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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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.

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely)

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One of the very, very hardest challenges in dealing with workplace mistreatment is, well, dealing with it. By this I mean not letting it consume us. The fight or flight response ratchets up, and soon the situation rents way too much space in our heads.

Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”

Given the title of her piece, one might question whether it applies to forms of workplace mistreatment. After all, severe bullying, mobbing, discrimination, and harassment are not varieties of conflict, but rather forms of intentional abuse. However, I suggest that there’s a lot of overlap in terms of the neuroscience and that Hamilton’s descriptions of the triggering response are spot-on.

Her advice on calming your brain in the midst of these experiences will sound familiar to those who do mindfulness practice. One point, however, may be especially hard to process:

Step 2: Let go of the story.

This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.

Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment.

But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.

That said, the triggering response can be a powerful one. It has an unfortunate way of focusing our attention and emotional energy with a laser-like intensity. As I’ve written before, targets of workplace bullying have described the experience as a nightmarish “game or battle.” It’s not easy to put that on one’s emotional shelf.

So herein lies a challenge: How do we keep the narratives of workplace injustice alive, without letting them consume us personally? This is one of the most difficult intersections of individual recovery and social change, and for many it is an ongoing work in progress.

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Related posts

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Getting unstuck (2014)

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (2014)

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Trying out Brené Brown’s “Living Brave Semester”

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For some time I’ve wanted to explore more deeply the work of Dr. Brené Brown, one of the most interesting thinkers and writers around today. Her work on courage, vulnerability, and bouncing back from life’s setbacks is very intriguing to me.

So I’ve signed up for her online course that starts this Monday, the “Living Brave Semester,” built around her two most recent books, Daring Greatly (2012) and Rising Strong (2015). Here’s a description from the course webpage:

The Living Brave Semester is a unique, online learning experience that provides participants with the opportunity to explore what it means to fully show up in our lives – to be brave, lean into vulnerability, and to rumble with the challenges that come with living a daring life.

I quoted a brief passage from Daring Greatly last month in a post about shame-based organizations, and I liked how Dr. Brown doesn’t pull her punches in discussing how shame can be used by management:

When we see shame being used as a management tool (again, that means bullying, criticism in front of colleagues, public reprimands, or reward systems that intentionally belittle people), we need to take direct action because it means that we’ve got an infestation on our hands. And we need to remember that this doesn’t just happen overnight. Equally important to keep in mind is that shame is like the other “sh” word. Like shit, shame rolls downhill. If employees are constantly having to navigate shame, you can bet that they’re passing it on to their customers, students, and families.

I’m looking forward to this course! It feeds the lifelong learning junkie in me, and I’m sure that I’ll gain some insights worthy of sharing with readers of this blog as well.

Two tales of the Times

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Two articles published in last Saturday’s New York Times drive home a pair of contrasting narratives about aging and retirement prospects in the United States. One paints an idyllic picture of retirees who have the flexibility and financial resources to engage in adult learning activities for pleasure and intellectual company. The other details the challenges facing women who became unemployed in their 50s during the Great Recession and who have struggled to find work since then.

Back to school (for the fun of it)

In “In School for the Sake of Keeping the Mind Stimulated,” Harriet Edleson opens with the story of a retired couple, both 68, who are enrolled in an advanced adult learning program for personal enrichment:

JOSH AND SUSAN FRIED attend classes three days a week but they never receive any grades or cram for midterms or finals. They are not trying to earn an additional degree or retrain for a new career.

. . . Dr. Fried retired from his dental practice eight years ago and moved with his wife, Susan, a former English teacher, to Rockville, Md.

. . . The Frieds are among the 150,000 men and women nationally who participate each year at more than 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. . . . Along with an array of other such programs fitting under the “lifelong learning” umbrella, they tend to attract educated, passionate people who are seeking intellectual and social stimulation among peers who often become new friends.

These adult education programs can be like going back to school, but without final exams and term papers. According to Edleson, these “lifelong learning programs position themselves as communities where the participants not only take on challenging subjects but also seek to engage more deeply with their fellow students.”

As I’ve written before, later-in-life transitions aren’t limited to immersing one’s self in books and ideas that may have escaped post-adolescent attention spans many years ago. Still other empty nesters, near-retirees, and retirees are creating “encore” careers that allow them to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community.

Overall, for those in good physical and financial health as they grow older, the present and future are bright. For guidance, they can access a growing body of self-help and personal development literature and online content detailing how to maximize life’s second half. The choices are and will continue to be plentiful.

Searching for work at fiftysomething

In “Over 50, Female and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work,” Patricia Cohen opens with a different type of story, one of a woman in her fifties who has not worked since a 2007 layoff:

Laid off at the start of the recession from the diagnostic testing firm in Seattle where she spent more than three decades, [Chettie] McAfee, 58, has not worked since 2007.

. . . Ms. McAfee is part of a group that has found the postrecession landscape particularly difficult to navigate: women over 50.

. . . A new study on long-term unemployment from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the prospects for women over 50 darkened after the Great Recession.

. . . The employment picture has definitely improved since then, economists point out, and more older women have managed to return to work. Still, the waves from the recession, which ended six and a half years ago, continue to upend many people who were cast aside during and immediately after the storm.

Hard evidence of age discrimination against women helps to fill in the picture. Nancy Collamer, writing for Next Avenue, reports that a “National Bureau of Economic Research study, Is It Harder for Older Workers to Find Jobs? , offers ‘robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women.’”

Apples and oranges?

Concededly, we’re talking about two different age cohorts here, so I’m not suggesting there’s a direct comparison. But it’s noteworthy that one piece is touting the intellectual and cultural enrichment options available to retirees of sufficient means, while another is spotlighting the job hunting woes of a group 10 or 20 years behind them who, absent dramatic changes of fortune, will never have those choices.

In fact, a 2015 U.S. Governmental Accountability Office study on retirement readiness documents the limited retirement savings of retirees and workers in their mid-50s and older:

Many retirees and workers approaching retirement have limited financial resources. About half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings (such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA). According to GAO’s analysis of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit (DB) plan or nonretirement savings, to draw on in retirement . . . .

My own interests in these topics have been spurred by the effects of workplace bullying on middle-aged workers. While bullying at work is difficult to deal with at any stage of one’s life, it can be especially challenging for individuals who experience it later in their careers and lose their jobs in the process. Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest that middle-aged women, in particular, are vulnerable to bullying behaviors.

While some are examining how to help the  older, long-term unemployed, there are no easy answers. In the meantime, America’s huge wealth gap is heading into a more pronounced chronological dimension, separating those who can afford at least a relatively comfortable retirement from everyone else, with the latter group constituting a big share of the population.

Related posts

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

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