to create positive change in our society, a simple framework offered by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin continues to profoundly shape my thinking. Here’s what I wrote back in 2010:

In his 2008 book Tribes, Seth Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.

Reacting to external events is ”the easiest thing.”  It is “intuitive and instinctive and usually dangerous.”  Too many politicians and managers merely react to developments thrust upon them, and often badly.

Responding is “the second easiest thing.”  Responding to “external stimuli with thoughtful action” is “a much better alternative” to simply reacting. A response requires deliberation and planning.

Initiating is by far the most challenging of the three, but it is “what leaders do.”  They see a void or need and act upon it, thereby causing “events that others have to react to.”  They seize and create the agenda. They are the true change agents.

Godin’s framework has been vividly brought to life for me in a cluster of personally important subject areas. Here are a few thoughts on each:

Workplace bullying

When I first contacted Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie about their brand-new Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the Workplace Bullying Institute) in 1998, I had little idea that the fledgling initiative would have such a significant and still growing impact on employee relations in the United States and beyond. Now I can look back and see the influence of their body of work, which includes public education, research and analysis, assistance to bullying targets, media outreach, law reform advocacy, and organizational advising.

Today, workplace bullying is a topic of increasing attention at professional and academic conferences, in legislatures and courtrooms, and in corporate meeting rooms, organizational coaching programs and union halls. The messages vary, and at times raise honest points of disagreement, but they unite on this: Workplace bullying is destructive to individuals and organizations alike, and we have to take it more seriously.

Those early conversations with the Namies led to my offer to research the legal aspects of workplace bullying, which culminated a 200o law review article that set the stage for my later drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, currently under consideration in state legislatures across the country. Earlier this week, I saw the degree to which workplace bullying has entered the mainstream of our discussions about employee relations when I joined many others at the Massachusetts State House in testifying in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In sum, a phrase that was virtually unknown in the U.S. some 15 years ago is now the centerpiece of a growing, cross-disciplinary, and multi-faceted grassroots movement to affirm employee dignity and to make our workplaces healthier and more productive. To me this captures the heart of Godin’s framework: If you see a problem or obstacle, initiate change rather than merely react or respond to it.

Human dignity perspectives on law, politics, and society

For many years my own scholarship was shaped by liberal-leaning, reform-minded thinking that was more implicit than explicit in my actual writings. Though on the political scale I’m clearly more left than right, I’ve tended to resist rigid theories or ideologies, believing that they often serve to constrict our views rather than enlighten them. However, two entities have overcome that resistance by their very flexibility and insight. Together they are helping to advance a societal perspective that embraces and advances human dignity through informed, respectful, and spirited inquiry and thoughtful action.

Therapeutic jurisprudence

Some five years ago I started looking more closely at a school of legal thought known as therapeutic jurisprudence. TJ, as it is commonly referenced, examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law, legal practice, and legal education. I discovered the TJ community as a result of my work on workplace bullying and employment law & policy generally, and I have found it to be a welcoming home for my legal scholarship.

TJ’s adherents do not claim that it should be sole lens through which we view law and public policy. However, it serves as an important complement to prevailing tendencies to view law from the perspectives of either economics (leaning right) or rights (leaning left). I would characterize my TJ worldview this way: How can our laws and legal systems best advance individual and societal well-being?

Toward that end, I’ve expressly incorporated TJ perspectives in recent law review articles on employee dignity, employment law and practice, and the culture of legal scholarship. Here also is a brief report on a TJ workshop I participated in last year.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network

It’s no coincidence that around the time I discovered therapeutic jurisprudence, I also became part of a wide-ranging, global assemblage scholars, practitioners, and activists who form the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network. Here’s how HumanDHS describes its mission:

We are a global transdisciplinary network and fellowship of concerned academics and practitioners. We wish to stimulate systemic change, globally and locally, to open space for dignity and mutual respect and esteem to take root and grow, thus ending humiliating practices and breaking cycles of humiliation throughout the world.

We suggest that a frame of cooperation and shared humility is necessary – not a mindset of humiliation – if we wish to build a better world, a world of equal dignity for all.

I’ve written about HumanDHS on several occasions. Here, for example, is my brief report on its 2011 annual workshop in New York City, including a video link to a conversation between Human DHS founder Evelin Lindner and director Linda Hartling.

Unpaid internships

Back in 2002, I wrote a law review article positing that the widespread practice of unpaid internships not only was exploitative and exclusionary, but also likely violating minimum wage laws and denying interns protections under employment discrimination laws. The article didn’t get much attention inside or outside of academe until Ross Perlin referenced it in his important book, Intern Nation (2011), the first to comprehensively examine the social, economic, and legal dynamics of the “intern economy.” Soon afterward, Eric Glatt, a one-time unpaid intern for Fox Searchlight Pictures, used the article to inform his decision to file a pathbreaking lawsuit under federal and state minimum wage laws that, just two weeks ago, led to favorable ruling by a federal district court.

During the past two years, groups of (mostly) younger writers, activists, and students have coalesced to form a genuine social and legal movement against unpaid internships. My role in this has been mainly behind-the-scenes, participating in various social media discussions, passing on whatever information and insights I can offer, and serving as sort of a cheerleader and rooting section. From that perch, I have seen these folks make this movement their own.

They, too, have gone beyond reacting and responding. They are now initiating and defining the agenda. A simple message — Pay Your Interns — is buttressed by a conviction that unpaid internships exploit the interns, violate the law, and deny opportunities to those who cannot afford to work for free.

The takeaway point

Societal problems both big and small can seem insurmountable at times, and I won’t pretend to be a beacon of optimism about the way our world is going right now. Nevertheless, in tackling today’s challenges we need to get beyond that exasperating, sometimes crazy-making cycle of reacting and responding. Instead, we need to do our best to initiate and nurture agendas for positive change. Doing so does not guarantee success, but it’s really the only viable way to achieve it.

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Related posts

10 ways to make a difference: Advice for change agents (May 2013)

Intellectual Activism (April 2013)

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This post draws from a good half dozen pieces that I’ve written over the years, reflecting an ongoing process of integrating my ideas about social change. To long time readers, I beg your indulgence if some of this sounds a bit repetitive!

Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill garners support at State House hearing

Photo: Deb Falzoi, MA Healthy Workplace Advocates

Photo: Deb Falzoi, MA Healthy Workplace Advocates

In recent years, I’ve participated in four Massachusetts legislative hearings on workplace anti-bullying legislation, the last three times on behalf of the Healthy Workplace Bill. If yesterday’s hearing before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development is any indication, support for the Healthy Workplace Bill in the Bay State is reaching a tipping point.

The Healthy Workplace Bill (House No. 1766 in the current MA session) was among the bills heard by the committee on Tuesday, and the growing support was evident. Here’s a quick summary of who supported the bill:

  • The Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates panel testifying in support included co-coordinator Greg Sorozan (President of NAGE Local 282), a former bullying target, and me.
  • Lead sponsors Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark and co-sponsor Rep. Frank Smizik were among the legislators who testified in support of the HWB.
  • Approximately 12 citizens shared individual stories of experiencing bullying at work and why passage of the HWB is necessary to safeguard workers.
  • Many others who appeared before the Committee to endorse other legislation added remarks supporting the HWB.

The only voiced opposition came from the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a powerful corporate trade association. In addition, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette ran an editorial opposing the HWB, claiming that existing laws are more than adequate to address bullying-type behaviors.

I’m hardly a disinterested party, but I was struck by how frequently this bill was mentioned during the hearing. Ten years ago, such an event simply was not imaginable. Yesterday, however, workplace bullying was among the dominant topics at a legislative hearing in which many worthy bills were being considered.

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Thanks to Deb Falzoi, Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates, for some of the information above.

Working notes: Bullied bus monitor update, whistle blowing books, and massive U.S. job dislike

Here are three work-related stories worth a look:

Bullied bus monitor retires and pays it forward

Last year, video of a group of 7th graders mercilessly taunting and ridiculing 68-year-old school bus monitor Karen Klein went viral. The Rochester, NY students subjected her to a humiliating stream of insults and profanities, all caught on tape by a classmate. I wrote about it here, including a link to the video, which still is hard to watch.

In the aftermath of her experience, a good samaritan named Max Sidirov used a social media site to raise money intended to provide Klein and her family take a needed vacation. But a rush of pledges totaling some $700,000 poured in, enabling her to take the retirement she thought was impossible in view of her $15,000 annual salary. At the time, Klein said that she would use some of the money to address problems of bullying and suicide.

Today she’s making good on that intention. Carolyn Thompson, reporting for the Associated Press (here, via Boston.com), details how:

Klein used $100,000 as seed money for the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation, which has promoted its message of kindness at concerts and through books. Most recently, the foundation partnered with the Moscow Ballet to raise awareness of cyberbullying as the dance company tours the United States and Canada.

‘‘There’s a lot I wish I could be doing, but I don’t know how to do it,’’ Klein said.

‘‘I’m just a regular old lady,’’ she added with a laugh.

Books on whistle blowing

Sunday’s Boston Globe included Katharine Whittemore’s welcomed review essay on books about whistle blowing, the first time I’ve seen such a piece in a major newspaper. She begins by saying, “When it comes to whistle-blowers, we may be living in a kind of strange, explosive golden age.” Here’s more:

There’s now a self-help book on the topic. Seriously, I give you “The Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself”(Lyons, 2011). It’s vastly shrewd and practical, but it also offers an astute long view of American whistle-blowing. Author Stephen Martin Kohn knows about precedents: He’s one of the lawyers who helped procure the biggest whistle-blower reward ever.

Whittemore mixes overviews of the topic with personal accounts:

Then there’s Cynthia Cooper, a vice president of internal audit for WorldCom, who in 2002 harnessed a team of accountants that worked clandestinely to uncover the company’s $3.8 billion in fraud (the biggest in US history up to that time). Her “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower” (Wiley, 2008) jumps (not always successfully) between her WorldCom experience and the moral upbringing that created a whistle-blower “decision by decision, and brick by brick.”

Most Americans aren’t happy with their jobs…and their bosses

Timothy Egan, blogging for the New York Times, writes about “an exhaustive and depressing” Gallup study indicating that American workers are seriously unhappy with their workplaces:

Among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent of them either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point of costing their companies money — “roaming the halls spreading discontent,” as Gallup reported. Only 30 percent of workers are “engaged and inspired” at work.

And while lagging pay and benefits have something to do with this state of affairs, the main culprits are bad bosses, who are costing their organizations plenty in lost productivity:

But here’s the surprise: the main factor in workplace discontent is not wages, benefits or hours, but the boss. . . . The survey said there was consistent anger at management types who failed to so much as ask employees about their opinion of the job. Ever.

“The managers from hell are creating active disengagement costing the United States an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion annually,” wrote Jim Clifton, the C.E.O. and chairman of Gallup.

Summer reading 2013

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During the academic year, much of my reading tends to be work-related, and I have less of an attention span for books read purely for pleasure. While this summer is busy with writing projects and conference speaking obligations, one way I’m trying to remedy my chronic work-life imbalance is by making time for some good books. A core notion about “summer reading” is that instead of being a “must-read” or a “should-read,” it should be an “I-want-to-read.” Here are four I’m delighted to have on that list:

Given that it’s now officially summer, it’s fitting that one selection is a baseball book, Cait Murphy’s colorful and fascinating Crazy ’08 (2007), a vivid account of the 1908 major league baseball season. It is widely recognized as being among the best of the recent books about the National Pastime, and the first few chapters were all I needed to understand why. For a history buff and lover of baseball nostalgia, it’s an enormously appealing non-fiction narrative.

John_Adams_book

I just finished a binge re-watch of the excellent 2009 HBO mini-series “John Adams,” starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. The mini-series takes us from the Revolutionary era into the early 1800s. It’s based on celebrated historian David McCullough’s prize-winning biography, John Adams (2001), and now I want to read the book. The other day I dipped into the opening chapter, and I could hear McCullough’s rich, distinctive voice as I read.

Good portions of the book’s early chapters are set in Massachusetts, whose colonists (including Adams) were central towards agitating, planning, and fighting for American independence. Many years ago, I went to hear McCullough speak about this era at Boston’s historic Old South Meeting House, which served as a public meeting hall for the rebellious locals. He was so taken by the opportunity to give a talk on that topic in this historic site that he began by opening his arms and happily proclaiming, “Aren’t we lucky to be here?!”

joyland

I tend to limit my fiction reading to mysteries, espionage, suspense, and the occasional horror novel. The only novel and new title highlighted here is Stephen King’s Joyland (2013), a coming-of-age tale set in 1973 about a young man who works at an amusement park. King intentionally limited its initial publication to a printed paperback format, his personal ode to a time when good pulp fiction helped to pass the summer.

I read a lot of Stephen King’s earlier books years ago, but only recently rediscovered him. While I haven’t consumed even a majority of his works, I regard him as one of the most gifted popular storytellers of our time.

Energy-Leadership

Finally, there’s Bruce D. Schneider’s Energy Leadership (2007). (I guess I can’t completely escape work-related reading!) Starting with the story of how a struggling, low-morale company was rescued and transformed, Schneider writes about how the personal energy we bring to our work can change organizations for the better. As long-time readers of this blog are well aware, I spend a lot of time examining how to respond to the personal damage done by toxic organizations. This book considers the possibilities for staging turnarounds.

With the exception of the Schneider book, it’s a Book-of-the-Month Club-ish list, isn’t it? What can I say — I’m a middlebrow type of guy at heart. I’m willing to wade through some difficult stuff for work purposes, but for personal reading I like to be entertained even as I’m being educated. These aren’t the only genres that attract my attention, but they consistently have occupied my bookshelves for pretty much my entire adult life.

What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target?

This question is raised often during Q&A sessions of panel discussions and presentations about workplace bullying: What makes someone a potential target?

The answers, usually offered somewhat off-the-cuff (including by yours truly), vary:

  • A high performer who incurs the resentment of a supervisor or co-workers;
  • A marginal performer whose job security is shaky;
  • Whistle blowers who threaten an unethical status quo;
  • A socially popular employee who incurs resentment;
  • A socially unpopular employee who incurs scorn and isolation;
  • A person who doesn’t quite “fit in”;
  • A physically attractive person who incurs resentment;
  • A physically unattractive person who incurs disapproval;
  • Someone with a characteristic associated with cultural or individual bias: sex, sexual orientation, social class, race, color, age, disability, etc.;
  • A psychologically or situationally strong person whom an aggressor wants to break;
  • A psychologically or situationally vulnerable person who attracts those in search of prey;
  • An individual who voices unpopular opinions;
  • And so on…

The short answer: They stick out

Folks, it’s all of the above.

Indeed, after considering all of these legitimate possibilities, for me it boils down to this: Potential workplace bullying targets usually stick out in some way to potential aggressors. By some characteristic or behavior, they unwittingly trip a wire that unleashes abusive behaviors.

Profiling targets

I’ve thought a lot about this in light of attempts by some researchers and theorists to engage in target profiling. It usually starts with a hypothesis that targets are weak and vulnerable individuals who cannot defend themselves from the verbal and non-verbal onslaughts of workplace bullying. On occasion it leads to the disturbing implication that we can “end” workplace bullying by not hiring likely targets.

It’s true that some bullying targets may project a vulnerability that attracts aggressors like moths to a flame. (Or, perhaps “sharks to prey” is the better imagery…) But over the past decade, I’ve become familiar with so many workplace bullying stories that this profile simply doesn’t hold up as the sole or primary scenario. I’ve also seen too many instances where even the strongest of individuals have their breaking points. Under the wrong circumstances, any of us can be rendered awfully vulnerable.

The indiscriminate aggressor

Of course, we also know that some aggressors appear to be indiscriminate in terms of their targets. Perhaps it’s the boss who routinely bullies any individual unfortunate enough to be his administrative assistant. Or maybe it’s someone who carries so much hostility and resentment, or is so psychologically damaged, that acting abusively toward others is standard behavior.

In such circumstances, virtually anyone is a potential target.

A class photo: “How would I have handled this differently?”

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Here’s a human interest story making its way around the Internet:  A mom eagerly opens the envelope containing her disabled son’s grade school class picture, only to be heartbroken to see that he was physically separated from his classmates in a very noticeable way. Eventually the photographer returned to retake the photo, with the boy taken out of his wheelchair and supported on the bench by a caregiver.

As one might guess, some folks are posting angry things about the photographer and the teacher, basically accusing them of being so negligent in their jobs that they should be pilloried. I’d say let’s pull back on that heavy criticism. After all, there’s no evidence to suggest an effort to hurt anyone’s feelings or a deep-seeded antipathy toward disabled individuals. Instead, let’s use this as a lesson in applying social intelligence at work.

Learn, don’t trash

It starts by putting ourselves in the story: How would I have handled this differently? For example:

  • How can I be more aware of situations like this?
  • If I was the photographer, how could I have suggested regrouping the kids so that the boy in the wheelchair was not isolated in the photo? Keep in mind that you’re dealing with set piece photos, benches, and a pretty substantial wheelchair.
  • If I was the teacher, would I have even noticed how the photo might look? If so, how could I have suggested to the photographer and the other students that maybe we could regroup the kids, and do so in a way that made the boy feel included rather than singled out?
  • What words and tone of voice would I use to take a potentially awkward situation and turn it into a positive one for all?

It’s not that easy, is it? Our antennae have to be up, and then we have to find the right way to suggest doing something a little differently. I ask myself: Had I been the young teacher responsible for a whole class of kids, or perhaps the busy photographer assigned to take multiple class pictures, would I have comprehended this situation?

Hmm, that very easily could’ve been me overlooking it.

Empathy + soft skills = social intelligence applied

I happen to be trained in a profession (law) where so-called soft skills involving human interactions often are neglected as essential parts of our toolkits. Perhaps that’s one reason why this situation struck me as a learning opportunity about applying social intelligence at work. It’s easy to criticize the adults involved, but, in reality, handling the situation more deftly would require just the right touch with perhaps a bit of courage mixed in.

One little picture, so many lessons.

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Photo and article link: Yahoo! Shine On, Jordana Divon, author

Why workplace cyberbullying is likely to get worse

It’s likely that workplace cyberbullying will become more prevalent, and the main reason is generational. Here’s why:

Effects of cyberbullying

First, some background. Last November, I wrote a post on the effects of cyberbullying at work, prompted by a study of British workers:

A new study of British university employees concludes that targets of workplace cyberbullying often fare worse than those who experience traditional bullying. Victoria Revay reports for Global News (link here):

In three separate surveys, 320 British university employees were asked to document their experiences with cyberbullying. The study results showed that victims of cyberbullying tended to have “higher mental strain and lower job satisfaction” as compared to traditional bullying.

According to Revay, human resources professor Aaron Schat of McMaster University in Canada, interpreted the results this way:

He says the challenge with cyberbullying in the workplace may be that it lacks a so-called safe haven, or a physical area where the victim can take refuge to avoid the bully. He says this may also be the reason why victims feel more emotionally distressed.

In other words, the personal impact of workplace cyberbullying mimics what we’re seeing with bullying of children in the digital age. You can’t just close your office door or retreat to your cubicle. It pops up on your computer screen at work, and it follows you home and wherever you’ve got access to a home PC, tablet, or smartphone. And if you’re in a job where you’re expected to check your messages even while “off duty,” then you may not have the option of going off the grid for a weekend.

Fast forward

Folks weaned on the Internet are entering the workforce in large numbers. More than any previous generation, many rely heavily on their electronic gadgets to communicate on just about everything. It logically follows that when they engage in bullying behaviors at work, keyboards and smart phones will be their likely forms of transmission.

Connect the dots: More cyberbullying at work, creating deeper levels of stress and anxiety.

The only mitigating effect I can think of right now is that people may be wary of leaving an e-trail of bullying behavior if it implicates their job security or triggers a potential legal claim. But so long as most standard-brand workplace bullying remains legal, those disincentives are milder than we’d like.

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