The trolls in the “cheap seats”

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Among the greatest threats to healthy dialogue, creativity, and risk-taking in our society today are what Dr. Brené Brown refers to as the voices from the “cheap seats.” No, she’s not taking a shot at folks who score inexpensive tickets to sports or cultural events. Rather, she’s referring to those who relentlessly, sometimes maliciously, and usually anonymously criticize and belittle those who are attempting to “dare greatly” by playing bigger and putting themselves in the public eye.

Yup, we’re talking about the internet trolls who hide behind a cloak of anonymity to post unwarranted putdowns and mean-spirited, snarky comments and reviews. We’re talking about those who take to Twitter to ridicule, humiliate, and threaten others. And we’re talking about those who bizarrely assume knowledge of personal characteristics and motivations about people they’ve never met and then head to the comments section to trash them savagely.

All too often, the voices from the cheap seats succeed at shaming and intimidating. Dr. Brown discusses her own fears and apprehensions about the voices from the cheap seats in her online course, the Living Brave Semester, which I’m currently taking. It’s a remarkable admission from a strong, independent, and brilliantly insightful individual whose work has reached millions of people. (Her celebrated TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has drawn nearly 24 million YouTube views.)

The Internet has revolutionized contemporary life, sometimes in very good ways. But it also has given rise to a lot of online bullying, incivility, and just plain meanness, sometimes fueled by the ability of the perpetrators to hide their true identities. Twitter has become a favorite spot for such exchanges, challenging people to pack as much vitriol as possible into short posts.

There are no quick fixes for this state of affairs. Humane education about how we treat each other is a core mega-need. Growing a thicker skin is important for resilience purposes. Picking one’s social media and online venues carefully can make a difference as well. Personally, I have endeavored to avoid Twitter like the plague, even while knowing that others have found it a useful communications tool. There’s way too much ugly stuff going on in that medium for my tastes.

The tone of civic discourse in America today tells me that at least for those of us in the 50 states, the voices from the cheap seats aren’t going away anytime soon. Changing that hardened dynamic will require courage, commitment, and — to quote my favorite President, Abraham Lincoln — the better angels of our nature.  

Coaching for workplace bullies and toxic bosses?

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Roy Williams, blogging for the International Coach Federation, writes about toxic, bullying leaders, their impact on organizations, and coaching as an intervention:

We are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces. We tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest.

…In my last two decades as an executive coach, working mostly with senior executives and CEOs in both private and public organizations, I’ve seen a disproportionate share of toxic leaders who continue to do harm to their employees and their organizations, despite all our knowledge about what constitutes good leadership, particularly with reference to emotional intelligence, humility and compassion. Working with toxic leaders and those who work with them presents a real challenge to coaches—one that raises the bar for success.

Within the workplace anti-bullying community, opinions vary on the effectiveness of coaching for workplace aggressors. For what it’s worth, here is my nutshell sense of this question: Many abrasive leaders can be coached to be more respectful of their co-workers and more mindful of how their words and actions are being perceived. However, many abusive leaders — especially those presenting traits suggestive of psychopathy, sociopathy, or severe narcissism — will not change their ways with coaching. In fact, some may actually use coaching as a way of picking up “tips” on how to disguise and cloak their harmful intentions.

Of course, short of a thorough clinical diagnosis and behavioral assessment, it may be difficult to make such distinctions. Furthermore, especially when the alleged aggressor is a boss or high-level executive, HR or other internal stakeholders may be reluctant to suggest such an evaluation.

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Related posts

Can personal coaching help targets of workplace bullying? (2014) — “As I wrote last year, targets of workplace bullying may go through four stages in their journey to a better place: Recognition, response, recovery, and renewal. Mental health counseling may be especially helpful in helping targets recover from conditions such as depression and PTSD. But coaching can help targets in the other three stages, including identifying options and taking action in the non-clinical realm and serving as a source of encouragement and support.”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.”

Tough boss vs. workplace bully: Malice makes the difference (2009) — “Distinguishing between tough management styles and workplace bullying is a frequent topic of conversation among those who deal with employment relations. In the June issue of HR Magazine, published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Teresa Daniel provides a summary of her doctoral research on workplace bullying that identifies malice as the linchpin factor….”

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The joys of publish or perish

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English and environmental studies professor Christopher Schaberg (Loyola-New Orleans) addresses the old academic chestnut of “publish or perish” in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In graduate school, when I first heard the saying “publish or perish,” I remember it uttered as a dire warning: If you want to make it as a professor, you have to publish, publish, publish — and never stop, no matter what. It made publishing sound awful (at best, a miserable fate to be endured) and necessary.

Now, as an associate professor, it recently occurred to me that I don’t think that way anymore, and haven’t in a long while. I have come to think about “publish or perish” in an entirely new light. It doesn’t have to be a threat or a gloomy mandate to live or die under. It can actually be a spirited affirmation of a certain kind of academic life.

I’m delighted to read someone turning that famous phrase on its head! 

Many years ago, when I began what has turned out to be an academic career, I was more attracted to teaching than to scholarship. In fact, I regarded the writing of law review articles — a law professor’s typical scholarly currency — as more of an obligatory burden in order to earn tenure than a core point of my engagement.

However, within a few years of embarking upon a tenure-track appointment, I began to see how scholarship allowed me to write about compelling issues of law and public policy, sometimes even breaking new ground. Two of the subjects addressed in my earlier law review articles — workplace bullying and unpaid internships — have become focal points of my academic career. This work has led to further academic publications, legal and legislative advocacy, speaking engagements and public education programs, blogging and other less formal writings, and media interviews.

In other words, my early scholarship has opened the door to potentially difference-making opportunities. Now, with the gifts of hindsight, I have used the term “intellectual activist” to characterize my approach to scholarly work. So when I hear the words “publish or perish” today, I think of them differently. If I don’t publish, then I will surely perish as an academician. Scholarship joins with teaching as the two most important tasks of my work as a professor.

I have written two law review articles setting out my practice and philosophy of scholarly work, and those who want to dive further into those weeds are invited to check them out by clicking the titles:

“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (forthcoming, Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice) — I recently posted a revised draft, and here’s a snippet from the article abstract:

How can law professors, lawyers, and law students use legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest? How can we bridge the gaps between academic analyses that sharpen our understanding of important legal and policy issues and practical proposals that bring these insights into the light of day and test their application? How can we bring an integrated blend of scholarship, social action, and evaluation into our professional practices?

I explore these and related questions by invoking a simple framework that I call intellectual activism, which serves as both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation.

. . . This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) researching and authoring proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) playing a visible role in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships.

. . . The article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books related to intellectual activism, public intellectualism, and the uses of scholarship to advance social change.

“Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — Here’s the article abstract:

The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.

More prescriptively, the article applies a TJ lens to: (1) identify a set of good practices for legal scholarship; (2) examine the TJ movement as an example of healthy scholarly practice; (3) consider the role of law professors as intellectual activists; and, (4) propose that law schools nurture a scholar-practitioner orientation in their students to help them become more engaged members of the legal profession.

 

Reflections on power and change agentry

Writing as power (Anne Frank House, Amsterdam)

Writing as power and change agentry (Anne Frank House, Amsterdam)

This week I’m devoting a couple of posts to collecting reflections on power, change agentry, intellectual activism, and the like. Especially if you, too, are thinking “big picture” right now, I hope you will find these pieces interesting and insightful.

10 ways to make a difference (2015) — “Let’s say you’ve got a cause you care deeply about, and you want to move it forward. It may be an initiative at work, a political issue, a community concern, or something else that matters. You may be at the beginning, in the middle, or tantalizingly close to success. I deliberately gave this post a somewhat breezy title, but you’ll see my intent is to be more ‘big picture’ as opposed to ‘checklist’ or ‘plug-and-play.’ What follows are hardly the first or last words about making a difference, but perhaps you’ll find them useful. In no particular order . . . .”

“I am powerless” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it) (2014) — “Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. . . . They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet who have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. . . . I want to think about this out loud for a few minutes.”

Dialogues about dignity, Part III: Claiming and using power to do good (2013) — “I submit that those of us who have witnessed excesses of power may be wary or downright fearful of it, and with good reason. All too often, power is exercised by those who use it to hurt others. Consequently, many of us have come to associate power with abuse. . . . (S)uch ambivalence can cause us to cede our own power to make positive change. . . . But I think we need to face down the beast. We need to build our individual and collective power, exercise it effectively and judiciously, and keep it in check when we are tempted to use it excessively.”

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013) — “I’m at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where I’m presenting a couple of short papers and attending various panels and presentations. . . . On Monday, I presented on the topic of intellectual activism, the term I use to represent the ongoing process of using scholarship and research to inform law reform, social change, and public education efforts on compelling issues of the day. . . . Those who are privileged with the protections of tenure and academic freedom should embrace a social responsibility to be researching, understanding, and speaking out on matters of importance.”

Insiders, outsiders, and change agents (2013) — “It’s an ongoing, never settled debate: To create positive social change, is it better to work from within the established system, or to challenge the status quo from the outside? I think about this often, and here are a few quick thoughts, with a gentle warning that I will engage in some abstract, academic-type reflection . . . .”

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