The deadly cost of ignoring warnings from subordinates: The 1986 Challenger disaster

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The night before the ill-fated launch of the Challenger spaceship in January 1986, project engineer Bob Ebeling and four colleagues pleaded with NASA and other higher ups to delay the mission. The reason? They believed that with the cold weather facing the launch, the Challenger was likely to blow up because its rubber seals wouldn’t hold up under lower temperatures.

Tragically, their concerns went unheeded, and seven brave astronauts died while their family members, friends, colleagues, and a national audience watched the horror unfold.

On this 30th anniversary of that terrible tragedy, Ebeling was interviewed by NPR’s Howard Berkes about what happened:

Thirty years ago, as the nation mourned the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger, Bob Ebeling was steeped in his own deep grief.

The night before the launch, Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol had tried to stop the launch. Their managers and NASA overruled them.

That night, he told his wife, Darlene, “It’s going to blow up.”

When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling and his colleagues sat stunned in a conference room at Thiokol’s headquarters outside Brigham City, Utah. They watched the spacecraft explode on a giant television screen and they knew exactly what had happened.

It breaks my heart that Ebeling blames himself for what happened, when he and his colleagues had the courage to speak up despite all the public anticipation of this launch.

This also serves as a terrible reminder of what can happen when high-level managers and executives disregard the urgent concerns of knowledgeable subordinates. In this case, lives were at stake. Had NASA officials listened to the five engineers, those astronauts would not have perished on that day.

Fear of retaliation: A prime indicator of organizational integrity and decency

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There are plenty of factors that go into what makes a good workplace, but I’d like to zero in on one measure: Do employees have reason to fear retaliation if they report alleged wrongdoings, such as discrimination and sexual harassment, bullying, unsafe working conditions, or ethical transgressions, or if they engage in legally protected activities such as union organizing?

The answer to this question speaks volumes about an organization’s integrity and decency. It all boils down pretty clearly: The good organizations don’t retaliate against individuals for engaging in legally protected conduct or for reporting potentially illegal or wrongful behaviors. The bad ones do.

Retaliation can take many forms, including:

  • Active, targeted, threatening, and prompt retaliation via overt and covert means;
  • Milder, usually indirect retaliation that makes it more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship;
  • Taking a wait-and-see approach by watching the employee for the slightest mistake or transgression, and then blowing it up into a major performance weakness or act of misconduct;
  • Icing out the employee from various opportunities, while building elaborate, pretextual justifications for doing so; and,
  • Retaliating against the employee’s compatriots or friends.

Most protective employment statutes, such as discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, and health & safety laws, have anti-retaliation provisions designed to protect those who report alleged violations and who cooperate with related investigations and legal proceedings. But prevailing on such claims is not easy, and the nastier the employer, the more likely it is to have raised hiding its motives to an art form.

A lot of retaliation takes the form of workplace bullying. However, establishing motive and causation under anti-retaliation provisions of various laws can be a challenge. It’s among the reasons why we need standalone legal protections against workplace bullying.

Freedom from fear is an important element of dignity at work. Praise be to organizations that truly practice this value.

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The article in the screenshot above is just one of an endless number of pieces online about fear of retaliation for whistleblowing and asserting one’s legal rights.

Beware the workplace chameleon

The workplace variety is not as cute (photo: Wikipedia)

The workplace variety is not as cute (photo: Wikipedia)

Being able to adapt, change, and sometimes go with the flow can be a good trait to possess. After all, change is the only constant, right? Even Charles Darwin would tell us that species either adapt to the demands of their environments or disappear.

And so it goes at work, too. If we want to be good at our jobs, we must be able to deal with change. That includes dealing with a new boss or supervisor.

But what about that species of co-worker who is so able to turn her colors that she cannot be trusted? You know, the one who is so committed to surviving or getting ahead that she becomes a workplace chameleon, able to change hues in an instant.

I searched the term and didn’t find much out there. I did pull a 2001 CNN piece by Amy Erickson that referred to “(t)hose slippery workplace chameleons who seem to change and adapt their behavior for each boss, manager or situation.” The article cited to a study claiming that workplace chameleons don’t get ahead as often as we might think.

Regardless of whether they get ahead or simply stay around, workplace chameleons can do a lot of damage to others. Above all, they are in it solely for themselves. Many a workplace chameleon can morph into someone truly dangerous. Taking orders from above or cues from co-workers, this creature may engage in destructive and hurtful behaviors.

When acting at the behest of a toxic or bullying boss, the chameleon may claim that he is only “following orders.” However, he also may internalize some of that malicious energy and act accordingly. If new management arrives with (hopefully) a better set of ethics and morals, the chameleon may revert back to being a decent human being, especially if there’s something in it for him.

It’s not easy to spot a workplace chameleon, but once you see him change colors in ways that hurt others, you won’t forget him. Hopefully you will have kept a sufficient distance so as not to have been directly impacted by that transformation.

On being “in the arena” and “daring greatly”

(Photo: Wikipedia, from Library of Congress)

(Photo: Wikipedia, from Library of Congress)

In April 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, titled “The Man in the Arena.” It was, in many ways, classic Teddy Roosevelt, full of manly vim and vigor, urging citizens of democratic societies to participate in the world of public affairs. One particular passage from the speech has become rather famous as an inspirational call to living a courageous, engaged life:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Two words from the quoted passage inspired the title of Brené Brown‘s Daring Greatly (2012). As I wrote previously, I’m taking Dr. Brown’s online course, the “Living Brave Semester,” which includes plenty of lessons from that book. She builds much of the course’s early foundation around that passage. However, Brown’s conceptualization of daring greatly draws us away from the kind of boyish, chest-thumping image that characterized Teddy Roosevelt’s public persona. Rather, she associates vulnerability with daring greatly. According to Brown, only by being vulnerable to setback, rejection, disappointment, and failure can we reach these higher places in our work lives, personal lives, and other endeavors.

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Brené Brown’s lessons are resonating with me personally and professionally. In terms of my work, they relate directly to efforts to mainstream human dignity as our core societal value, to promote therapeutic jurisprudence as a primary vehicle for understanding and reforming the law, and to make human dignity the framing concept for workplace law and policy. I believe that in order to advance these interrelated spheres, we must dare greatly — or, to put it in more contemporary, pop culture terms, go big or go home.

It means taking the risks of getting knocked down a bit . . . or perhaps a lot. For example, it’s no fun, as Brown notes, to see one’s work being mocked, twisted, or unfairly criticized online. Calls for more dignity in society are not likely to be greeted with open arms within many circles of our world today; some may even make fun of them. But such responses only underscore the need for change. Even if the world that we want to see is unlikely to become a reality during our lifetimes (regardless of our respective ages), we can be part of what moves things in the right direction.

Fooled from the start? First impressions and masters of workplace manipulation

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Do we fall for self-promoting masters of workplace manipulation from the get go, maybe even at the interview stages when they wow people in the room?

Business Insider‘s Jenna Goudreau has been writing about social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s (Harvard) new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. I found especially interesting her recent piece on the two questions that people quickly answer when they first meet someone, per Dr. Cuddy:

In her new book, “Presence,” Cuddy says people quickly answer two questions when they first meet you:

Can I trust this person?
Can I respect this person?

Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence respectively, and ideally you want to be perceived as having both.

In another piece on Cuddy and Presence, Goudreau discusses how there’s no single non-verbal cue that tells us that someone is a liar. Rather, according to Cuddy, “instead of looking for one big ‘reveal,’ the best way to spot deception is to look for discrepancies across multiple channels of communication, including facial expressions, posture, and speech,” especially “leaks” that show “differences between what people are saying and what they are doing.”

Ah, but here’s the rub as I see it. The “leaks” often don’t reveal themselves at first, at least when we’re dealing with masters of manipulation. Whether they are simply smooth operators or lean in the direction of clinically diagnosable conditions such as narcissism or sociopathy, they are very, very practiced at making positive first impressions. It’s often not until later when you discover that they’re worthy of neither trust nor respect.

Presence is being touted as a coaching manual of sorts for folks who want to get ahead, and that’s perfectly understandable. After all, only the rare (and very odd) person doesn’t want to make a good first impression. But Dr. Cuddy’s research findings also help to illuminate how smart, manipulative, possibly toxic people present so well in interviews and continue to make strong first impressions after they show up. They immediately begin to position themselves and build street cred.

Again, we all want to get off to a good start in a new job. In no way am I suggesting that coming in with a winning attitude is a bad thing! But the master manipulators are often less than meets the eye and more about feathering their own nest. The nasty ones will find ways to roll over others in their way, often in a stealthy manner. It’s not surprising that when bullying-type behaviors are involved, they are often of the covert, behind-the-back variety.

The folks who see through this veneer may find it impossible to effectively sound the alarm, because it’s already too late. If you’re putting down a shining new star, it must be because you’re resentful, right? 

How many times are these scheming newcomers given the keys to the kingdom, practically before they’ve finishing picking their 401(k) and health plan options? Based on my admittedly anecdotal assessments, the manipulators seldom pay a big price for their self-interested maneuvering. Many times they depart before it catches up with them, moving up the ladder as others continue to fall for their game. Sigh.

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Related post

The Let-Me-Impress-You Club (2011) — “This exemplifies a challenge facing many members of the Let-Me-Impress-You Club. They have learned how to wow people in a room with their personalities and accomplishments, but they haven’t quite figured out how to lead when the going gets tough and they are no longer cheered by admirers.”

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Kiss up, kick down

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Well folks, you know that the vocabulary of workplace bullying and incivility has gone mainstream when certain commonly associated phrases are the subject of Wikipedia articles. In this case, the other night I took note of the fact that one of my favorites, “kiss up, kick down,” has crossed into Wiki-land:

Kiss up kick down (or kiss up, kick down) is a neologism used to describe the situation where middle level employees in an organization are polite and flattering to superiors but abusive to subordinates. It is believed to have originated in the US, with the first documented use having occurred in 1993.

Kiss up, kick down is discussed specifically in the context of workplace bullying:

The workplace bully is often expert at knowing how to work the system. They can spout all the current management buzzwords about supportive management but basically use it as a cover. By keeping their abusive behavior hidden, any charges made by individuals about his or her bullying will always come down to your word against the bully’s. They may have a kiss up kick down personality, wherein they are always highly cooperative, respectful, and caring when talking to upper management but the opposite when it comes to their relationship with those whom they supervise. Bullies tend to ingratiate themselves to their bosses while intimidating subordinates. The bully may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine the bully’s fate. Often, a workplace bully will have mastered kiss up kick down tactics that hide their abusive side from superiors who review their performance.

Wikipedia, as you probably know, is a public, anonymously written and edited encyclopedia, so I don’t know who contributed to this entry. But I’d say the authors did a fine job of describing the dynamic.

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I omitted citations in quoting from the Wikipedia entry. However, I was flattered to see one of my articles, David C. Yamada, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” Journal of Values-Based Leadership (2008), cited as one of the sources.

Does higher education have a heart?

(Image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

Does higher education have a heart? I have found that in too many instances, heart quality in academe is a rare commodity. This is not to say that all colleges and universities are mean, heartless places. Some are quite to the contrary. Nevertheless, academic culture can be competitive and coldly analytical, and the influx of let’s-run-this-like-a-business administrators and board members has sucked even more humanity out of the enterprise. In its worst manifestations, academe can be host to a lot of bullying and mobbing behaviors.

In terms of the faculty side of the equation, Dr. Brené Brown captures the essence beautifully in a short passage from the Introduction to her book Daring Greatly (2012):

To be honest, I think emotional accessibility is a shame trigger for researchers and academics. Very early in our training, we are taught that a cool distance and inaccessibility contribute to prestige, and that if you’re too relatable, your credentials come into question. While being called pedantic is an insult in most settings, in the ivory tower we’re taught to wear the pedantic label like a suit of armor.

I am grateful for an academic career. I enjoy and value teaching, scholarship, and service, the three major components of a professor’s work. I’m also appreciative that among law professors, those who teach in the labor & employment field tend to be much more down to earth than many of those in other specialties.

However, conventional academic culture is not a big draw for me, for reasons alluded to above. Rather, my favored networks, and friendships formed through them, are grounded in somewhat less traditional institutions, associations, and gatherings that include faculty, practitioners, and activists from many fields.

As I wrote last Sunday, I’ve enrolled in Dr. Brown’s online course, the “Living Brave Semester,” which draws upon her pioneering work on courage, vulnerability, and resilience. It’s a good sign that I’m in the right virtual place when the initial reading assignment led me to the passage quoted above.

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