“Now that I’ve introduced myself, let me take over”

Say you’ve devoted enormous time, effort, and thought into creating an institution or initiative of dear importance to you, one that advances your vision and values while offering a unique contribution to the world. Then, either during the launch stage, or one year or five years or twenty years down the line, someone comes around — let’s call him the Takeover Artist — who sees your entity as the ripe host for a major project designed and led by (drumroll, please) the Takeover Artist himself.

The Takeover Artist may talk in grand and self-aggrandizing terms, presenting himself and his ideas as just the tonic your group needs to become Something Very Special. There is an energy, a swirl of ideas, and a quality of insistence about this person. He may detect an insecurity and play on it, suggesting that you must take advantage of his expertise and ideas to move to the next level.

However, there’s a voice in your head saying hold on, I’m not getting a good vibe about this. Maybe it’s his lack of precise thinking, the lack of genuine congruence with your core priorities and values, or his boastful claims of access and experience. Taken as a whole, something just doesn’t feel right to you.

Of course, not everyone who approaches you with Big Ideas is a Takeover Artist. Someone may have good intentions, but maybe her proposal is lacking on the merits or isn’t the right fit. Perhaps she holds unrealistic expectations of what it takes to grow and sustain a quality new initiative. Possibly she’s enamored of what you’ve done, and wants to jump into the deep end right away.

By contrast, the Takeover Artist regards your creation as having many of the pieces he needs to further his pet idea, and he’s willing to “partner” with you in order to harness your resources and networks, all of which may have been painstakingly built up over the years. There’s a dose of manipulation, exploitation, and even outright theft underneath this approach.

How do you distinguish between the well meaning but overly enthusiastic newbie vs. the Takeover Artist? One tactic is to offer the new person a lesser but genuine role in your efforts, without committing to her idea. If she says yes and gets involved in a positive, constructive way, then everyone benefits! Later on, possibly she revises and tweaks the idea she originally proposed to you, and it turns out to be a good one!

But if she disappears quickly from sight, then her intentions have become quite transparent in a negative way. Takeover Artists usually don’t hang around for long when they can’t get their way from the outset. Thwarted in their original plans or desire to change everything to their liking, they take flight, looking for someone else to “partner” with in a one-sided way.

Ultimately, listen to your instincts and know thyself on this one. If you’re eager to please, you may be tempted to commit to a bad idea even if that inside voice is screaming “no.” If you’re more set in your ways, you may be too quick to dismiss a good person or promising project.

At first, the wide-eyed rookie and the Takeover Artist may seem much alike, but a quick scratch beneath the surface should reveal the differences between them. The former may turn out to be a diamond in the rough, while the latter can drain time, energy, money, and spirit if you let things go too far.


This post is inspired by a delightful conversation I had on Monday with some friends who are working on potential collaborations between their respective institutions, both of which they co-founded. We had a brief but humorous side chat about people who march in with grandiose ideas that, when given too much rope, turn into huge distractions.

Is America “On the Beach” about its retirement funding crisis?

Is America simply waiting for the huge, coming crisis in retirement funding to overtake us? What happens then?

The situation reminds me of the 1959 movie, On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In the film, Australians are attempting to carry on with their everyday lives, while knowing that massive, deadly nuclear fallout, which already has wiped out most of the rest of humanity, is heading their way. When that occurs, they, too, will have no hope for survival.

For years I’ve been writing here about the emerging retirement funding crisis, and I’ve seen little evidence that things are getting any better. In fact, a major new research report by the non-profit, non-partisan National Institute for Retirement Security (NIRS) concludes “that the U.S. retirement savings crisis continues to worsen, and that the typical working household still has virtually no retirement savings.”

The new report, The Continuing Retirement Savings Crisis (authored by Dr. Nari Rhee and Ilana Bouvie) is a thorough update of a 2013 NIRS report, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think? NIRS concludes that the situation remains very dire. Here are some key points drawn from the 2015 report:

  • “When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500. The median retirement account balance was $3,000 for all working-age households as reported in a previous 2013 report.”
  • “For near-retirement households, the new analysis finds that the median retirement account balance is $14,500.”
  • “(S)ome 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what Americans need to be self-sufficient in retirement.”
  • “Even after counting households’ entire net worth—a generous measure of retirement savings—two thirds (66 percent) of working families fall short of conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income based on working until age 67.”

Personal and public policy responses

For those in a position to do so, this means paying close attention to retirement funding and engaging in steady, informed saving and investing. However, the realities behind the numbers are that many Americans will not be in a position to make up large shortfalls in expected retirement funding needs.

Clearly, we need to respond on a public scale simply to provide the means for a minimally secure, dignified retirement. The NIRS report agrees, observing that “(p)ublic policy can play a critical role in putting all Americans on a path toward a secure retirement by strengthening Social Security, expanding access to low cost, high quality retirement plans, and helping low income workers and families save.”

Now we get it, sort of

A recent NIRS public opinion survey “revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans – 86 percent – believe that the nation faces a retirement crisis” and “that 75 percent of Americans are concerned about their ability to achieve a secure retirement.”  

In other words, America now understands that this is a crisis. 

It’s why I invoked On the Beach: We seem to know what’s coming, but we’re basically conducting business as usual. I guess it’s easier than imagining the specter of millions of people heading into their senior years with little or no retirement savings and a frayed safety net beneath them. Many around my age (50-somethings) are bravely saying, “I’ll just have to work forever,” but for a whole lot of reasons, that choice won’t be available to everyone.  

This is not a fun topic; it is a source of anxiety and stress for many, especially among my age cohort. However, unlike the Australian denizens in the movie, we are not necessarily doomed. We can undertake measures to soften this crisis — like shoring up the Social Security system, which is eminently do-able —  especially if we can summon more collective concern, caring, and kindness than what now dominates our political dialogue.

Instead of feeding on the usual nastiness that pervades typical cable news programs, let’s wrap our attention around these more significant concerns with some genuine heart quality and determination. The stakes are too high not to do so.


Related posts

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

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

Retirement party (2013)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis (2011)

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

Recycling: Five years of March

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

March 2014: Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

March 2013: Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? — “I fully understand the emotions that cause some targets of workplace bullying to desire retribution. And while I do believe that compensation is a just goal for the Healthy Workplace Bill, the objectives of revenge and punishment seem less appropriate to fuel legislation designed, ultimately, to affirm human dignity. That said, holding someone accountable for engaging in proven, targeted, health-harming interpersonal abuse is not ‘demonization.’ We must be careful not to overuse the term, lest we become resistant toward all notions of personal responsibility for severe, intentional mistreatment of another.”

March 2012: Global report: Nearly 3 in 10 workers say workplace is psychologically unsafe — “If you need support for the proposition that employers need to take psychological health in the workplace more seriously, a Reuters global survey covering some 14,600 workers in 24 nations will give you some backup. The survey found that nearly three in ten workers deemed their workplaces psychologically unsafe and unhealthy….”

March 2011: Workplace bullying in the military — “At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.”

March 2010: Do school bullying laws pave the way for the Healthy Workplace Bill? — “Time will tell if school bullying laws soften the way for workplace bullying laws, but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re starting to connect the dots on these forms of abusive behavior.  School bullying, workplace bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse…there are many ties that bind among these forms of mistreatment.”

The workplace phony: Annoyance vs. threat

When is phony behavior at work something we should shrug off as a minor annoyance, and when is it something we should be concerned about?

At a time when harsher terms are often used to describe dishonest behaviors and people, the word “phony” seems rather trite, like something from another era. I’m not necessarily calling for its resurgence, but I’m wondering how it applies to today’s workplace.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes phony this way:

: not true, real, or genuine : intended to make someone think something that is not true

of a person : not honest or sincere : saying things that are meant to deceive people

More often than I’d like, terms such as narcissistic, psychopathic, and sociopathic enter my conversations about workplace bullying and related forms of severe mistreatment at work. Sadly, if the shoe fits….

“Phony,” however, has a gentler sound and feel. It may be an appropriate term to describe behaviors that are insincere, though perhaps not driven by malicious intent. Like the HR director saying with a smile that the company’s health care plan is actually better for you, despite the higher deductibles and co-pays. Or the real estate agent trying to sell you on office space she knows doesn’t quite fit your needs.

Such lighter level phony behaviors at work aren’t nearly as menacing as bullying, harassment, and mobbing. They usually don’t threaten our livelihoods or job security. Of course, underneath that quality of insincerity is an assumption that the person on the receiving end can be sold a bill of goods. If we think about it too much, we can let it push our buttons or get under our skin.

Furthermore, lest we get too judgmental, let’s acknowledge that people acting in apparently phony ways may simply be trying to acclimate to a role or work on their own stuff. Or perhaps it’s part of a required script at work, like that imposed by a retailer on its customer service workers. Maybe the term applies to something we’ve done or said, voluntarily or otherwise.

On the other hand, phony behavior can be a mask for something more pernicious. Like the boss who tearfully tells her staff that she’s doing everything she can to avoid layoffs, after already having informed HR of the people to be terminated. Or a co-worker who gives you a big smile as he shamelessly tries to flatter you into applying for a job that isn’t right for you, because he knows it would derail your career and he wants you out of the way. 

So, here’s where we must make distinctions. Most of us can and should deal with the occasional snake oil salesman or superficial dishonesty. Don’t sweat the small stuff, right?! 

By contrast, a workplace grounded in a culture of insincerity and dishonesty is an especially capable host of abusive behavior, and this is when our antennae should be up. In such instances, beware of workplace aggressors who dress up as mere phonies.


Homework assignment: Google “phonies at work” and you’ll come up with a lot of interesting takes on this topic!

Meetings that should be e-mails, and e-mails that should be meetings

Image from willbryant.com

Image from willbryant.com

When I saw this ribbon by artist and designer Will Bryant, I knew I had to write about meetings that should be e-mails, and e-mails that should be meetings.

Quality leaders make the best use of meetings and e-mail communications. They understand that meetings should be devoted to more important matters, especially when discussion and active deliberation are merited. At times, this may include uncomfortable or tense dialogue, but good leadership is all about working through such exchanges.

Weak leaders, however, are more likely to apply these rules of thumb: Avoid tough topics in meetings by stuffing the agenda with information, announcements, and presentations on comparatively minor subjects. Save the important and difficult topics for e-mails, especially if there’s anything smacking of bad news or controversy. Make it harder for people to ask questions, raise concerns, or offer comments.

If you’re in a dysfunctional institution, especially in academe or the non-profit sector where larger group meetings are standard fare, then you may know exactly what I mean. Bad use of meeting time is a practice truly deserving of a ribbon.


You may order Will Bryant’s ribbon for yourself and loved ones here — only $3.50 plus s&h!

Hat tip to Laura Puchtell Barclay for the heads up on the ribbon.

Let’s get apocalyptic


University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, in his thought provoking little book We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013), urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic.” I’ve discussed Dr. Jensen’s book before, and I’d like to spend a little more time with it. 

A different kind of revelation

Jensen defines apocalypse not in dramatic Biblical terms, but rather in reference to “crises that concentrated wealth and power create.” He continues, saying that “(i)t is not crazy to look at the state of the world — economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically — and conclude that there are rocky times ahead.” However, rather than invoking “a reactionary theology” that predicts “the rapture to come,” the concept of “apocalyptic vision can help us understand social and ecological ruptures in the here and now” (emphasis mine).

Intellectuals in institutions

Furthermore, Jensen observes that many intellectuals associated with institutions — “universities, think tanks, government, corporations” — go along with prevailing norms because they either believe in them or don’t want to get in trouble. Instead, he urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic” and “to challenge the pre-ordained conclusions that the powerful prefer.” If intellectuals do not confront these norms, then the powerful need not worry about being accountable for their actions.


I referenced Dr. Jensen’s work in a blog piece in 2013, “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need,” written in conjunction with my participation in the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.” In that post, I invoked “responsibly bold” as my catchphrase for how scholars and intellectual activists should conduct themselves.

I agree with Jensen that we are living in an era marked by extreme inequalities of wealth and power distribution. These inequalities surely relate to a market-based economy run amok. In addition, they implicate power grabs in many societal settings that may transcend political labels — unless, of course, “thuggishness” counts as an ideology.

I have witnessed these dynamics in the workplace issues I study, research, write, and advocate about on a regular basis.

For example, workplace bullying is directly linked to organizational leadership and abuses of power. Though perpetrated by individuals, work abuse cannot flourish without buy-in and endorsement from the top.

Also, the widespread practice of unpaid internships, especially in the private sector, exploits labor under the guise of gaining “experience” and “credentials.” It also excludes those who cannot afford to work without pay.

Topics that haven’t been focal points for my scholarship, but that have appeared regularly on this blog, include exorbitant student loan debt, long-term unemployment for older and younger workers alike, and America’s burgeoning retirement funding crisis. In the U.S. alone, these are all symptomatic of a broken economic structure and social safety net.

Those of us who engage the world of public ideas have a change-making opportunity to be responsibly bold. We should put forth sound analyses, interpretations, and recommendations for the greater good, especially during this plutocratic, New Gilded Age that has become our reality. If that’s what being “apocalyptic” is all about, then so be it.

What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest?


(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Over the years I’ve heard and read countless stories about severe workplace bullying and related behaviors. It’s not pretty stuff. But after a while, patterns emerge, including those associated with perpetrators of the mistreatment.

One of my central observations is that many of the “best” workplace abusers — the ones who get their prey and continually evade being held responsible — are calculating, committed, and smart planners. With task-oriented surgical precision and detachment, they plot and scheme. Like the serial killer who manages to evade capture, they’re usually a step or three ahead of everyone else, with a scary sense of anticipation.

Some enable themselves by occupying positions where they can devote “quality time” to planning. While others do real work or otherwise conduct their lives, the expert bullies use chunks of time to assess and strategize, often obsessively so. They also find ways to access, control, and manipulate information and resources to which others, especially their targets, are not privy. They build relationships and curry favor with various players who may later help them down the road.

In larger organizations, this often means that they need sponsors who enable them or at least let them have free reign. However, in smaller, grassroots organizations, or in those with diffuse power structures, they simply occupy the void while no one else notices.

I won’t attempt to match this proclivity for careful planning against the clinical criteria for conditions such as antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy, sociopathy) or narcissistic personality disorder. While I have no doubt that many of the worst workplace bullies fall into these categories, I’m focusing here on one behavioral trait.

Indeed, I’m simply making connections grounded in years of immersion in this realm: Among those who bully and abuse others at work, the expert planners often rank in the vanguard.


This post was revised in July 2019.

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Why it’s important that AlterNet wrote on workplace bullying and abusive bosses

AlterNet, one of the leading progressive, online news aggregators and publishers, has run a lengthy piece on workplace bullying by Alyssa Figueroa, emphasizing the frequency and mental health impacts of abusive mistreatment at work. Here’s a snippet:

“Anything that affects 65 million Americans is an epidemic,” said Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “But it’s an un-discussable epidemic because employers don’t want this discussed.”

Not talking about work abuse has, in turn, normalized the violence, fear and power structure inherent to the phenomenon.

As Namie said, “Work abuse doesn’t shock Americans anymore.”

…While we try to explain away work abuse, its victims are quietly suffering anxiety, depression and even PTSD. In one extreme example, Carrie Clark, a former teacher and school administrator, developed such severe PTSD she suffered permanent brain damage that left her with a speech impediment.

“It’s shameful when you’re being targeted at work. It’s such an embarrassment. That had never happened to me before. I loved working. … I had quite the career,” Clark said of the months she was targeted by her boss.

The article is a good one that covers a lot of ground, but pieces detailing the frequency and impact of workplace bullying are nothing new. What makes this especially noteworthy is its appearance on a politically progressive news site, connecting workplace bullying to larger issues of workers’ rights.

Although the effects of workplace bullying on workers and their families are well known, placing this issue on the liberal agenda has not been easy. Over the years, mainstream media, public health media, the business press, and to some extent, the legal press, have given workplace bullying far much more coverage than progressive and labor-oriented news sources.

So, hat’s off to AlterNet and to Alyssa Figueroa for this piece. I hope it sends a message to other progressive journalists that workplace bullying is a violation of human dignity and human rights that merits their attention.

The world of work during Boston’s record breaking winter

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month, Jamaica Plain, Boston (Photo: DY)

With a bit of the white stuff falling upon us on Sunday evening, we did it: Boston broke its all-time record for snowfall! That’s 108.6 inches of snow, breaking the previous record of 107.6 inches during 1995-96. Oh boy, it’s time to celebrate, yes?! Like when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, or when the Red Sox won the World Series. Hip hip hooray!


Folks, this has been a brutal winter here. And it has wreaked havoc on the world of work.

The economic effect has been especially harsh on wage workers who either couldn’t get to work or found their places of employment closed down while the city dug out from the latest mega-storm. It also has been very harsh on retail businesses who depend on pedestrian foot traffic to buy goods and services.

If you’re in real estate, the market, well, kinda froze. After all, it’s hard to host an open house or a showing when the roads and public transportation are shut down.

Public workers involved in snow removal and public transportation had their work cut out for them. If you drove one of the city’s plow trucks during the four worst weeks of January and February, I wonder if you were ever permitted to leave your vehicle. Boston’s public transit system took some well-deserved criticisms, but the rank-and-file workers who helped to get things moving again deserved much praise.

There were multiple days when just about everything was shut down. How many thousands of meetings, appointments, and just about every other type of face-to-face event were cancelled during this time?

God have mercy on anyone who worked in customer service at Logan Airport.

Those of us who teach experienced unprecedented numbers of snow days. The first snow day was really cool. The second one, still a bit of a novelty. And then it got old fast. In higher ed, we’re doing make-up classes whenever we can squeeze them in. K-through-12 educators probably will be in their classrooms until August! (Just kidding, but only slightly.)

If you own a plow truck and a snowblower, you may have made a mint doing freelance jobs, like the guys who picked up a quick wad of cash from me when I realized that I could shovel for 12 hours and barely make a dent. Same thing if you did snow and ice removal from roofs. However, my guess is that you had your fill of that work even with the extra cash.

Maybe it’s the Cancerian in me talking, but I believe that someday, we’ll look back at this winter with a sort of fond nostalgia. Or maybe I’m just being delusional. Whatever, we’ll see.

Looking down my street at what is supposed to be the sidewalk, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

Looking at what is supposed to be the sidewalk alongside my building, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

Leaders who yammer “transparency”: The more we hear it, the less we see it

I’m afraid that this may come across as a bit of a rant, but I’ve reached the point that whenever a leader starts invoking “transparency” like a mantra, I assume that we’ll be seeing less and less of it.

So many senior managers and executives, public officials, and non-profit directors yammer endlessly about their commitment to transparency, especially when they assume their new positions. Their loyal subjects — worker bees, voters, and other everyday stakeholders — nod their heads approvingly, with renewed hope that positive change is in the air. My gosh, this time will be different. We’ll finally know what’s going on. We’ll be a part of it!

Often much sooner than later, a certain dissonance creeps into the rank-and-file. Hmm, our Great Leader keeps talking about transparency, but why don’t we know the details about what’s going on? The reality doesn’t seem to be matching the rhetoric.

Maybe someone has the temerity to raise this discomfort at a staff meeting, town hall forum, or coffee hour. More often than not, the response will be a defensive one, perhaps with an explanation that would make George Orwell’s head spin. I’m being transparent by telling you that I choose not to share this with you!

Eventually, the Great Leader stops using the T word. It’s passé, a term of the past (i.e., beyond a year after the Great Leader’s arrival), and at this point unnecessary. Business as usual is once again the norm, except it’s possible that there’s even less transparency than ever before. That truth will become, uh, transparent to most, but by then the options for doing anything about it will be limited.


For my less cynical take on transparency, see: Transparency may be a “win-win,” but too many organizational leaders don’t understand this (2014)

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