Conflating abuse and incivility in the academic workplace

In a piece titled “Coping with Verbal Abuse” appearing recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert J. Sternberg offers advice for those who have experienced this form of mistreatment in the academic workplace.

Sternberg, a former university administrator and past president of the American Psychological Association and now a professor of human development at Cornell University, offers his short list of common types of verbal abuse in academe:

That abuse comes in many different forms: book reviews, referee reports on journal submissions, evaluations of grant proposals, questions and comments during presentations, offhand comments by less-than-collegial colleagues, and on and on.

Rather than simply giving it back and “telling off your abuser” (a potential “career-ender”), Sternberg recommends that one adopt approaches more likely to “pay off in the long run,” such as:

  • “Ignore the abuse and, if possible, the abuser.”
  • “It’s not always personal; sometimes it’s strictly business.”
  • “View occasional abuse as just a cost of doing business.”
  • “Consider verbal abuse as a sign you are being creative and doing your job right.”
  • “Look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are guilty of the same bad behavior.”
  • “Use the incident as a teachable moment to show the abuser a better way to handle anger.”

Abuse vs. incivility

Last month I wrote a lengthy post about the importance of distinguishing between targeted, abusive, bullying behaviors and rude, abrasive incivility. Reading Sternberg’s advice column, I can only underscore that broader point. He appears to have placed incivility and genuine abuse into one big category and offered a list of suggestions for coping with them.

Those closely familiar with workplace bullying and mobbing know better. When I associate the term “verbal abuse” with workplace behaviors, it is usually in the context of targeted, career-threatening, health-impairing mistreatment.

I regard Sternberg’s article as containing a lot of sound advice for dealing with the seemingly inevitable incivilities that one encounters in academic life. There are a lot of socially inept, jerk-like, and mean spirited behaviors in higher education, and it behooves all of us to grow a thicker skin so we can better roll with the jabs. We also should encourage ourselves not to engage in the same.

But heaven help those who blithely confuse targeted abuse with bad manners, indelicate prose, or an irritating personality. By the time they realize what is happening, it can be too late to undo the damage inflicted upon them.


Related post

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (rev. 2014)

Additional commentaries

Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor

Workplace has just published an issue on “Academic Bullying and Mobbing.” You can access the issue here.

The Guardian

The Guardian newspaper has published a collection of articles on “Bullying in universities in focus.” You can access these pieces here.

5 responses

  1. I nearly died a thousand deaths when I thought you might be endorsing R.J. Sternberg’s minimization of workplace abuse/psychological violence. “Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are guilty of the same bad behavior”? This coming from someone with those academic and experiential credentials explains why workplaces continue to minimize the severity of the action and resultant impact of “disruptive behavior”, “incivility”, “psychological violence” or “workplace bullying”. No matter what we call it, it is violence.

  2. “Ignore the abuse and, if possible, the abuser” – I hope Steinberg and his colleagues at Cornell (my alma mater) are not suggesting that their students follow that advice. I can walk away from abuse or an abuser if I believe the abuser is not a threat and that we are very unlike to ever cross paths again, such as an encounter on a NYC subway or walking down a street (that isn’t in my neighborhood). But in workday situations, in work places where aggression and competitiveness are valued, say, in newsrooms, and interactions are not meant to result in harm in any manner but are more about establishing rank, ignoring abuse and ignoring an abuser almost always sets one up for more abuse. Abusers have to know about consequences or else they won’t stop if they think they can get away with it. My motto: Send them a clear message so that they can seek out others with a higher tolerance for abuse. Also: Sternberg clearly misses the issue of workplace bullying!

  3. Somewhat mixed thoughts about the perspectives taken in Sternberg’s article. I cannot imagine that Sternberg has not witnessed, first hand, the devastating effects of workplace abuse on one or more of his colleagues. Not with the experience he has in academia. So, I highly doubt he doesn’t understand the depths of abuse that can occur – and what that can do to a person and his or her career.

    But, I don’t think he intended, in his article, to do anything more than focus on what an individual is ‘in control of’ when responding to others’ behaviors that are offensive, not civil, abusive, etc.. That’s not an atypical perspective in psychology – i.e., focus on what you are in control of and the choices one has regarding such.

    He has done a very good job of addressing “some” facets of a multi-faceted topic. His advice is valuable – very valuable – given certain situations. Most of all I heard him advise: Take a step back before reacting. Don’t engage before one has a handle on oneself. Rarely is that not good advice. And it is particularly good advice for the vast majority of faculty, especially those who are new and finding themselves ‘stunned’ by the politics. I think these folks are the intended audience for Sternberg’s article.
    After all, many, many, many people still have very little awareness of workplace abuse dynamics – at least not from the perspective of a target. And they wouldn’t necessarily be reading or paying much attention to blog articles that delve into the nasty details of what can happen. They have no frame of reference to draw themselves to such.

    I think an intended audience is what guided the content of Stenberg’s article. It would be interesting to hear his response to the work of Kenneth Westhues. Then I may feel I better understand of his ‘bigger picture.’

  4. There is so much bad advice in that Chronicle piece it is almost laughable:

    “Ignore the abuse” – I tried this, didn’t set any boundaries. The verbal abuse only got worse.

    “React with kindness and compassion” – this just signals that you’re an easy target. And to a narcissist, that you’re a ready supply of an ego boost when they next feel the need to put someone down.

    “sometimes it’s strictly business” – abuse becomes business, when the institution is in the business of abuse. See ICL formalising verbal abuse as means for meeting grant funding targets.…/the-death-of-stefan-grimm…/

    “Listen to what is said; ignore the way it is said” – except when the “what” is deliberately misleading to justify the next abusive “way”.

    “Consider it a tax for being in a career you like or even love.” – Even the most rewarding career can be taxed into oblivion.

    “Consider verbal abuse as a sign you are being creative and doing your job right.” – The author has obviously never been in a college run like a fiefdom. Verbal abuse always means the chattel have crossed an unseen territorial line and are being reined back in like a heard of sheep.

    “View the culprit’s behavior as an opportunity to learn something useful about him or her.” – learned a huge amount about narcissism, toxic bosses, angry and demeaning bosses, Bob Sutton’s work on bossholes, Steve Jobs wasn’t the god many make him out to be, etc.

    “Use the incident as a teachable moment to show the abuser a better way to handle anger” – This only lengthens the abusive episode. Some toxic bosses won’t give up until they get the specific response they want out of you – a bit like trolls on Reddit – a way to justify the next abusive encounter. Contradicting them may trigger narcissistic rage. You don’t defuse a ticking time bomb by acting peaceful and then hoping the bomb will learn to imitate you.

    “It is within your power to either react in a way that leads you (and possibly the abuser) to walk away whole and possibly even learn from the situation, or let this incident hurt or possibly destroy you.”
    Rarely do you ever walk away from toxic bosses whole. You will suffer a level of bosshole poisoning.…/arc…/2008/07/bad_boss.html

    Five years ago I walked away on minimal reserves of energy – just barely attaining escape velocity. Took months even years to recover from the fear, the low self-esteem, and that lingering meanness. That sick gets really hard to cleanse if you allow it to soak in for too long.

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