“I am powerless….” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it)

Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet who have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised to move on or withdraw.

I want to think about this out loud for a few minutes.

I haven’t gone back to find and link to those various writings, as it’s not about questioning or highlighting individuals or their causes. Rather, it’s about recognizing that trying to change things for the better — however one defines “better” — can be hard, challenging work, especially when forces against that change have a lot of power (economic, political, personal, what have you) and exercise it freely. And we happen to live in an age where extreme concentrations of power are ever more common.

In my work on workplace bullying, I see this all the time: Aggressors at work who treat others abusively, and often get away with it. Executives and senior administrators who stoke climates of hostility. HR officers who safeguard abusers and toss targets under the bus. Powerful business interests that want to keep workplace bullying legal.

Nevertheless, I also have been a witness to, and at times a participant in, positive change. A form of mistreatment that didn’t have a widely-recognized label a decade ago (at least in the U.S.) has entered the mainstream of discussions about employee relations. Articles and coverage about workplace bullying appear regularly in the print, electronic, and social media. Some organizations take bullying behaviors seriously and cover them in employee policies. Unions are negotiating about bullying and abusive supervision at the bargaining table. Legislatures are deliberating on and slowly starting to enact workplace bullying legislation.

My experiences are hardly unique. People are exercising their power all the time to change things for the better. Oftentimes they are cast in the role of underdog, yet they are moving the world forward within their spheres of influence regardless.

But what if you are feeling exhausted, hopeless, and maybe a little beaten up?

First, let’s acknowledge that steps to reconsider, regroup, recover, renegotiate, reassess, and reenergize are wholly permitted.

If the work you’re doing to make a difference is overtaxing your body and soul, then you need not be a martyr. Maybe you’re at the point where you’ve done what you can do, and it’s time to pull away.

Or maybe an angle you haven’t considered or fully explored can serve as a breakthrough — or at least as a more rewarding pathway. Perhaps you’re close to that breakthrough with the approach you’re using, but you don’t fully comprehend it.

If you want to cogitate on the stay vs. go question, check out Seth Godin’s short, thoughtful, quirky book, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007). Here’s a snippet:

Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

The decision may look simple, but we know it’s a lot more complex than that.

Finally, we must keep strive our egos and expectations in check, which is no small task when we’re emotionally invested in something. Especially when our popular culture demands immediate satisfaction and embraces short term “deliverables,” we are primed to expect and celebrate quick results. But deeper change can take time. Even dramatic tipping points are often preceded by a long run up.

The old social activist adage, be the change you want to see in the world, applies now more than ever. In addition, a vital lesson I’ve learned as an educator is that we must also be willing to work for change that we may never personally see. (My friends who are parents may understand this implicitly.)

When we put these two pieces together, we have a lot more power than if we did not.

Can you spot a workplace psychopath from a resume and job references?

In a piece for Mainstreet.com, Kathryn Tuggle suggests that we can identify potential psychopaths from their resumes and job references:

They may seem normal, diligent and affable, but when it comes to new employees remember that crazy can fool you for a little while. Keep an eye out for these red flags, or you could end up hiring a psychopath . . .

Drawing from interviews with a clinical psychologist and an executive recruiter, the piece identifies supposed telltale indicators:

  • Instability as evidenced by many positions over a short period of time;
  • Unexplained chronological gaps in employment histories; and,
  • References who go over the top in describing how “charming” the candidate happens to be.

True, chronic instability, dishonesty and deception, and superficial charm are potential signs of psychopathy and other personality disorders. However, there may be other more innocent explanations behind the indicators identified in the article: Younger workers are more likely to move between employers on a frequent basis. Employment chronologies may look especially spotty in a difficult economy and job market. And some people may be truly charming without being the next Ted Bundy.

A more likely (and disturbing) scenario: The “almost psychopath”

I submit that much of the worst damage to the emotional well-being of workers is done by “almost psychopaths,” a term suggested by Dr. Ronald Schouten and attorney James Silver. Almost psychopaths are smart, ruthless, calculating, and have staying power. As some loyal readers know, I have embraced the Schouten/Silver concept of the almost psychopath and written about it on several occasions. Here’s a snippet from a previous blog post:

Ronald Schouten (M.D./J.D.), a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, and James Silver (J.D.), an attorney specializing in criminal law, have co-authored a fascinating new book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). . . . The authors describe psychopathy as a “major abnormality” marked by a lack of empathy and behaviors that are “inappropriately deceitful, aggressive, and indifferent to the rights or feelings of others.” . . . Schouten and Silver have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, but there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, which they describe this way:

Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.

. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.

Their benchmark for making these assessments is the well-known psychopathy checklist developed by Dr. Robert Hare.

“Almost psychopaths” often are adept at navigating the institutions and place settings of everyday life. They also are more prevalent in our society than full-blown psychopaths. Whereas clinical psychopathy covers roughly one percent of the population, Schouten and Silver estimate that some 10-15 percent of the populace might be classified as almost psychopaths. And given survey data suggesting that those harboring psychopathic traits are more likely than others to ascend to leadership positions (there’s the superficial charm kicking in), it’s fair to assert that a lot of managers and executives fit into this category.

Workplace bullying

In a presentation that Dr. Schouten gave at a New Workplace Institute event two years ago, he applied the almost psychopath framework to workplace bullying. Here’s a partial summary of his remarks:

The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates. Almost psychopaths often are fueled by workplace cultures that enable bullying behaviors. Schouten emphasized that this cultural component is often passed down within an organization. It’s possible that interventions could reduce some of these problematic traits in order to improve relationships in the workplace.

Over the years, I have become familiar with hundreds of reported workplace bullying situations. In many of the worst instances, the chief aggressor fits the almost psychopath profile. Rather than frequently switching jobs, almost psychopaths manage to stay and accumulate influence and power, which they leverage to treat people abusively.

Although I wish that identifying individuals of this nature was as easy as a resume and reference check, in reality it’s a lot more difficult than that. On occasion almost psychopaths are identified and dispatched, but often not before they have done a lot of damage to individuals and organizations.

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