Writing from the heartland

Wesemann Hall, home of the VU School of Law

Wesemann Hall, main home of the VU School of Law

Hello dear readers, I’m currently spending a fall semester research sabbatical working on an exciting book project on workplace bullying and mobbing. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Dr. Maureen Duffy, one of the leading authorities on mobbing behaviors, invited me to join her as co-editor on a two-volume book set that will feature a comprehensive, multidisciplinary collection of chapters by leading and emerging U.S. experts on bullying and mobbing at work, with a focus on American employment relations. Writing for and co-editing this book set are the main focal points of my fall work.

To spur my productivity, for a few weeks I’ve decamped from Boston to Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater. I’m a Visiting Scholar in Residence at VU’s School of Law, and the good folks there have given me an office in the law library to work in and an invitation to give a talk about my work to the law faculty and other members of the law school community.

This kind of temporary relocation may strike non-academicians (i.e., many readers of this blog) as odd. Why spend time, money, and effort on going out of town simply to work in another library?, a sensible person might ask. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make sense. But the writing process doesn’t make sense, either. It can be very helpful to remove yourself from your immediate surroundings, with fewer of the usual distractions. This is not to say that I have turned into a writing machine. But even during my first few days here, I’ve already been more productive than I would’ve been at home.

This also marks the 35th anniversary of my graduation from VU’s College of Arts and Sciences, with a (then) shiny new bachelor’s degree. Fall homecoming festivities were held over the weekend, and for me they included receiving an Alumni Achievement Award from the university’s alumni association, in recognition for some of the work discussed periodically on this blog. At a luncheon following the awards ceremony, I was joined by some of my closest friends from college. It made for a deeply memorable weekend.

And so now I’m back to work, hopefully further justifying that lovely award — and with fewer procrastinatory tendencies than those that marked my collegiate years!


Bird brains


“This guy is a real bird brain.”

How many times have we heard some variation of that line? Maybe, like me, you’ve used it yourself. 

Of course, we now know that birds can be very intelligent creatures. The putdown really isn’t accurate.

Furthermore, and more relevant to this blog, bird characteristics have fueled our insights on mobbing behaviors. During the 1980s, the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at employees by their co-workers. This pioneering anti-mobbing expert’s theories were originally informed by observing the mobbing behaviors of birds.

Recently I got a, umm, bird’s eye view of bird behavior when I was visiting friends — a retired couple in northern Virginia — who happen to be animal lovers and bird keepers.


The bird on my shoulder is Huey. She’s been with my friends for some 30 years. She quickly hopped on my shoulder and allowed me to pet and feed her. We became fast pals.

However, Huey doesn’t like females — of the human variety. She pecks aggressively at women! Put Huey in the workplace and she might be the classic female-to-female bully.

The bird not on my shoulder is Gussie. He’s been with my friends for some 20 years. Unfortunately, his two previous owners abused him. He will allow my friends to come close enough to feed him, but he has never allowed them to touch him. That’s what traumatic abuse has done to the poor little guy.

Gussie is blessed to be with people who care about him and treat him kindly, but he’s still a very wounded bird.

So, a little first-hand lesson for me in bird behavior. Bird brains, indeed.

Revisiting Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door”


Over a decade ago, Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) introduced me to a statistic that adorns its cover: Roughly 1 in 25 Americans is a sociopath, meaning that four percent of the U.S. population has “no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty.”

Sociopaths are typically characterized by deceitful, manipulative, and aggressive behaviors, as well as a lack of remorse after having mistreated another living being. The absence of conscience, and the ramifications for personal behavior, are continuing themes in the book.

Stout adds that sociopaths often display “a glib and superficial charm” or “a kind of glow or charisma” that draws in others. Indeed, people may fall for that very charm and charisma, only to find out the horrible truth after some damage has been done. It happens in personal relationships and work situations alike.

The composite stories contained in The Sociopath Next Door emphasize social settings over employment scenarios, but make no mistake: You’ll find plenty of sociopaths in workplaces, and it’s likely that a disproportionate share of them harness their powers of manipulation and charm to climb up the ladder faster than the rest of us. This is especially the case in organizations that are prone to fall for style over substance in selecting their leaders.

Although I’ve personally encountered only a few probable sociopaths during the course of my life, the work I do has led me to learn about plenty of individuals who fit the bill. Based on these personal and vicarious encounters, I find that effective sociopaths are very, very smart — perhaps taking slight issue with Dr. Stout’s observation that they come in both bright and not-so-bright varieties. They also have a remarkable capacity for scheming, plotting, and filing away information for future use.

Recently I’ve spent some time re-familiarizing myself with The Sociopath Next Door, and it still sends a chill up my spine. It is telling that Dr. Stout has no magic answers for how to deal with the subjects of her study. Regrettably, I have concluded that in order to navigate the actions of a sociopath, one sometimes must try to think like one. For better or worse, this vividly insightful book will help you get there.

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling

(image courtesy of freepik.com)

(image courtesy of freepik.com)

Why is it that some targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing have difficulty telling or jotting down their stories in a straightforward, chronological manner? And why do they often launch into what sounds like a War and Peace version of their story, when all that’s needed (for now) is the quick elevator speech?

It can make for a long, rambling account, laden with emotion.

We should not blame this on the target. Work abuse situations are often complex and hard to summarize. Equally significant, the effects of psychological trauma may have a lot to do with the “word salad” narrative.

I’m currently preparing a couple of short talks on how emerging insights from neuroscience inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing, along with accompanying challenges that may confront targets who are trying to harness legal protections or secure employee benefits such as workers’ compensation.

In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) (which I praised here), pioneering trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains the latest research on how traumatic experiences may impact the brain, including sharp cognitive impairments that undermine an individual’s ability to present information in an ordered manner. Put simply, an individual dealing with psychological trauma may be able to share emotions and impressions about the experience, while being unable to tell the essential story behind it.

I have been interacting with targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors for some 18 years. I have witnessed, over and again, how some individuals encounter great difficulty explaining specific timelines and events. Many of them tell me that they are experiencing symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The effects of psychological trauma relate directly to legal advocacy supporting targets of bullying, mobbing, and harassment. Effective legal advocacy is built around a story of what happened. Where legal representation is involved, the process of developing this story starts from the very first meeting between attorney and client. What happens when the experience of psychological trauma makes it difficult for a lawyer and client to build a coherent understanding of a prospective legal case or claim for benefits? How can an individual’s wrought emotional state make it difficult to put together a basic chronology and description of events related to a legal dispute and the resulting harm, including pain & suffering and emotional distress?

I now understand how insights from neuroscience help to explain why some individuals face such difficulties in providing coherent narratives of their abusive work experiences. My forthcoming presentations will present my initial ideas for further research and writing on this topic.


Related post

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries (2016)

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week: October 16-22, 2016


The Workplace Bullying Institute is once again inviting us to participate in the annual Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, October 16-22:

Bullying is a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, the job you once loved. Bullying is a non-physical, non-homicidal form of violence. Because it is abusive it causes both emotional and stress-related physical harm.

Freedom from Bullies Week is a chance to break through the shame and silence surrounding bullying. It is a week to be daring and bold.

The power of workplace bullying is its ability to stay hidden in plain view. Make every workplace safe and take a stand against workplace bullying!

Here in Massachusetts, we’ve marked this week in different ways, including a small group workshop and a larger public forum. Others have done a major news conference and obtained Freedom Week proclamations from municipalities and counties, among other activities. I’ve also used this blog to spotlight the work of affiliated scholars, activists, and writers and to highlight ways in which people can stop workplace bullying

This year, my own efforts will be more task-oriented. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Dr. Maureen Duffy, one of the leading authorities on mobbing behaviors, invited me to join her as co-editor on an exciting book project on workplace bullying and mobbing. This two-volume book set will feature a comprehensive, multidisciplinary collection of chapters by leading and emerging U.S. experts on bullying and mobbing at work, with a focus on American employment relations. We’ll be hip deep in this work during October, as we strive to get the full manuscript to our publisher and work toward a 2017 publication date.

In addition, I’m taking an early look at preparing for the next round of public education activities on behalf of the Healthy Workplace Bill. We’ve made steady progress here in Massachusetts, but in order to turn the bill into a law, we need to take our efforts up to the next level for the 2017-18 legislative session. There’s very little substitute for that needed work.

It’s good that we have Freedom Week to shine a light on workplace bullying and the need to eradicate it. And the fact that we observe it every year is a reminder that we’re doing a marathon, not a sprint.

Midlife assessments


On this Saturday morning, I’m enjoying some reflective moments that midlife sometimes invites — or requires. And although I don’t have the means to do a demographic survey of this blog’s readership, my best intelligent guess is that a good chunk of you have crossed the 40 year mark. I thought I’d collect a group of previous posts that enable some of that healthy reflection, especially for those who identify as being in midlife, but also hopefully useful to anyone who wants to live meaningfully. In these posts you’ll find some of my own commentary, as well as recommendations of books and articles for further inquiry.

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list” (2015)

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50” (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Does life begin at 46? (2010).

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter? (2009)


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Labor Day 2016: War plans

The Pentagon [by mindfrieze (CC BY-SA X.X)]

The Pentagon [by mindfrieze (CC BY-SA X.X)]

Okay, folks, I’m deliberately being provocative with this title.

In November 2014, I wrote a piece, “What can military planning teach us about creating transformative change?” Here was my lede:

Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change? With America’s Veterans’ Day upon us tomorrow, I thought I might acknowledge some of those lessons.

Yup, I know, some readers may wonder why a civilian with liberal politics (uh, that’s me) is looking to the military in this way. But I’m also a devoted amateur student of history, I have a lot of respect for many of those who serve in the military, and I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders.

I went on to share how these lessons can inform planning for positive social change:

Plant the seeds for future success now, even if that success seems far away

During the early years of the Second World War, Hitler was running rampant over Europe and the Japanese were doing the same in the Pacific. The Allies were losing the war on just about all fronts. Nevertheless, their leaders assessed what needed to be done, and they developed rough timelines for achieving their goals. Among other things, Churchill and Roosevelt made the critical decision to defeat Germany first, then beat the Japanese.

Lesson: At times, changing things for the better seems like an insurmountable obstacle. If your assessment of a situation indicates that major change will require many steps and stages, plan out the order in which things should be done and go from there.

Avoid tunnel vision: Plan using parallel tracks

Sound military strategy usually involves a multifaceted approach toward achieving goals. For example, those planning the D-Day landings in France needed to think about personnel, equipment, geography, weather, communications, and a host of other logistics and contingencies. Take the “simple” question of building landing craft to reach the beaches: Someone had to develop proper designs, the factories had to start mass producing them, and the boats had to be shipped to England. All of those plans had to be in the making well before the June 6, 1944 landings.

Lesson: Most significant social change goals also require parallel tracks of planning. Making the world a better place typically involves multiple stakeholders, actions, and timelines. Understanding how those dots connect is vital toward achieving success.

Be passionate about your goals, but plan and evaluate dispassionately

The stakes in warfare could hardly be greater. But when it comes to military planning, the best leaders don’t let their emotions carry them into making bad choices. They stay focused yet appropriately flexible, with a constant eye on their endgame.

Lesson: Change agents are similarly urged to disentangle their passion for a cause from the cool planning and evaluation needed to create transformation. This is not easy. The more invested we are in addressing injustice or a societal challenge, the harder it can be to advocate effectively. May our hearts continue to fuel our passions, with our actions guided by our heads.

Learn from mistakes, even (especially!) gruesome ones

If you study the biographies of great military leaders, you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. They learned from their mistakes and stayed determined to succeed.

Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes the lessons we learn from our miscues.

Sometimes you compromise, and sometimes you fight

Not every situation in life can be a “win-win,” and armed conflict is a prime example. At times, negotiation, compromise, and settlement are the right thing to do. On other occasions, one must press on to overcome the enemy. Hitler is an easy case of an enemy who had to be stopped completely, but there are countless other situations more complicated than that. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, offers valuable lessons about how military force, diplomacy, and compromise combined to narrowly avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Lesson: This dilemma applies to nearly every attempt to engage in meaningful change. When do you broker an agreement, when do you go for it all, and when do you back off? A capacity for understanding the bigger picture helps us to make smart choices in this regard.

Be gracious and humane in victory

Wise wartime victors know that treating a vanquished foe with dignity is the right thing to do, both morally and out of self-interest. In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious Allies set out to punish Germany, imposing humiliating conditions of surrender. They stoked the destruction of the German economy and planted the seeds for Hitler’s rise to power. After the Second World War, however, the Allies realized their mistake and imposed conditions upon Germany and Japan that promoted renewed relations with those nations and the rebuilding of their economic and social structures.

Lesson: In social change efforts, too, good victors don’t attempt to humiliate their opponents. Such mistreatment likely fuels cycles of anger, resentment, and aggression.

Envision something better

As the tides of the Second World War turned, the Allied nations began planning the United Nations. Today, the U.N. is far from being a perfect world organization, but it plays an important role in brokering diplomatic outreach and humanitarian efforts.

Lesson: As your social change goals near a milestone victory, think hard about how that success can lead to more lasting, positive transformations. What comes next?

Let’s apply these lessons to advocacy for dignity at work

Yup, I understand that references to war planning may make some folks uncomfortable. But I’ll stick to my point: We can learn a lot from military strategists and tacticians when it comes to organizing for change.

And that includes advocacy for workplace dignity.

Right now, those who want to aggrandize their money and power have the strong upper hand over those who want a society grounded in fairness, kindness, and human dignity. Too many of our workplaces reflect and advance these dynamics. Good, steady jobs with decent pay and benefits continue to diminish. Wide pay disparities remain. The relational and emotional dynamics of work continue to subject way too many workers to bullying, harassment, and incivility. In the meantime, labor unions continue to be under siege and are treated as “special interests” rather than bulwarks of a civil society.

In other words, we’ve got our work cut out for us. We need to do a better job of planning our way back, and we could do worse than to draw lessons from those who have dealt with conflict involving some of the highest stakes imaginable.

Challenges posed by the gig economy are hardly new


The Fall issue of Yes! magazine devotes a collection of articles to the so-called “gig economy”:

Four out of 10 Americans work outside of the traditional 9-to-5, a rate that is growing fast. For workers, this “gig” work can feel both empowering and precarious. This issue looks at how we can bring out the best of the gig economy, but also protect workers. From cooperatives and online communities to “portable” work benefits, we can make the gig economy work for us.

You’ll find a few pieces from the issue posted online, but for the complete package you’ll want to obtain a hard copy. Yes! prides itself on addressing economic, social, and human rights issues with a solution-oriented journalistic approach, and you’ll find that theme running throughout its examination of the work world of freelancers and independent contractors. It’s worth picking up if this topic interests you.

The gig economy aka the contingent workforce

Although the trendy term gig economy is of more recent vintage, the challenges facing those engaged in contractor, part-time, and short-time work have been with us for some time. For several decades, this group of workers has been referred to as the “contingent workforce.”

In 1994, a blue-ribbon federal commission, the Dunlop Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, released a much anticipated report that examined, among other things, how workers in the contingent workforce fared under existing employment statutes. Among the report’s key findings was that the legally defined line between “employee” versus “independent contractor” played a significant role in determining who is covered by federal employment laws, such as anti-discrimination and minimum wage protections. Those determined to be contractors usually fell outside the reach of these protective laws.

The contingent workforce has been the subject of much attention since then. For example, back in 1997, pioneering workers’ rights attorney and Lewis Maltby and I co-authored a law review article, “Beyond ‘Economic Realities’: The Case for Amending Federal Employment Discrimination Laws to Include Independent Contractors” (Boston College Law Review). The piece continues to be cited in scholarly articles today.

Closer to the trenches, the Freelancers Union provides policy advocacy, continuing education, and services in support of independent workers.

I would add the whole realm of internships and unpaid interns to this discussion as well.

In sum, whether we’re calling it the gig economy or the contingent workforce, the challenges of providing good work with decent pay and benefits to those whose work arrangements do not fit within the 9-to-5 standard (to the extent that it’s a standard at all) remain. It’s something to keep on our radar screens as we head into this Labor Day weekend.

Workplace mobbing: Understanding the maelstrom


In the preface to their superb book, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014), Drs. Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry describe mobbing as a “complex phenomenon that happens in workplaces and in other settings and that involves individuals, groups, and the larger organization mutually influencing the behavior of one another.” They aptly distinguish mobbing situations from those of a “single bully or small group of bullies directing their aggression toward a hapless victim.”

In mobbing situations, targeted individuals often feel besieged as they face ongoing, seemingly constant, attacks from multiple sources. I find myself invoking the word maelstrom to characterize their experiences. It’s not a term that I often use, but when I consulted several dictionaries to verify that I was using it correctly, I found myself vigorously nodding my head:

From the MacMillan Dictionary:

a confusing, frightening situation in which there is a lot of activity and strong emotions

From the Cambridge Dictionary:

a situation in which there is great confusion, disagreement, or violence

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

a situation in which there are a lot of confused activities, emotions, etc.

Maelstrom indeed: Gaslightingbutton pushing, and crazy-making behaviors are the norm, designed to confuse, overwhelm, disorient, and instill fear.

Coping with a mobbing experience and assessing one’s options become at least slightly easier once the aggressors’ intentions and modus operandi are understood. That’s why books such as Maureen & Len’s Overcoming Mobbing can be so useful. Surely in this realm, as elsewhere, knowledge is power.

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