Timothy Snyder on standing out

Historian Timothy Snyder (Yale) has written an important little book for our times, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), which belongs on the must-read lists of change agents who are confronting abuses of power. Essentially it’s a 128-page expanded essay that can be read in an evening — and hopefully will be re-read to reinforce its core lessons.

Among the 20 short chapters of instruction, number 8, “Stand out,” resonates specially with me:

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

For this chapter, Snyder draws heavily upon examples of heroism during the Second World War, especially that of Winston Churchill. Citing the Prime Minister’s political leadership and brave oratory, Snyder notes that “had Churchill not kept Britain in the war in 1940,” the Allied forces would never have had the chance to win the war. “Today,” writes Snyder, “what Churchill did seems normal, and right. But at the time he had to stand out.”

Of course, even in the fiercest of onslaughts, battles must be picked. Snyder briefly mentions the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, a massive operation that rescued what remained of the British expeditionary force after France fell to the Nazis. Dunkirk illustrates how fighting to the bitter end is not always the answer. Sometimes you need to retreat and regroup to fight another day.

History provides us with guidance only; it is not an instruction book. But as Snyder observes, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Even Shakespeare had a writing circle

C’mon in, it’s free!

During a recent visit to the central branch of the Boston Public Library, I took a break to check out an exhibition, “Shakespeare Unauthorized,” on display through the end of the month. I’ve never been a big Shakespeare reader, watcher, or listener, but I readily recognize his brilliance and profound influence, and I’m a bit of an Anglophile to boot. Plus, I was procrastinating on reviewing student paper outlines and drafts.

It was an interesting exhibition, and here’s what specially caught my eye: Shakespeare was part of a writing circle — Elizabethan style! One of the panels told me so:

Whose turn is it to bring the coffee?

The motion picture “Shakespeare in Love” notwithstanding, I’ve thought of the Bard as this lone genius, writing away at his desk, lost in his plots and thoughts. After all, writing is mostly a solitary activity, right?

Nevertheless, it sure helps to have friends and buddies who help to prod us along in that oft-lonesome task of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Furthermore, if that process includes a mix of mutual encouragement, feedback, and suggestions, then the written products may be all the better for it. While the Shakespeares of the world may come around only once every thousand years or so, a supportive cohort can help to unearth the brilliance we do possess.

In November 2015, I wrote a post about the importance of tribes, borrowing from the work of writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin:

Tribes give us a chance to be a part of something larger and more significant than our individual lives. This appeals to our desire for meaningful connection, to be able to work with others toward making a difference or having a stronger impact in a sphere of interest.

Shakespeare had his tribe! And quite a talented group they made. It may have been the writing circle of writing circles.

A Tale of Two Hamlets?

The other item grabbing my attention was the existence of at least two versions of Hamlet, significantly different in several major passages, including the iconic “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Such literary detective stories are fascinating, but is nothing sacred? What’s next? Will a certain fast food chain now claim that in addition to “As You Like It,” there’s another version titled “Have It Your Way”?

Time to update the Cliffs Notes!

The Guardian’s “bullying at work week”: Soliciting your story

Between April 3 and April 6 (UK time), The Guardian, a prominent British newspaper, will be accepting readers’ stories about being bullied at work, for possible inclusion in a special Careers section feature and its social media channels. An encrypted online form requests categories of information from contributors and allows them to limit how their stories are used, including decisions on anonymity and confidentiality.

The Guardian‘s Charlotte Seager explains the rationale for this invitation:

From bosses who try to sabotage their employees’ efforts, to colleagues who intimidate their co-workers or provoke them to tears: bullying at work is surprisingly common.

Nearly a third of workers in the UK experience ongoing intimidation. And with the rise in zero-hour contracts, insecure employment and cuts to legal aid, the problem can only get worse.

Studies show that bullies tend to be bosses or those in authority, making it hard for workers to speak up. “It is easy to denounce bullying,” says employment writer Stefan Stern. “The harder task is to understand why it is happening and to suggest ways of dealing with it.”

Of course, decisions on whether and how to go public with a personal bullying or mobbing story should be made carefully and even strategically, with an eye toward desired outcomes and possible career impacts. This includes, where applicable, potential legal implications, especially for those with pending claims. (Legal protections against workplace bullying in the U.K., while not ideal, are generally stronger than those in the U.S., so American readers should take this into account when considering this opportunity to contribute their stories.)

That said, this is an unusually open invitation by a prominent and respected periodical with global reach. I can’t wait to see what the published feature looks like.

The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week”

The online story solicitation is part of The Guardian‘s “bullying at work week,” a series of features running now in the newspaper. Today’s feature is “The psychology of a workplace bully,” and tomorrow’s is a live chat on dealing with bullying at work.

As an American reader and Guardian subscriber, I am both impressed and envious. Impressed because a major newspaper with an international readership takes workplace bullying seriously, especially from a target’s perspective. Envious because, at least for now, I can’t imagine a U.S. counterpart doing the same thing. This series demonstrates the degree to which public awareness and understanding of workplace bullying are becoming more widely mainstreamed elsewhere, and I hope that we in the States can reach that point sooner than later.

Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, the best definition that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Dr. Martha Stout describes the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect (2007), offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Intentional, but not necessarily maliciously so

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

However, in a smaller share of situations it may be used to fight back against injustice, mistreatment, or abuse, to basically keep the other side guessing. Why a smaller share? Because gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting”….Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involve serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant) and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When human resources announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

“What are they working on?”

Busy Saturday afternoon in Bates Hall reading room, Boston Public Library, Central Branch

One of my favorite places in Boston is the Central Library of the Boston Public Library (BPL). It is a beautiful, historic place that happens to be a great spot to work and study and to discover and explore books. It also has adapted to the times and offers lovely places to enjoy coffee and a bite to eat.

On Saturday I had some work to do, so I hopped on the subway to the library and found a seat in the sumptuous Bates Hall reading room. I snapped the photo above during a break. Whenever I work in Bates Hall, I like to gaze around at fellow library patrons and silently ask myself, What are they working on? 

On days like Saturday, college students clearly make up the largest category of BPL users, with textbooks and laptops visible on the tables. But you also see folks who are working on stuff that appears to have nothing to do with school. For example, sitting across from me today was a man who was carefully writing out pages in longhand; unlike most people, he didn’t have a computer or tablet with him. I wonder if people like him are working on something we may read or hear about someday, or whether it’s just their own little private projects.

The main reason for my visit was far more mundane. I was there to read and send feedback on student paper outlines and drafts. I could’ve stayed home or gone into the office to do that work, but sometimes the change of scenery makes me more productive and focussed. On Saturday, it worked, with an assist from the library’s public wifi so slowed down by the number of users in the building that it discouraged Internet surfing.

At times I will truly show my geek colors by picking a weekend afternoon to visit the BPL simply to hang out and read. I still subscribe to a lot of print magazines and periodicals, and on these occasions I will stuff a bunch of unread issues and maybe a book or two into my backpack and head off to the library for a reading mini-marathon. I’m not sure what it says about me that I take such pleasure in these visits, but I’m thankful for a place like this to host them.

The Central Library’s Italianate courtyard, during a visit earlier this winter

Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue?

“Never fear, HR is here”??? (Image courtesy of clipartkid.com)

Over the weekend I was talking with a good friend about the roles that human resources offices play in responding to potential workplace bullying situations. We shared the observation that despite our considerable knowledge of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we could not cite a “poster case” example of HR decisively and effectively coming to the rescue of a severely bullied worker.

This is not meant to be a snarky putdown of HR or the central role it plays in modern organizations. It’s just that stories of HR intervening on behalf of a bullied or mobbed employee, especially when the perpetrators are powerful individuals within the organization, appear to be rare. By contrast, we hear a lot of anguished tales about how “HR was useless,” “HR threw me under the bus,” and “HR protected the bullies.” In the worst instances, HR has actively furthered, supported, and enabled the abuse.

That said, I think it’s important to correct or at least soften this narrative if stories of positive HR intervention are out there, as they must be. After all, successful interventions are more likely to be handled quietly, so these accounts may not become more well known. I invite readers to contribute their stories of being helped and protected by HR in bullying or mobbing situations in the comments.

***

In a later post, I’ll list and discuss some helpful resources for organizations that want to empower their HR offices to prevent and respond to workplace abuse situations in proactive and ethical ways.

Time wasters from top management

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity:

Unproductive routines, corporate bureaucracy, and “administrivia” kill ambition and sap energy for far too many employees. That’s demoralizing for employees, and a waste for companies, which badly need the full energy and commitment of all their workers.

These “practices, procedures, and structures” include “too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.”

Garton may be writing with mostly the corporate sector in mind, but I can readily attest that these same energy-sapping practices are rife in certain academic institutions as well. They appear in the forms of excessive committees, task forces, working groups, and — worst of all — strategic planning initiatives, replete with seemingly endless meetings and online surveys about this and that. Colleges and universities that lard up on administrators and consultants are the worst of all when it comes to this.

In looking for solutions, Garton offers what he calls his “3 R’s”:

  • refocus on strategic priorities
  • reset the budgets
  • redesign the operating model

Hmm, I have to say that the “3 R’s” sound a lot like consultant jargon replacing corporate jargon. Instead, I’d suggest creating workplace cultures in which people are valued, empowered, and treated with fairness and dignity. If you start with that and go from there, then you’re on your way toward building an organization with high morale and productivity. Plug that agenda into your “strategic priorities,” budgets, and “operating model” if you must (and I hope you don’t), but keep your focus on what truly fosters healthy and productive workplaces.

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