Trust and the benefit of the doubt at work

Over the past week, I found myself thinking a lot about this seemingly trite phrase in connection with the experience of work: Benefit of the doubt. We use it all the time, in many different settings. It basically means that even if we’re not sure of something or someone, we’re willing to give them a chance to prove their worthiness.

Extending a benefit of the doubt may serve as a powerful expression of trust and support. Consequently, it can be enormously gratifying when a benefit of the doubt turns out to be justified. Our trust is strengthened, we see results that make us happy, and — yes — we pat ourselves on the back for our good judgment.

All things being equal, I’d rather be around people who are likely to extend a benefit of the doubt than those who are not, including at the workplace. I think it makes us kinder, more encouraging colleagues and co-workers. And we may very well benefit when others return the favor to us.

However, what happens when our trust is breached? How do we regard individuals or organizations who — by their very actions — reveal themselves to be wholly unworthy of that benefit of the doubt?

A lot of folks who find this blog because they’ve experienced abusive work environments have wrestled with these very reactions, responses, and emotions. They extended that trust, they gave that benefit of the doubt, and they were badly burned for doing so.

We know from relationships in other settings that once trust is lost, it’s very, very hard to win back. I wonder if directors and managers of bad workplaces understand the longer term, cultural impacts of losing the trust of their employees? Are they surprised when people refuse to give them the benefit of the doubt?

What’s your hobby?


Hobby: an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation: Her hobbies include stamp-collecting and woodcarving. (

So what’s your hobby?

In a blog mostly about work and workplaces, perhaps this question seems misplaced. But especially if work is demanding, stressful, or difficult, a hobby can be a healthy lifeline. Even if you’re fortunate to be in a great job, a hobby can add a richly rewarding activity to your life.

And what better day and time to talk about hobbies than on a Saturday morning?

The best part about a hobby is that it’s all about your own interests and passions. There’s nothing obligatory about it, you can start or stop at any time, and you can define it on your own terms.

At times, money and resources may come into play. If you want to learn how to play an instrument, for example, you’ll probably need some start-up cash. But there are plenty of other hobbies that don’t require a large initial outlay.


When I was growing up, I was a collector. Stamps, coins, baseball cards, you name it. (Yes, the seeds of my, shall we say, archival mentality are planted deep.) As you can see from the photo at the top, I remain on the lookout for interesting postal souvenirs.

Today, I’m an avid reader, a sports fan, and a devotee of bad weather. But my main hobby is singing. For many years, I’ve taken a weekly singing workshop at a local adult education center, and more recently I’ve joined friends from that class for open mic cabaret nights, where we perform our favorite numbers in front of small groups of fellow music lovers. I’m a big fan of the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Musically speaking, at least, I was born 50 years too late!

By endorsing hobbies as a meaningful pastime, I’m not suggesting that they are must-have activities in one’s life. A hobby, by its very essence, is not a required course! Rather, it’s something we embrace for the enjoyment it provides us.

What if you don’t have a hobby and would like to develop one? Asking yourself what interests you is the best place to start. If you need some ideas, you could look at lists of hobbies, such as this one compiled on Wikipedia. Give it some thought, and enjoy.

Jobs on the job are rare: Most cruel bosses aren’t indispensable geniuses


Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, uses the premiere of a documentary about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, by Alex Gibney) to examine the complications of idolizing a brilliant creator who also could be a very nasty individual. The new documentary, Garber tells us, does not flinch in examining this side of its subject.

Garber’s own characterization of Jobs, while recognizing his genius, acknowledges his deep flaws:

He could be, on top of so much else, a terrible person. Not just a jerk, occasionally and innocuously, but a bully and a tyrant. . . . Jobs regularly parked his unlicensed Mercedes in handicapped spots. He abandoned the mother of his unborn child, acknowledging his daughter only after a court case proved his paternity. He betrayed colleagues who stopped being useful to him. He made the still-useful ones cry.

Garber and the documentary ask the inevitable questions that crop up whenever “brilliant” and “bully” allegedly combine in one individual, such as whether big positives justify major failings, and whether being a jerk is necessary to succeed.

Of course we know that being a bully or a jerk is not a prerequisite for success. But all too often, people excuse abusive behaviors by claiming these qualities are eccentricities that we must tolerate if certain geniuses are to flourish. I’ve addressed those questions on this blog (here and here), and you can guess where I come out on them.

But more importantly, we need to emphasize this point, lest a massively erroneous assumption become accepted as conventional wisdom:

Most cruel bosses are not indispensable geniuses.

Got it? Most cruel bosses are not indispensable geniuses.

To begin with, people with the creative, entrepreneurial vision of Steve Jobs are rarities. Secondly, the ones who happen to bully and berate are rarer still.

In reality, the most abusive bosses tend to range from competent to bad in other aspects of their job performance. Like the rest of us mere mortals, they are wholly replaceable. In fact, those who cannot get their act together and treat people with a baseline of dignity should be sent down the exit ramp.

Many of these supposed superstars do have a useful skill: They are brilliant at kissing up and kicking down. They stroke and cultivate superiors, who, in turn, react with disbelief when allegations of mistreatment come from subordinates. They create a mythology about their value to the organization. They also have a sixth sense for self-preservation, including a knack for rubbing out those who call attention to their abusive behaviors, without any pangs of conscience to give them pause.

So, the next time you hear folks raise the “Steve Jobs defense” in response to allegations of bullying and abuse, call them on it. It’s very likely that when you dig beneath the surface, you will quickly see that the supposed genius is anything but that.

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces?


Over the years I’ve written a number of pieces discussing the qualities of good bosses, leaders, and workplaces. Here are a few that capture consistent themes about creating quality work environments:

NWI’s “Eightfold Path” to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace (2009)

Drawing on relational-cultural theory, organizational justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, the New Workplace Institute suggests asking these eight questions to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers . . .

Typing Your Workplace Culture (2009)

Building on the pioneering work of psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, Drs. Hartling and Sparks distinguish between healthy “relational” cultures and dysfunctional “non-relational” cultures. . . . A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2013)

I’ve been giving some thought to the personal qualities of the many bosses I’ve worked for, going back to high school and extending to the present day. A handful stand out as being especially good, and I’ve come to realize that they shared a lot of positive characteristics. Here goes: . . .

Is your organization a “can do” or “can’t do” kind of workplace? (2014)

The “can do” organization empowers and enables its workers to create, innovate, and initiate. While recognizing that resources aren’t limitless and that every new idea isn’t necessarily a good one, it nonetheless nurtures an ethic of support and encouragement. The “can do” organization can be an exciting, engaging place to work.

Great organizational leaders enable and empower others (2011)

But when it comes to leading organizations, the ability and willingness to encourage, support, mentor, inspire, and permit others to do quality work is the key to success. These leaders allow people to run with things, responsibly but enthusiastically, and sometimes the results can be extraordinary.

You want good leaders? (2010)

Attention organizations: If you want good leaders, then don’t promote the kiss ups, the kick downs, the scheming hoop-jumpers, and the ambitious conformists. Instead, select folks of genuine vision, courage, character, and good judgment. But don’t take my word for it. Rather, read this remarkable address to West Point cadets by writer William Deresiewicz, titled “Solitude and Leadership,” and published in the American Scholar.

Energy leadership, organizational culture, and workplace bullying (2013)

Is your organizational culture more “anabolic” or “catabolic”? And how does the answer to that question relate to workplace bullying? In his book Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life form the Core (2008), coach and therapist Bruce Schneider identifies two types of energies that can shape and even define an organizational culture . . . .

Labor Day 2015: Affirming worker dignity

(Image courtesy

(Image courtesy

Folks, I don’t have any huge epiphanies for this Labor Day 2015. We simply must plow forward to affirm human dignity in our workplaces, and so the task remains before us.

However, I do want to take this opportunity to remind us of the importance of quality labor unions, especially in the lowest-paying vocations. Without the labor movement, the quest for worker dignity has no chance of success.

In my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review), I devoted a fair amount of space to discussing the labor movement as a centerpiece for affirming worker dignity. I noted how union membership levels have been in a consistent and sharp decline in the U.S., often prompted by virulent anti-union messaging and intimidation campaigns by employers. I also outlined the benefits of union membership to many workers, including higher wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions.

If you want to understand the bigger framework concerning worker dignity and the law in the U.S., please read the full article (freely downloadable pdf here), which runs under 50 pages. If you want to read only the portions specifically about unions and collective bargaining, you may read pages 532-34 and 556-58.

In writing the article, I made an extra effort to keep it as free of legal jargon and mumbo jumbo as possible. If you do take the time to read the whole thing, I think you’ll find it a worthwhile effort. The piece is now some six years old, but the basic points still ring very true.

On “quit lit,” “encore” careers, and the realities of creating work options


This headline from the Yahoo! News page is an enticing one to many: “How to Afford to Quit Your Job.” Kimberly Palmer, writing for U.S. News & World Report, introduces us to a former NPR program host, Tess Vigeland, who one day realized that it was time to say goodbye:

When Tess Vigeland, the former host of public radio’s “Marketplace,” came home from work and cried in her backyard for three hours, she knew it was time to leave her job. “I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I felt like I deserved better,” says Vigeland, who turned in her notice the following week.

Vigeland now has a book, Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want (2015), in which she is encouraging other folks to follow her path. In her interview for Palmer’s article, Vigeland recommended, among other things, assessing one’s financial situation, including alternate income sources, savings, freelance work, and “a partner’s salary”:

“I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations with my husband and we figured his salary could pay the mortgage with me not working at all,” she says. In addition, she planned to take on freelance work so her income would not go to zero. “I also knew I had a large retirement account that I could tap into if I had to, and home equity,” she adds.

Midlife “quit lit” and “encore” careers

Okay, here’s one of the issues I have with so much of the midlife “quit lit,” i.e., the quit-your-job-and-live-your-dream-type books and articles based at least in part on an author’s personal experience. I’ve looked at a lot of these writings, and almost invariably the Dream Chasers have financial resources from a supportive spouse, partner, or family and/or have a good chunk of savings that can be tapped to ease a likely income drop, at least temporarily.

More than a few have strong networking connections as well, including some in pretty high places.

I don’t begrudge people who have those options — I’ve encouraged some friends to consider that very avenue — but in reality many folks, because of limited incomes and savings, kids and other dependents, single status, etc., find the hopes inflated by this type of book/article title quickly deflated when they realize that the author had a cushion of financial support and cash.

I find similar dynamics when it comes to “encore” careers, a term used to describe experienced professionals who decide to step off of a demanding, if highly paid, treadmill to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website and book devoted to encore careers.

Yes, encore careers can be great for those who have the financial resources to sustain them. However, most people in their 40s and 50s, especially, happen to be in their potentially strongest earning years. The pursuit of Something Very Different in the heart of midlife typically should not be done on a whim.

I’m not saying Don’t do it. Rather, I’m urging that the strong emotions driving such considerations be complemented by dispassionate assessment and planning.

More realistic options: Avocations, hobbies, and Millennial-style startups

Some loyal readers may feel like they’re hearing a mixed message from me. After all, for those in toxic work environments, I’ve suggested that an exit strategy may be the most viable option when health and psyche are deteriorating. And I’ve also recommended sites like for those seeking to make significant career transitions. Furthermore, there are people who, against more “rational” assessments, took that risky leap without a parachute and landed on their feet. Some have enjoyed remarkable success in their transitions.

That said, there may be less risky alternatives to exploring and making major career/work changes. A few considerations:

First, do you have an avocation that has income-producing potential? An avocation is typically a labor of love, so you know the passion is there. A next question to ask is whether you can grow it into a steady income stream.

Second, how about taking something you really want to do and starting it as a part-time micro-business? Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup has a Millennial generation audience in mind, but it contains inspiration, insight, and information for anyone considering a lower-risk road to entrepreneurship.

Third, do you need additional training or schooling? Formal degree and certification programs tend to be expensive, but low cost or free adult and independent learning opportunities abound. You might, for example, go to a local SCORE workshop on starting a business, or take an online course or two through educational content providers such as Coursera, Udemy, and EdX.

Fourth, might it help to work with a really good career or life coach to help you plot your way through all this? A wise voice who asks the right questions and helps you to make and stick to plans and identify priorities can be very helpful. 

Finally, if your potential plans include going out as a freelancer, you might want to take a look at Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible for some of the business details you’ll need to address.

The term go for it has a lot of emotional power, especially if you’re in a less-than-wonderful work situation and considering alternatives that sound freeing and exciting. Pursuing your passions is good, life-affirming stuff. But it’s often helpful if you do so with research, planning, and assessment to help prime a path to success.

The warning signs of toxic workplaces

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers that if you search the term “toxic workplace,” you’ll get more hits than you can read in a lifetime of net surfing. Okay, so maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. In any case, I find interesting the similarities and differences between pieces purporting to identify the warning signs of a toxic workplace. I thought I’d share a few representative samples with you here, with an invitation to click the titles to read the fuller explanations.

Psychology Today Cutting-Edge Leadership: “The 5 Warning Signs of a Toxic Work Environment” (2015)

Organizational psychology professor Ronald Riggio (Claremont McKenna College) identifies and explains these signs:

  • “You have to keep your head down”
  • “The bullies run the show”
  • “It takes an Act of God to get anything done”
  • “No matter what you do, you can’t get ahead”
  • “It’s all sweat, and no heart”

Fast Company: “Five Signs That Your Workplace May Be Toxic” (2015)

Psychologist Paul White identifies and discusses these five factors:

  • “Unhealthy communication patterns”
  • “Policies and procedures are non-existent or poorly implemented”
  • “The organization is led by one (or more) toxic leaders”
  • “Negative communication patterns”
  • “Your personal life is affected negatively on many fronts”

PsychCentral: “7 Signs Your Workplace is Toxic” (2014)

Therapist Melody Wilding discusses these seven factors:

  • “You’re told to feel ‘lucky you have a job'”
  • “Poor communication”
  • “Everyone has a bad attitude”
  • “There’s always office drama”
  • “Dysfunction reigns”
  • “You have a tyrannical boss”
  • “You feel in your gut something is off” “These 7 Signs Will Tell You If Your Workplace is Toxic” (2015)

Journalist and consultant John Boitnott identifies these signs of a toxic workplace:

  • “The Monday Blues”
  • “Unhealthy habits”
  • “Rush hour stress”
  • “Missed medical appointments”
  • “Disrespectful treatment”
  • “Others are unhappy”
  • “Everything is an emergency”
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