Workplace bullying and the experience of humiliation

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Humiliation is a word that can make us squirm uncomfortably. It is one of the least desirable of human emotions. Over the years, many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse have invoked the term to describe their experiences, especially when the mistreatment has played out publicly, ripped apart relationships, ended a career, or undermined an ability to earn a livelihood. In such cases, coping with and healing from humiliation are key parts of the road to recovery.

For those seeking insights on the mental health implications of humiliation, Drs. Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network have authored an important article, “Healing Humiliation: From Reaction to Creative Action,” published in the Journal of Counseling & Development. Recognizing the “confluence of global crises that threaten, inflict, and intensify feelings of humiliation in the lives of countless numbers of individuals, families, and communities at home and around the world,” they take this approach to their topic:

We will briefly explore the history of humiliation research and explain how this experience is moving to the forefront of concern. We will apply a relational perspective to examine how degrading and derisive interactions inflict traumatic stress and social pain. Finally, we will offer a case example to illustrate specific ways counselors can help victims of humiliation heal, leading them out of destructive reactions into creative action.

I have known Linda and Evelin for many years, and I cannot praise too fulsomely their pioneering work on humiliation and human dignity. This article is among their latest difference-making contributions. 

Publishing in a journal for counselors, their focus blends the social change framework with the need for skilled and sensitive clinical intervention. Here is part of their conclusion:

The study of humiliation is in its early stages. As the research develops, counselors need to apply their most sophisticated relational skills to read and repair the complex intrapersonal and interpersonal damage that can lead victims of humiliation to react with aggression or despair. . . . Victims of derision, degradation, and debasement need a safe relational space to begin the journey of transforming the pain of humiliation into constructive and creative action. By providing this healing space, counselors may find they are not only saving the life of a client but also healing society.

This piece is worth sharing with any counselor or therapist who might benefit from such wise and humane insights. It also may be a helpful read for those who are experiencing humiliation in connection with interpersonal abuse at work or in other contexts.

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Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner are Director and Founding President, respectively, of the HumanDHS network. Last year it was my pleasure to join the HumanDHS board of directors. We will be holding our 2016 Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict in New York City on December 8-9, including a free public event on the evening of the 8th.

Do you have what it takes to be a super-achiever?

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For those who want to get a head start on making New Year’s resolutions, here’s a full on possibility. Tanya Prive, writing for Forbes.com, mines The Art of Doing, a new book by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, for “The Most Common Practices of Super-Achievers.” The co-authors “interviewed 36 super-achievers at the tops of their fields” and identified these common traits:

  • “Practicing Patience”
  • “Managing Emotions”
  • “Constantly Evolving”
  • “Fostering A Community”
  • “Testing Ideas In The Market”
  • “Intelligent Persistence”
  • “Pursuing Happiness”
  • “Listening And Remaining Open”
  • “Dedication To A Vision”
  • “Good Storytelling”

It’s a neat little feature that includes explanations of each key trait, and there’s nothing in it that should cause any major disagreements. You could do a young person a favor by sending a link.

In my observation and experience, many of these traits come together naturally when you find your purpose or mission. Motivation kicks in with common sense and — bingo — suddenly you’re functioning like, well, if not a super-achiever, then at least a decent facsimile.

Speaking for myself, I’ll say that as a Chicago Cubs fan, I’ve owned the first two qualities big time: I’ve practiced patience for over 45 years, and I’ve managed plenty of emotions during that stretch! And now I can add a third: At least for one shining moment this fall, I was able to pursue happiness.

Renewing a commitment to bullying-free workplaces

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Here in America, it should come as no surprise that in survey data released by the American Psychological Association earlier this fall, “52 percent of American adults report[ed] that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress,” with the figures cutting fairly evenly across political lines. Many of these stressors and anxieties have continued in terms of the post-election aftermath and the evolving transition in Washington D.C.

Under such distracting (and, for some of us, distressing) circumstances, it can be hard to turn our attention back to the tasks at hand, which for many readers of this blog include preventing, stopping, and responding to bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. But that we must. As I see it, our basic agenda as we head into 2017 holds steady:

  • Engaging in public education about abusive work behaviors;
  • Educating and persuading employers and other employee relations stakeholders about the destructive effects of abusive work environments and the importance of effective prevention and response;
  • Expanding the pool of mental health providers who are competent and knowledgeable to assist targets of bullying and mobbing at work; and,
  • Enacting legal protections such as the Healthy Workplace Bill to provide targets with a legal claim for damages and to incentivize employers to take these behaviors seriously, as well as building a stronger safety net of public and private employee benefits to help those transitioning out of toxic workplaces.

And so the work goes on, fueled by a continuing recognition that building workplaces that value and practice dignity will benefit us all.

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

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Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

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Alison Flood reports for The Guardian newspaper that “Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year.” She continues:

Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

I couldn’t help but think of popular “post-truths” circulated by some employers to their rank-and-file workers:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “Each and every employee matters to us.”
  • “We’d hate for a union to come in and interfere with the direct communications we enjoy with our valued employees.”
  • “We’re absolutely committed to equal opportunity.”
  • “Don’t worry, you can trust the HR office with all of your concerns.”
  • “Think of us as one big family here.”

I’m sure that readers can add their own post-truths to this list.

Of course, at some workplaces, many of these statements actually apply. But in too many places of employment, the more you hear them, the less truth they happen to carry. 

“How will we explain this to the children?”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kind

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Around the world, people are waking up to an electoral reality that for many was previously unimaginable. I can normally deal with being on the losing end of any election — it has happened, a lot — but the behaviors and qualities of the man we have just elected President fill me with despair and alarm.

On social media, I have read a number of posts and memes asking, in effect, how will we explain this to the children? In terms of long-term damage, it sends horrible messages to the children of this nation and elsewhere. In effect, we adults have proclaimed:

  • It’s okay to regularly engage in bullying, bigoted, and misogynistic behaviors;
  • It’s okay to openly brag about and encourage conduct that constitutes sexual harassment and assault;
  • It’s okay to continually issue threats of retaliation and retribution toward those who oppose or criticize you;
  • It’s okay to lie, get caught, and deny…over and over again;
  • It’s okay to hire people to work for you and repeatedly stiff them;
  • It’s okay to mimic and make fun of people with disabilities;
  • It’s okay to act perpetually aggrieved even when life has handed you every advantage.

Politics is a bloodsport, I get that. But what happened here was nothing within the realm of normal. In terms of the state of our civic life and any value we place on kindness and human dignity, America just lost a huge piece of its soul. Whether we can ever recover that piece is an open question. As we stare into the abyss that was the 2016 presidential election, we have no choice but to try, as if our lives depended on it.

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Note: I know that I will lose some readers over this post. For those who wish to praise or defend the virtues of the President-elect, there are plenty of venues with much larger readerships that will happily take your comments. I will be back to “regularly scheduled programming” promptly, but because the results of America’s presidential vote have violated so many of the values that inform my writing here, I have exercised my prerogative to make this statement.

Understanding trauma and abuse across boundaries

For those of us steeped in the workplace anti-bullying movement, learning about efforts to help those who have been subjected to other forms of interpersonal abuse can be informative and enlightening. This point was reinforced to me last week, when I joined two friends in attending a training program on crime victims’ rights.

The program was sponsored by the Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting “the rights of Ohio’s state and federal crime victims.” The Center provides both direct representation of crime victims and periodic training and educational programs across the state. Our session was held in Perrysburg, a city close to Toledo. The focal point of this session was on helping victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

I was not at this program in any official capacity; I attended at the request of a friend. But I was very grateful for the invitation, for the program helped me to understand more about how victims of sexual assault and domestic violence encounter the criminal justice system. And while there certainly are good people working in that system, in too many instances victims of these offenses face insensitive police officers, prosecutors, and judges.

The program prompted a major thought as well: As our legal system moves toward greater recognition of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we nevertheless will have to persuade stakeholders within that system to take these abusive behaviors seriously. After all, too many women continue to face indifference or even hostility toward their claims of violence and assault. It follows that we shouldn’t expect the legal system to instantly “get it” with work abuse.

When it comes to tackling bullying at work, enacting legal protections must go hand-in-hand with public education. Our work remains cut out for us, and that’s why we stick with it.

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