Can a narcissist feel your pain? (Maybe yes, study suggests)

Can narcissists be counseled to feel the pain and distress of others? If so, how does this relate to addressing bullying at work?

Tom Jacobs, writing for the Pacific Standard, reports on a set of university experiments about narcissists:

In three experiments, a team led by University of Surrey psychologist Erica Hepper provides evidence that, under the right conditions, narcissists can indeed be moved by the suffering of others.

“Although it appears that narcissists’ low empathy is relatively automatic … there is potential for change,” the researchers write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Among other things, the experiments tested whether those with narcissistic tendencies could generate sympathy for “Susan,” a victim of domestic violence, as presented in a short documentary film:

“(T)hose with narcissistic tendencies ‘reported significantly higher empathy for Susan when they had been instructed to take her perspective,’ the researchers write. Simply being told to see things from her point of view—something that does not come naturally for narcissists—allowed them to step outside themselves and feel something for her.”

The researchers didn’t stop with self-reported responses. Using an audio taped factual scenario of someone describing a painful romantic breakup, and attaching their study subjects to monitors that measured heart rates, they found a marked physiological response when the subjects were asked to take the character’s perspective.

Narcissism and workplace bullying

Narcissism has long been associated with toxic leadership. It also is a quality often ascribed to those who engage in workplace bullying. This study suggests that some aggressors at work — at least those whose actions are fueled by narcissistic tendencies — could be effectively counseled or coached in ways that would reduce their harmful behaviors towards co-workers.

Of course, it’s not as easy as saying, you’re a narcissistic manager who engages in workplace bullying, so get some help or lose your job. After all, many organizations that harbor workplace aggressors tend to defend, validate, and sometimes even encourage their behaviors. Workplace bullying, after all, is typically fueled by negative organizational cultures.

Nevertheless, this study suggests that some narcissistic workers may respond when asked to walk in the shoes of those on the receiving end of their behaviors. Thus, in addition to helping targets of workplace bullying, perhaps we can change some of their tormenters.

Recycling: Five years of Mays

Dear readers, with some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, on a monthly basis I’m going to reach into the archives to highlight a piece from the corresponding month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they will provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

May 2013: Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

…Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

May 2012: Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids

We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.

…Bullying-induced depression can impact parental care provided by mothers and fathers alike. But I suggest that there’s a disparate impact on women. Let’s connect the dots….

…In other words, the evidence suggests that we’ve got a cohort of bullied, depressed moms out there, and the pain of their experience at work is being passed on to their kids at home.

May 2011: What policy objectives should workplace bullying legislation advance?

With growing discussion about the enactment of workplace bullying legislation occurring both in the U.S. and in other nations, it is fitting to identify some of the broad objectives that any such law should be designed to further.

When I was drafting the Healthy Workplace Bill, I identified a cluster of public policy goals that should inform the substance of an anti-bullying law. These four figured most prominently….

May 2010: Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife

Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity.

Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this….

May 2009: Star Trek: To bold embrace passions…or to obliterate work-life balance?

With Star Trek and its heirs, life on a starship is all encompassing. The officers and crew live where they work. There rarely is such a thing as a “vacation,” unless beaming down to a planet that may serve up life-threatening beings or diseases counts as Club Med or the French Riviera. Alas, to my knowledge, none of the Star Trek incarnations feature an employee assistance program or union shop steward to address issues of overwork or chronic stress.



NPR and Progressive Radio Network on workplace bullying

National Public Radio and the Progressive Radio Network have aired segments on workplace bullying, and I was interviewed for both of them:

National Public Radio

NPR National Correspondent Yuki Noguchi’s segment on workplace bullying has been running nationally. It’s a little under five minutes, and includes interview snippets from workplace bullying targets Lisa-Marie Mulkern and Steven Williams, Michael Aitken of the Society for Human Resource Management, and yours truly. Over the years I’ve had ongoing exchanges with both Lisa-Marie and Steven about their experiences with bullying at work, and I’m very glad that their stories are getting wider exposure. The segment also highlights the growing number of states considering variations of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Progressive Radio Network

I enjoyed an extended conversation (50+ minutes) about workplace bullying and worker’s rights with attorneys Jack Tuckner and Deborah O’Rell, hosts of PRN’s “Women’s Rights in the Workplace.” We covered a lot of ground, including the basics about workplace bullying, the lack of legal protections, and how bullying at work relates to broader issues of labor relations, women at work, and the economy.


Event this Friday

In addition, I’ll be presenting about workplace bullying this Friday, May 30, at the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence program, “Work & Well-Being, 2014,” in Washington D.C., 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. I’ll be doing the first morning session, running about 90 minutes. Go here for info and a registration link.

I worked with the APA to create this resource page for employers and employees who want to learn more about workplace bullying and how to prevent and respond to it. The page includes a short animated video that serves as an excellent intro to the topic for educational and training programs.



Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments?


In Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), psychiatrist Carl Jung asked, “Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life?” He answered:

No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years, and have looked too often into the secret chambers of their souls, not to be moved by this fundamental truth.

During the ensuing decades, plenty of degree programs designed for adult learners have appeared on the scene. However, the overwhelming share of these offerings emphasize professional education for career enhancement, rather than deeper looks into the truths, ideals, and “secret chambers of [our] souls” to which Jung referred. Consequently, whether we call them life changes or midlife crises, we’re often on our own to navigate and sort them out.

So, in the absence of these colleges for 40-year-olds (and beyond), how can we think and reflect upon our lives to date, our lives right now, and our lives to come?

For those who, like me, sometimes turn to good books for guidance, let me introduce a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater.


Leading Lives That Matter examines topics such as authenticity, virtue, vocational identity and selection, living significantly, work-life balance, authority, individual choice, personal stories, and death. It’s a bit too weighted toward American and “Western Civ” authors to be called a multicultural reader, but it’s an eclectic group of writers nonetheless. Along with Aristotle and Homer, you’ll find writings by William James, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Annie Dillard, Amy Tan, Malcolm X, and Robert Frost, among several dozen others. Even Ben Affleck and Matt Damon make appearances.

Schwehn & Bass include many selections on work and vocation. In fact, in their Introduction they write:

Today many young people experience a . . . yearning for work that is meaningful and significant. So do millions of somewhat older people who feel that their current employment is not satisfying in this regard. Moreover, many of these find, as [Albert] Schweitzer did, that their search to discover the work that is right for them stretches over an extended period of struggle and uncertainty.

My guess is that more undergraduate seminars have used this book than have adult education classes or reading groups. Nevertheless, I think it’s an excellent choice for those in midlife and beyond who are thinking in big picture terms about their lives.

Indeed, when I think back to how intellectually and emotionally callow I could be as a collegian, it seems such a waste to have introduced me to some of these authors back then! Today, however, a novella like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (reprinted in full as the Epilogue) is especially powerful and wise to me.

In sum, if you believe that serious reading can help us to sort through important life questions, then Leading Lives That Matter may prove to be a treasure trove of thoughts and ideas.


Related post

Wisdom at fifty-something (2014)

AAUP spotlights bullying in academe

The American Association of University Professors is putting a spotlight on bullying behaviors. The May-June issue of Academe, the AAUP’s membership magazine, features a piece by Clara Wajngurt that focuses on the impact of bullying behaviors in colleges and universities:

Elizabeth Farrington, an expert on women in higher education, defines campus bullying as behavior at colleges and universities that tends “to threaten, to intimidate, to humiliate or to isolate members of the working university environment [and] that undermines reputation or job performance.” It occurs frequently, and very often we who work in these environments are unaware of it.

…It is in the best interest of college and university leaders to promote ethical conduct and a collegial working environment. Bullied workers, be they faculty members, academic professionals, or administrators, can experience serious psychological and physiological problems, from insomnia and depression to cardiovascular disease and impaired memory. Reducing workplace bullying is cost-effective, resulting in happier, more passionate employees.

In addition, the magazine’s online edition includes an article by Barb Holdcroft on bullying and incivility among college students:

I recently finished a particularly disturbing semester of teaching that was filled with instances of student incivility, intimidation, and entitlement. In searching for information that could help me understand my students’ behavior, I found that other teachers have had similar experiences.

Several aspects of these behaviors can be quickly identified. All have a negative impact on education and can produce dire consequences in real life. As students repeat each behavior with “success,” the behaviors become more entrenched.

The AAUP is the nation’s leading membership organization and collective voice for higher education faculty in the U.S., and I’m glad to see it giving bullying behaviors greater attention.


Related post

Roundup on bullying and mobbing in higher education (2014)


Forbes on firing your bad boss

For those toiling under bad or even abusive bosses, here’s the stuff of fantasies: How can I get my boss fired?

Susan Adams, writing for, took on the question, interviewing experts in employee relations (including Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute) on the likelihood of underlings being able to push out a terrible boss. Her verdict:

Countless workers fantasize about getting their boss fired, but few succeed. I talked to five career coaches, a corporate consultant, a lawyer, and a management professor about how disgruntled workers might oust their superiors, and although I gathered a handful of success stories, all of the sources agree: Think many times over before you try it, because you will likely fail.

Okay, so it’s not exactly a surprising conclusion. Nevertheless, the full article does include stories about workers who made it happen, albeit usually with a lot of time and effort.

The gloomy prospects of staging a palace coup against lousy leadership reflect a broader reality about the typical American employer. The average workplace is a command-and-control operation from the top, and little effort is made to solicit rank-and-file input on the performance of organizational leaders.

This is especially so in the vast majority of sites where no union is present to serve as a source of countervailing power. Most workers are at-will employees who may be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, so long as the firing is not grounded in some illegal motive such as discrimination. And even though retaliating against workers for labor activism may be illegal, in many instances these violations are not remedied.

No wonder, then, that Adams concludes her article with advice from career counselors suggesting that unhappy workers devote their efforts to securing new employment rather than going after the boss. It probably makes sense, even if it means that some workplaces will continue to inflict bad leaders on revolving doors of workers for the duration.


Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

Transitions and inner callings


A lot of people who find their way to this blog are in transitional stages of their work lives, often because of bad experiences at a current or previous job. Some are contemplating a change of employers or even vocations.

What’s next?

Concrete stuff like finances and living expenses obviously come into play, and the practical challenges of paying the bills may compete with attempts to engage in big picture thinking about one’s life.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t avoid looking inward, in some cases digging deep to turn a setback into an opportunity to consider and create options. For those in this position, William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (rev. ed., 2004) may be very useful. Here’s a brief passage (p. 79):

People who have discounted or blocked out the inner callings from the future have cut themselves off from the very signals that really vital people use to stay on their paths of their own development. It is no wonder that people who have silenced those inner signs find meaningful careers difficult to launch and to maintain, or that when they encounter times of transition, they are so confused and distressed.

Bridges, a leading authority on personal transitions whose own life has been shaped by loss and major changes, devotes an entire chapter to “Transitions in the Work Life.” Overall, this is a wise and helpful book for those who want to get beyond quick advice and breezy self-help manuals. It’s especially helpful for folks who are transitioning during mid-life and beyond and who are eager to think deeply about how they want to create the rest of their lives.

Should we ditch Commencement speakers?

Every spring, news cycles fill with stories of college and university students protesting the selection of Commencement speakers, usually on political or religious grounds. Critics of the protests often respond that demanding withdrawal of a Commencement speaking invitation has the effect of discouraging free and robust speech.

Hmm…perhaps we should simply end the practice of inviting prominent people to speak at Commencements.

When students protest the selection of a Commencement speaker, it’s typically not just about their social or political views. Rather, something about that speaker detracts from a moment that should be for the students and their families. If a speaker has taken a particularly sharp or divisive position, his or her presence may actually spoil the ceremony for those students.

Yes, critics of the protesters raise valid concerns about undermining free speech. However, unlike a campus forum that students may choose to attend, those at a Commencement ceremony are a captive audience. If participating in Commencement is important to them, they have to sit and listen, and there’s no opportunity to respond to the speaker. It’s one-way free speech, at best. If someone is worth bringing to campus to speak, then why not sponsor a genuine academic program around their appearance that allows for give-and-take?

This brings me to another good reason to ditch Commencement speakers: Rather than being controversial, most Commencement speeches are eminently forgettable, a mix of platitudes, applause lines, and personal anecdotes, many of which have been shared time and again on previous occasions. Much hot air is expended in return for so little content. In most cases, why bother?

In sum, I suggest that we skip most of the “name” speakers and return Commencement to the students. Allow them to pick several fellow graduates and maybe even or a professor or two who will keep their remarks short and snappy. Then invite them to walk across the stage as they transform into graduates.


If formal addresses at ceremonial events such as Commencements are to be the norm, then let me suggest two exemplars of the art:

The first is President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania national battlefield cemetery. Justly considered one of the greatest speeches in American history, President Lincoln took but a few minutes to deliver it. (Many are unaware that the featured speaker that day, noted orator Edward Everett, spoke for some two hours, in keeping with expectations for such events back then. Unlike Lincoln’s brief speech, Everett’s oration has been consigned to history’s dustbin.)

I’ve featured the second speech on this blog before, President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Commencement address at American University in Washington D.C., during which he set out the challenges of maintaining peace in the nuclear age. It masterfully blends substance with doses of wit, while bowing to the University, its graduates, and the deeper values of higher education. Here’s a snippet:

Toxic work environment prompts dismissal of French museum president

If you think that work life in the creative sectors manages to escape toxic leadership, please think again. Bad leaders can be found anywhere, even in occupational areas devoted to advancing creativity, artistic expression, and cultural enrichment.

Case in point: The president of the Musée Picasso (Picasso Museum) in Paris, Anne Baldassari, has been relieved of her duties amidst an employee relations crisis implicating her leadership. Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times that the French culture ministry, which presides over the Picasso Museum, announced that:

…Ms. Baldassari had been dismissed because of a “gravely deteriorating work environment.” It cited a management review in March by an inspector general who recommended an overhaul because of “profound suffering in the workplace and a toxic atmosphere” that had provoked a series of resignations by high-ranking officials . . ..

Furthermore, a statement by Claude Picasso, the artist’s son, suggesting that the workers’ concerns were exaggerated  “galvanized more than half the museum’s current staff of 45 people to issue a statement over the weekend in which they described a management style marked by favoritism, conflict, mercurial decision making and a lack of communication.”

Sometimes we may naïvely assume that because an organization’s mission is devoted to a seemingly higher purpose, those who lead the enterprise share a commitment to fair employment practices and worker dignity. If only that was so…

How to deny, discount, and dismiss bullying and psychological abuse at work

(image courtesy of

A recent blog piece by psychologist Kenneth Pope explaining how reports of torture can be easily denied, discounted, and dismissed strongly resonated with my understanding of the dynamics of bullying and abuse at work. I thought it worth sharing and discussing with readers here.

Three cognitive strategies

Dr. Pope identifies “three common cognitive strategies for denying, discounting, dismissing, or distorting instances of torture and for turning away from effective steps to stop it and hold those responsible accountable”:

First, “reflexively dismissing all evidence as questionable, incomplete, misleading, false, or in some other way inadequate.”

Second, “using euphemism, abstraction, and other linguistic transformations” to hide the abuse.

Third, by “turning away: ‘I’m not involved,’ ‘There is nothing I can do about it,’ ‘I have no authority, jurisdiction, power, or influence,’ ‘This is no concern of mine,’ etc.”

Applied to workplace bullying

I quickly thought of workplace bullying when I read this blog post.

First, on “reflexively dismissing all evidence”: My gosh, how many stories I’ve heard about people in positions of authority — CEOs, supervisors, and HR directors — dismissing claims of workplace bullying, even when they are backed up with e-mails, statements, third-party observations, and the like!

Second, on “using euphemism [and] abstraction” to hide workplace abuse: How many versions of this have we heard? Oh, they had a personality conflict. . . . Yeah, he can be abrasive, but he’s really a great guy underneath. . . . She just wasn’t a good fit for this place. Need more?

Third, on “turning away” from a bullying situation experienced by someone else: Workplace bullying thrives when bystander indifference is commonplace. Bullying targets frequently experience abandonment by colleagues, including those who know very well what has been transpiring.

When it comes to shedding light on our understanding of workplace bullying, I try to be very careful about invoking references to other severe forms of interpersonal abuse and mistreatment, especially those that are commonly associated with significant human rights violations. At times, however, when the shoe fits…

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