Work and solitude

If some of the trendy gurus in work and office design are to be believed, teams and open spaces are the keys to spurring creativity and innovation. But hold on a minute, maybe this is going too far. While complete isolation and always closed doors are not advisable, the other end of the spectrum may not be such a great idea, either.

In a piece for Fast Company, “How Solitude Can Change Your Brain in Profound Ways,” Jane Porter suggests that periods of solitude can fuel creativity, concentration, and wise setting of priorities. Here are a few passages:

What’s lost when we deny ourselves that time alone? From my own personal experience, I can tell you that stepping away from the routine and rowdiness of daily life allowed me to connect ideas I’d been wrestling with in new ways, follow creative impulses, and simply think about one thing at a time.

Thinking about one thing at a time. How often are you actually doing that? According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, our brains simply aren’t built to multitask well, which means we end up diluting the quality and efficiency of what we’re doing in the process.


Time alone allows us to order our priorities according to what we need, rather than the needs of others. “The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people—a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one’s mental and physical activities,” write researchers Christopher Long and James Averill.

In other words, when you’re able to disengage from the demands of other people, you’ve suddenly freed up the mental space to focus on longer-term, bigger-picture projects and needs.

Porter also delves into the relevance of the extrovert-introvert paradigm in considering personal and work habits, citing Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). As someone with both extrovert and introvert qualities — “ambivert” is the term now being invoked — this discussion resonates with me. I can be both fueled and drained by social gatherings. And while I enjoy the social aspects of teaching, facilitating, and good conversation, my thoughts and ideas tend to sharpen and clarify in a state of solitude.


“In My Solitude” may not be a perfect fit for this post, but I’ll take any excuse to paste in a Billie Holiday rendition of a great old standard.


The hi-lo combo: Competence, ethics, and workplace bullying

Discussion at the Workplace Bullying Workshop, Suffolk University Law School, Oct. 2015

Discussion at the Workplace Bullying Workshop, Suffolk University Law School, Oct. 2015

Our workshop on workplace bullying in Boston last Friday and Saturday (reported on here) covered a lot of ground, and among the topics discussed was what combinations of personal qualities may serve to prompt bullying behaviors. Veteran public school educator Torii Bottomley observed that a prime pairing is a supervisor with low competence and low ethics and a subordinate with high competence and high ethics. This observation yielded many nods of approval.

In essence, a subordinate presenting high levels of competence and ethics may pose a threat to a supervisor with the opposite qualities, especially if the latter is insecure and given to regarding talented subordinates as threats. Of course, authorities on bullying and mobbing behaviors such as Gary Namie and Ken Westhues have long recognized the intersection of competence and ethics as factors that may fuel abusive mistreatment of workers. But this hi-lo combo does neatly wrap it up in a bow, doesn’t it?

Fueling this dynamic is the reality that, especially in mediocre and dysfunctional organizations, the best people often do not rise to the top. On this point I once again invoke writer William Deresiewicz’s superb 2010 address on leadership to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you.

The obvious and very sad implication here is that if a highly competent and ethical employee wants to maximize her chances of survival at a less-than-wonderful workplace, she might well be advised to hide her talents and character under a bushel, or at least to ensure that they do not shine too brightly. 


Revisiting “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership”


I recently had occasion to revisit an article I wrote back in 2008, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” which appeared in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, published by Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater). Here’s how I introduced it:

Workplace bullying presents serious challenges to organizations, but it remains one of the most neglected problems in the realm of employment relations. Accordingly, this article addresses the implications of workplace bullying for organizational leaders and suggests measures that can be undertaken to respond to it. First it will describe common bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations. Next it will examine how organizations can act preventively and responsively to this destructive phenomenon. Finally, it will tie together these threads in the context of individual dignity and the practice of values-based leadership.

Although much has occurred in the realm of workplace bullying and employee relations since the article was published, I think it holds up well as an examination of the implications of bullying at work for organizational leaders. The article has been very positively received, now ranking among the 1,000 most downloaded articles on the Social Science Research Network out of over 528,000 pieces posted to the site. You may freely access the full piece here.

Here are a few snippets, which cover familiar ground to long-time readers of this blog:

It starts at the top. Organizational leaders must send a message that workplace bullying is unacceptable behavior. Executives and managers who preach and practice dignity will see that quality resonate throughout an organization. Establishing a culture of open, honest, and mutually respectful communication will have the salutary effect of reducing bullying and other forms of employee mistreatment.


Education and policies are only the beginning. The next step, a much more difficult one, is to enforce policies relating to bullying by conducting genuine follow-up investigations and where necessary, assessing reprisals, when complaints arise. Unfortunately, bullying targets often report that organizational responses to their complaints about bullying made their experiences worse. One of the most common laments is that “HR was useless” in handling complaints about bullying and in some cases turned out to be complicit with the aggressors, especially those higher up on the organizational chart.


One of the most difficult decisions from both an ethical and business perspective is what to do with an abusive manager or executive. He may be seen as a “rainmaker” who is good at attracting business. He may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine his fate. Oftentimes, a workplace bully will have mastered “kiss up, kick down” tactics that hide his abusive side from superiors who review his performance. “Oh, I cannot believe he’d do anything like that to someone” is a common refrain from those who have been shielded from a bully’s conduct.

If I could write a revised version today, I would say more about the importance of hiring and developing leaders with empathy and character. In the article, I talk about the value of social intelligence, but that’s not enough. We need more executives and managers with heart quality in addition to social smarts.

For those interested in workplace values, ethics, and social responsibility generally, I also suggest browsing through the full archives of the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, which has grown into an excellent resource for scholars and business leaders alike. You’ll find a lot of great stuff there.


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Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2015: Working with change agents


I spent a good chunk of today and yesterday hosting a workshop on workplace bullying at Suffolk University Law School here in Boston. The goal of the workshop was to give feedback, advice, and suggestions to a group of individuals who are devoting time and energy to responding to workplace bullying through public education initiatives, publications, and law reform advocacy. Although I had high hopes for the gathering based on the list of participants, I wasn’t quite sure what the collective chemistry would produce.

I am pleased to report that it was a very stimulating, intense, and moving experience, infused with genuine fellowship and even moments of humor. We covered a lot of ground during our conversations, and the interactions and exchange among our participants made for an honest and gently respectful learning environment.

Serving as discussants were Eunice Aviles, Torii Bottomley, Deb Falzoi, Denise Bartholomew Gilligan, Henry Jung, and Greg Sorozan, all of whom brought plenty of experience and wisdom to our discussion. We also were joined by Katie Fedigan, who helped her father Jay with some of the filming.

For several participants, being a part of this gathering called upon them to dig deep into wells of courage, for their own experiences of being bullying targets were part of our conversations. We specially thank them for their contributions to our understanding.


Related post

This workshop only bolstered my enthusiasm for smaller, in-person gatherings that encourage genuine dialogue and exchange. For more on that, see my earlier post from this month, “The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents.”

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2015: Entering the mainstream


Observances such as Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week serve as an invitation for reflection and assessment. Recently, a written feature about my work concerning workplace bullying published on my University’s website referred to my “two-decade battle against bullying on the job.” The writers took a slight liberty there; my fateful initial contact with Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute was made in 1998, so I’m not quite at the 20-year mark. But even 17 years is a long time, and during this stretch I’ve seen a term that once barely appeared on the radar screen of American employee relations now entering its mainstream.

Indeed, we are moving past the point of having to spend 10-15 minutes simply explaining what workplace bullying is and how much harm it can inflict. Instead, we can devote greater attention to preventing, stopping, and responding to abusive behaviors at work, while connecting bullying to other forms of worker mistreatment.

Along those lines, some readers may have noticed an editorial shift on this blog concerning workplace bullying-related commentary, whereby I’ve been devoting more time to discussing potential new understandings, responses, connections, outreach, and solutions. I imagine that evolution will continue.

Similarly, here in Boston we’ll be observing Freedom Week with a workshop at which we’ll be giving feedback, advice, and suggestions to a group of individuals who are devoting time and energy to responding to workplace bullying through public education initiatives, publications, and law reform advocacy. It will be a wonderful opportunity to explore this topic in a small-group setting that promotes conversation, shared insights, and fellowship.

I give a short personal history of my involvement in the workplace anti-bullying movement, and some of the accompanying lessons I’ve learned about legal and social activism, in my forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), a draft of which may be downloaded without charge. I hope that readers who want to learn more will find it interesting.

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2015: Understanding systems


Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week is an annual observation started by the Workplace Bullying Institute to grasp the impact of workplace bullying and what we can do about it. For me, it’s a simple, gentle reminder: The work goes on.

This work should be grounded in an understanding that preventing and responding to bullying at work is a multi-faceted endeavor. Social workers are taught early in their training about systems theory, which explains how human behaviors are interconnected in complex ways. A problem that, from a distance, may appear to be an isolated, individual situation typically links to other persons and organizations, at least once you take a closer look. This applies to both causes and solutions.

Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse rarely occur in a vacuum. It follows that preventing and responding to these behaviors requires buy-in from all stakeholders remotely connected to employee relations. They include, among others: Workers, their families, and their friends; labor and civil rights activists; executives, managers, and human resources directors; lawyers and legislators; mental health and medical professionals; and educators and researchers.

Furthermore, workplace bullying is related to many other forms of interpersonal abuse, including school bullying, cyberbullying and stalking, public mobbing, domestic and family abuse, and elder abuse. While each form of mistreatment presents its own unique dynamics, you’ll find plenty of similarities as well, including patterns of individual behavior, harms to targets, and institutional responses (or lack thereof).

In some instances, the aggressors may cross into different settings. A person who experiences one form of abuse may be more vulnerable to another in the future. Regardless of the specific context, others besides the aggressor(s) and target(s) will be affected. Generally, an overall social ethic can seep into sub-settings for good and bad alike; societal cultures vary widely in their rejection or acceptance of abusive behaviors.

This also is why I’ve been sounding a broader theme of human dignity in a lot of recent posts. The sooner we can build our broad-based, interconnected network of individuals and institutions committed to human dignity, the faster we’ll see a reduction of workplace bullying and other types of mistreatment.


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Working Notes: On music as a feel-good pill, advice for wellness programs, and a dignity studies learning collaboration

Dear readers, I thought I’d lead us into the weekend with three items of possible interest:

The wonder of music

Have you ever wondered why music often provides an emotional pick-me-up? Well, it can trigger the release of dopamine, an organic chemical that helps to control our brain’s pleasure centers. For more, here’s a neat little YouTube find from 2012, written and produced by Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, perfect for a Friday afternoon posting:

Is music humanity’s drug of choice? What is the mysterious power behind it’s ability to captivate, stimulate and keep us coming back for more? Find out the scientific explanation of how a simple mixture of sound frequencies can affect your brain and body, and why it’s not all that different than a drug like cocaine.

You may click and watch above! And if you’ve had one of these weeks at work, then maybe the right kind of music will give you a lift!

Cautionary advice on implementing workplace wellness programs

Kathryn R. Klement and Larissa K. Barber, writing for the American Psychological Association’s Good Company newsletter, acknowledge that “employee wellness programming can be effective for increasing job satisfaction and reducing absenteeism,” as well potentially reduce health care costs. However, they aptly warn against the possible downsides of wellness programs, especially the mandatory variety:

  • “First, some forms of wellness programming can increase perceptions of injustice, which can also increase workplace stress.”
  • “Second, wellness programs can unintentionally marginalize certain groups of employees, such as those with chronic health conditions, employees with a lower socioeconomic status and employees with disabilities.”
  • “Third, these programs can provide inaccurate information about health to employees, relying on incorrect measures of health and wellness.”

In their excellent article, they “discuss each of these potential pitfalls” in greater depth and offer “five recommendations for effective wellness programming.” HR offices, unions, and other employee relations stakeholders will find this useful.

An exciting dignity studies degree program collaboration

Two entities for which I have great affection and regard, the World Dignity University (WDU) initiative of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network, and the Western Institute for Social Research (WISR), are entering into a collaboration that will allow students to pursue a multidisciplinary, flexible learning WISR graduate degree with a Dignity Studies specialization.

The World Dignity University is an evolving project of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, which I have discussed on many occasions here, including my last post. The Western Institute for Social Research is a small, independent university located in Berkeley, California, that offers degree programs for individuals interested in community service and social change. I serve on the boards of both organizations, and I have been delighted to help facilitate this collaboration.

A WISR degree is based largely on multidisciplinary readings, learning projects, and a thesis or dissertation. For the Dignity Studies specialization, students will be working with faculty drawn from WISR’s core faculty and from the WDU and HumanDHS communities to serve as adjunct WISR faculty for this purpose. Three current WISR graduate degree programs are eligible for this “Dignity Studies” specialization:

  • M.S. in Community Leadership and Justice
  • M.S. in Education
  • Ed.D. in Higher Education and Social Change

All three programs have a small number of required courses, each of which has some required readings, but primarily involves learner-defined action and/or research projects culminating in papers related to the student’s purposes and interests. Students pursuing a Dignity Studies specialization would take a 5-credit course, “Dignity Studies,” as part of their required courses.

Founded in 1975, WISR operates under full California state approval. Historically it has been too small (with enrollment typically averaging in the low to mid dozens of students) to be considered for traditional accreditation, though efforts are underway to seek accreditation with a national agency. Thus, WISR degrees are most useful and valuable for those who want to do intensive, independent work on areas of interest with a social change theme that will complement their current professional position and/or involve community and adult learning.

For more information, please contact WISR President, Dr. John Bilorusky, directly at:

We understand human dignity only if we also comprehend humiliation and abuse


I recall a conversation some time ago with a business management professor who, after hearing about my work on workplace bullying, responded by saying that maybe someday she’ll teach about the “dark side” of work in her classes. I was a little perplexed by her comment. It wasn’t the right place to get into a longer discussion with her, but I thought to myself, how in the world can you teach students about good management if you glaze over the destructive effects of bad management?

Last year I wrote about this question of emphasizing the positive vs. the negative aspects of work:

The bottom line is that we need to understand the light and dark sides of work in order to be effective change agents. If we don’t acknowledge that psychopaths, almost psychopaths, and narcissists constitute a narrow but sizable and destructive bandwidth of CEOs and managers, then we often will be blind to the darkness coming out of certain corner offices and boardrooms. If we overlook the possibilities of creating healthy, even (yes) happy job situations and of transcending debilitating fight-or-flight work environments, then we often will find ourselves stuck in a dark place for an extended period of time.

These themes connect to broader frames of how to create a society that embraces human dignity. If we do not understand the effects of dignity violations, then we really can’t grasp what dignity is all about in the first place.

This is among the reasons why I’ve been forging a closer connection with Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, multidisciplinary network of scholars, activists, practitioners, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. I have served on the HumanDHS global advisory board for several years, and recently I agreed to join its board of directors.

Humiliation is a powerful and uncomfortable word. Interestingly, it’s also what has drawn me to this group. During my early exchanges with HumanDHS founding president Evelin Lindner and director Linda Hartling, I learned that the decision to include humiliation in the group’s name was an intentional one, signaling the importance of comprehending how dignity violations affect individuals and society. It made eminent sense. After all, we can affirm, support, create, and defend human dignity only if we acknowledge, prevent, and respond to humiliation, abuse, and mistreatment. Otherwise, our supposed embrace of dignity may be a shallow one.

So how do we keep the balance? How do we avoid turning dignity into a superficial, feel-good concept, without letting the dark side of human behavior consume us? I have an answer-in-progress: Join with others who are striving to attain that balance. Toward that end, in December I will once again board a train for New York City to participate in HumanDHS’s annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, held at Columbia University Teachers College. There I will join a wonderful group of people from around the world to share various projects, writings, initiatives, and research, as well as each other’s good company.

Readers in the New York City area may want to attend the workshop’s public event, “Honoring Alfred Nobel’s Message,” on Thursday, December 3.


Recent posts about Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

Digging deep into the meaning of dignity and humiliation (2015)

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity (2014)

Worker safety and gun violence in the academic workplace


During the past two weeks, shootings resulting in multiple fatalities and severe injuries at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have caused understandable alarm at many institutions of higher education. Recent entries in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s campus safety link read like a horrible crime blotter:


Not surprisingly, many who work in colleges and universities are asking, what if it happens here? Do we know what to do? The answer, apparently, is that levels of readiness vary widely. Here’s a brief excerpt of an Associated Press examination of training and protocols for on-campus gun incidents at public universities in over 40 states, reported by Lisa Leff and Ryan J. Foley:

At some institutions, such as the Colorado School of Mines and Arkansas State University, training on how to respond to an armed intruder has become as much a part of fall orientation as lessons on alcohol abuse. Students hear presentations covering their options, such as running, hiding or fighting back.

Other schools have purely voluntary training. Or they put information on what to do in an emergency on websites, where it can easily be overlooked by students and staff members. Many public college and university systems leave it up to their individual campuses to draw up emergency plans and decide what level of training, if any, to give employees and students.

Overall, those employed in higher education settings have reason to be concerned about the safety of their work environments. True, the statistical probability of gun violence will likely continue to pale to that of other safety risks in higher education settings. But we should not be surprised when more shootings occur. The reasons for this are many and intertwined, including America’s gun culture, mental health concerns, and the stressors present on our college campuses.

Sheila Keegan’s “The Psychology of Fear in Organizations”

I’ve been spending some time with The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) by Dr. Sheila M. Keegan, a British consultant and psychologist, and it’s a keeper. It doesn’t sugar coat the difficult realities of working conditions in so many organizations, yet it also looks ahead at what we can do to change them.

Dr. Keegan has done her homework for this book. Those who are attentive to high levels of fear and anxiety in many modern workplaces will find plenty of research and analysis that validates their concerns.

For those specifically interested in workplace bullying, there’s a subchapter that covers the basics, including references to work done by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The deeper value of this volume is how it places bullying and other negative behaviors in an organizational context.

Indeed, I consider the book title itself to be a triumph of messaging, expressly linking fear at work to organizations. After all, rare is the lone wolf supervisor or co-worker who makes everyone’s work life a misery, amidst an otherwise happy, functional workplace. Organizational cultures typically enable practices and behaviors that fuel fear, anxiety, and foreboding at work.

As far as responses and solutions go, Dr. Keegan’s prescriptions are more easily implemented in new organizations than in those with entrenched, negative cultures, but that reality can hardly be blamed on her. She helpfully identifies myriad ways in which leaders can transform their institutions. And rather than trying to sell us on an I’ve-got-the-magic-answer formula endemic to too many consultants, she offers choices based on an impressive range of research.

This is a valuable book that brings together a lot of information and insight, and it will be useful to researchers, educators, and evidence-based practitioners alike. I’ll be returning to it often.


From the table of contents of The Psychology of Fear in Organizations, I’ve listed the major chapter headings below. The book’s Kogan-Page webpage has more of the details:

PART ONE The nature of fear and how it shapes organizations

The paradox of fear

The cultural backdrop of fear

Perspectives on fear

Cultures of fear within organizations

Feeling fear at work

Over-control and manipulation in the workplace

Organizations in crisis

PART TWO How we can harness fear to improve productivity and organizational health through promoting human values

Being human

Creating psychologically healthy workplaces

Leadership and appreciative inquiry

Developing resilience

Building trust within organizations

The power of language

Building a culture of innovation

What about the future?


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