“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….”

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.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

Poor, aging, and on the road in America

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A photo essay by John Glionna and Francine Orr for the Los Angeles Times profiles the life of Dolores Westfall, age 79, who travels the country in her rickety recreational vehicle in search of work:

Westfall — 5 feet 1 tall, with a graceful dancer’s body she honed as a tap-dancing teenager — is as stubborn as she is high-spirited. But she finds herself these days in a precarious place: Her savings long gone, and having never done much long-term financial planning, Westfall left her home in California to live in an aging RV she calls Big Foot, driving from one temporary job to the next.

She endures what is for many aging Americans an unforgiving economy. Nearly one-third of U.S. heads of households ages 55 and older have no pension or retirement savings and a median annual income of about $19,000.

. . . Many rely on Social Security and minimal pensions, in part because half of all workers have no employer-backed retirement plans. Eight in 10 Americans say they will work well into their 60s or skip retirement entirely.

The piece notes that while more fortunate retirees may pack up their RVs to cross the country sightseeing, Westfall (whose fall from the middle class was precipitated by the Great Recession) and others are traversing America in search of work. Most of these jobs are of limited duration and pay poorly. In Westfall’s case:

Her seven-year journey has taken Westfall to 33 states and counting. She’s worked as a cavern tour guide, resort receptionist, crowd control officer, hustling clerk at an Amazon warehouse. Others like her have cleaned toilets, picked beets, plucked chickens.

Her monthly income consists of $1,200 in Social Security and a $190 pension, plus pay from her seasonal jobs. She owes $50,000 on her credit cards. There’s also a $268 monthly loan payment for her aging rig.

Westfall embodies what journalist Jessica Bruder, interviewed two years ago by NPR’s’s Here and Now program, has called the phenomenon of “workampers.” Here’s the intro:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

Even if workamping does not become a dominant option for cash-strapped seniors, a growing retirement funding crisis awaits us. A huge cohort of late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a group that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — is hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

Beefing up Social Security payments and strengthening Medicare are two obvious options to help close the financial gaps facing many seniors now and in the future. Unfortunately, we heard very little discussion about America’s retirement readiness during the awful, just concluded presidential campaign. If early assessments are correct, the Trump Administration will be looking to cut Social Security and Medicare payments for seniors, which will only worsen the human impacts of the burgeoning crisis.

Popular 2016 posts on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

(Image courtesy of free-letters.com)

(Image courtesy of free-letters.com)

I’ve assembled a baker’s dozen of the most popular 2016 posts on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse from this blog. If you missed any of them the first time around, here they are. If there’s a piece you’d like to read again, I hope you find it interesting.

Workplace bullying and the experience of humiliation (November) — “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.”

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (September) — “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.”

Workplace mobbing: Understanding the maelstrom (September) — “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….”

Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets? (June) — “First, whistleblowers are often bullied as a form of retaliation. This is the proverbial no-brainer. Challenging the legality and ethics of decisions and actions made in a less-than-wonderful organization can quickly place a target on one’s back.”

Targets of workplace bullying: A short checklist for assessing options (June) — “Getting to that better place, however, is no easy task. To help people understand the scope of potential options, here is a quick checklist of possibilities, with a note that the legal and employee benefit options are specific to U.S. readers….”

Like Dracula, workplace narcissists have reason to fear the sunlight (June) — “Like Dracula, workplace narcissists work best in the dark and in the shadows. Operating in stealth mode, they strive to ensure that their targets are left to defend themselves alone. They can quietly pick off these victims that way, one-by-one.”

Real-life Gilderoy Lockharts: Narcissistic professors, their students, and bullying at work (May) — “While the pompous Lockhart makes for some good chuckles in the Harry Potter world, the real-life impact of narcissistic instructors on their students may be no laughing matter. In fact, a new study suggests a troubling connection to students’ academic performance. A research team from Appalachian State University led by Prof. James Westerman conducted a study of professors and undergraduate students from a university business school, examining the potential impact of narcissistic faculty members on more and less narcissistic students.”

Trump: If you’re bullied, get over it (May) — “Donald Trump continues his apparently relentless campaign to prove that he is the most empathy-free presidential candidate in U.S. history. During an interview with Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly, he shares his view that targets of bullying just have to get over it.”

Courageous, artistic, workplace anti-bullying advocacy at MA State House (April) — “Above all, this is what moral courage is all about. Fourteen individuals have stepped forward to put very human faces on this movement. Not happy, smiley faces either. Rather, stern, serious, angry, and pained faces of people who are calling for change. They’re trying to tell us something, yes? I am proud to acknowledge and salute them.”

Slow retaliation: When workplace payback is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out (March) — “But there’s another, insidious form of retaliation sometimes visited upon those who raise legal and ethical concerns at work. This type of retaliation lacks the sudden oomph that easily trips the legal wires of anti-retaliation provisions and whistleblower laws. Rather, it may come in milder doses, such as smaller raises, fewer opportunities for advancement, petty criticisms and slights, and selective marginalization that stops short of complete exclusion.”

Workplace bullying: From target to subject matter expert (March) — “On occasion I receive inquiries that go something like this: I’ve been a target of workplace bullying. I’ve learned a lot from this experience and want to help make sure that others don’t go through what I did. In fact, I’d like to do some work in this area. How can I go about this?

Coaching for workplace bullies and toxic bosses? (March) — “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.”

Kiss up, kick down (January) — “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….”

Is it time to attend September University?

As a tumultuous 2016 comes to a close, I find myself looking to the work of Charles D. Hayes, a retired, largely self-educated writer and moral philosopher whose books and essays on living our lives are singularly wise, humane, and insightful, especially for those in the second half of their journeys.

In September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life (2010), he offers a unique mix of philosophy, values, homespun wisdom, deep reflection, and full throated embrace of lifelong learning, all designed to encourage readers to enrich our lives and make genuine contributions to the world around us. For those who are trying to define their work lives, it helps to provide a context for thinking how our labor contributes to our own fulfillment and to the greater good. His Preface, which you may access online, explains the idea of September University:

September University, in concept, is a metaphor for intellectual maturity and represents an ambitious quest on behalf of future generations. September University, the book, is a call to action, a social forecast, and above all a passionate argument that a bright future depends upon the experiential wisdom of aging citizens. The exploration you’re about to begin has the potential to transform your worldview, heighten your aspirations, and elicit reflections about your personal legacy and the spiritual meaning to be derived from the last season of life.

If you want a sense of where Charles is coming from as a writer and thinker, this passage from the Preface offers a clear look:

Many people experience lives today steeped in such seething mediocrity that the beast-ridden savannah of our ancient past seems inviting by comparison. Whereas life may have once been “nasty, brutish, and short,” these days it can be confused, pointless, and headed toward a disaster that most people don’t have time enough to recognize is coming. Never before has reading the signs of the times been more essential, and never has it been so imperative that the concept of wisdom be a holistic notion favoring humanity over the special interest of some excessively needy individual, group, corporation, or nation-state.

Charles is no ivory tower kind of guy. His vocational history includes, among other things, service in the U.S. Marine Corps and the Dallas police department, as well as decades spent working in the oil industry in Alaska. I’ve been reading his books for years, and during the past year I’ve enjoyed conversing with him on Facebook. His voice is real.

I praised this book when it first appeared in 2010, and I believe its lessons are needed now more than ever. Though written especially for those of middle age and beyond, September University will resonate with anyone who is eager to move past the superficial trappings of contemporary life. 

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I’ve discussed Charles’s writing in previous blog posts, including:

…on the ripple effects of our lives (2016)

…on”mainstream indifference” (2015)

…on wisdom at fifty-something (2014)

…on the lessons of nostalgia (2011)

Three 20th century voices inform our understanding of modern American society

 

Three important, insightful voices from the last century may help us understand the social and political state of today’s America.

In his frighteningly prescient Preface to Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982 ed.), social scientist Bertram Gross identified two conflicting trends in American culture:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

In the spring I cited the rise of Donald Trump as the prime exemplar of the mainstreaming of Gross’s 1982 scenario. This dystopian reality is now before us, front and center, as Trump goes about the task of forming his new administration.

In her final book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), the late Jane Jacobs — the brilliantly iconoclastic observer of urban and contemporary life — expressed fears that we are entering a new “Dark Age” marked by a sharp decline in core societal institutions and values. Here were the key markers behind her thesis:

  • Family and community — Consumption, consumerism, debt, and wealth supplanting family and community welfare;
  • Higher education — Higher education becoming a tool for credentialing instead of a process for learning;
  • Science — Denigration of hard science, along with the elevation of economics as the primary science shaping public policy;
  • Government — Ending the notion of government for the common good, replaced by government acting on behalf of powerful interests; and,
  • Ethics — Breakdown of ethics in learned professions.

Dark Age Ahead did not receive rave reviews upon its publication. As I recall, it was greeted with a sort of polite acknowledgement of the author’s concerns, along with a nod to her reputation and overall body of work. I felt the same way, too. But it turns out that Jacobs was merely a decade ahead of her time. Her analysis is now spot on, having anticipated our current milieu with scary accuracy.

For reasons I wish were not so, I believe that the work of philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt also will be increasingly relevant toward understanding how individual behaviors impact broader concerns in today’s America. As I wrote in 2014:

…Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society.

Arendt’s work was deeply informed by European events during first half of the last century. In her Preface to Men in Dark Times (1968 ed.), an examination of how prominent European intellectuals, religious leaders, civic leaders, and activists responded to authoritarian threats of the era, she posited:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.

During the years to come, we’re going to need lots of “men and women, in their lives and works” (to borrow from Arendt) to shine a light on our society and to make life more humane, dignified, and inclusive. We don’t need more bystanders who submit passively to malevolent forces swirling around us, while hoping not to be among those swallowed up by them. This is a time for us to stand for something and be counted.

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

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