Workplace abusers: A few “bad apples” or part of a terribly bad harvest?

Image from todayifoundout.com

In recent weeks, I’ve encountered multiple variations on the “just a few bad apples” excuse/explanation/dodge, meant to assure others that corruption, violence, sexual harassment or assault, or bullying of employees or customers are the acts of a mere handful of miscreants within an organization, or perhaps even a sole rotten one. There’s always going to be a bad apple or two. He was just a bad apple. It’s hard to screen out every bad apple. It’s unfair to define us by a few bad apples. And blah blah blah.

True, the bad apples analogy may sometimes fit the situation. Maybe an organization that tries to do everything right in terms of hiring, supervision, and review finds itself dealing with that rare bad employee who has mistreated others, and somehow the situation got out of hand.

I’ll concede that possibility.

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples.

Where the bad apples analogy actually fits, frequently it is used to reduce the need for organizational and leadership accountability, as if to say that this unusual occurrence somehow makes the underlying misconduct less serious. Instead, a full-throated apology and promise to make things right would be the stand up thing to do.

 

When boss behaviors fall short of bullying, but still prompt an “oy”

If we define workplace bullying as intentional, often repeated, verbal or non-verbal mistreatment of employee that causes mental or physical harm, then it follows that a lot of not-so-great behaviors fall short of that threshold. Bullying, as I’ve come to think of it, is targeted and usually malicious in nature. “Bad bossism,” on the other hand, is simply that.

I just read Adam Bryant’s New York Times interview of Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini, and I’m glad that I don’t work for her. (Barstool Sports, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a “bro” site featuring lots of sports talk and photos of scantily clad co-eds.) While nothing in the interview necessarily cries out “bullying boss,” Nardini’s punishing management practices and assessments of humanity aren’t for everyone: 

1. She’ll run people into the ground in order to build a better Barstool.

I think I’m punishing. I have a large ability to grind. If I want something or if I believe in something or I think something should be done better, I will push and push until I exhaust people.

I really value stamina and drive. I am bad with stagnation and complacency. It’s not just about winning, but did we do everything possible to make something happen?

2. That includes being available 24/7, and she’s going to test that during your interview phase.

If you’re in the process of interviewing with us, I’ll text you about something at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. on a Sunday just to see how fast you’ll respond.

[In response to the followup question of permissible response time] Within three hours. It’s not that I’m going to bug you all weekend if you work for me, but I want you to be responsive. I think about work all the time. Other people don’t have to be working all the time, but I want people who are also always thinking.

3. She’s got a single-lens, 90/10 view of humanity.

I had to learn, and I’m still learning, about the kinds of people on my team who can run in my system, which is pretty hard-driving.

…There were people who weren’t into it, and it took me a long time to learn that there are people who I call “90 percent players” and there are “10 percent players.”

The 90 percent players are superdependable. They work hard every day, and they’re amenable to whatever you want to do.

And the 10 percent people may not be great 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time they’re genius, and they’re genius at the moment that matters.

It took me a long time to learn that there’s a beauty and a gift in the 10 percent people, and you have to be able to unlock it.

Oy, indeed.

It would’ve been great had interviewer Bryant followed up with a question about work-life balance, but we’ll have to imagine Nardini’s response. (I’d predict some variation on “work hard, play hard.”)

To be fair, Nardini is no different than any other CEO who expects their underlings to demonstrate fulsome devotion to their jobs. She’s merely among the latest to regard her management philosophy as worth bragging about. Of course, we’re used to hearing this stuff from certain male CEOs, so perhaps it’s a sign of ironic, umm, progress, that a female CEO is spouting more of the same.

How travel introduces us to historical figures

Convent of St. Agnes (all photos: DY)

When it comes to being a tourist, I am the opposite of those who manage to squeeze every bit of sightseeing out of each day. In fact, if I can connect with one or two memorable places during a given visit to a popular travel destination, I’m pretty happy with that. I’m especially pleased when I’m able to learn more about special historical figures. For my just-concluded visit to Prague for the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, my nomination for most meaningful tourist stop is the Convent of St. Agnes, which I visited during my last day in the city. The main reason is the convent’s namesake, Saint Agnes of Bohemia, who lived during the 13th century.

The daughter of a king, Agnes grew up with considerable advantages, including a formal education rarely extended to other girls. Among the social expectations imposed upon her was that she would be promised in marriage very early in life, presumably to a suitor who would help to buttress her father’s political and diplomatic stature. Agnes was indeed engaged at the age of three(!), but her intended husband died. Future attempted marriage arrangements also did not transpire, apparently to Agnes’s satisfaction. She had other things in mind for her life.

After Agnes’s father died, her brother was next in succession to the throne. He would grant her wish to never marry, enabling her to devote her life to faith and service to others. The informational flyer that I picked up at the convent shop calls Agnes “an exceptional figure both spiritually and culturally; the first emancipated woman in Bohemia, she not only helped the sick and the poor, but also contributed greatly to the welfare of the Czech people.” Among other things, she started Prague’s first hospital, which also served as a place of shelter and sustenance for the city’s poor. She also continually supported improvements in women’s social status and is considered one of the most significant women in Czech history.

By contemporary standards, it might sound odd to call St. Agnes a pioneer for women, much less an early version of a feminist. But within the confines of the age and circumstances she lived in, those labels could well apply. She sacrificed considerable privilege — an act still in rare supply today — in order to care for others and to advance the status of women, during a time when notions of social services were scarcely developed and men overwhelmingly dominated society.

The sponsor of these biennial law and mental health conferences, the International Academy on Law and Mental Health, has a knack for selecting compelling sites for our gatherings. In keeping with the theme of this post, the last two Congresses have allowed me to visit the Anne Frank House (Amsterdam, 2013) and the Sigmund Freud residence and museum (Vienna, 2015). There is something about walking the same streets and being in the same rooms as these very special historical figures that sends a good chill up my spine. I am very fortunate for these opportunities to make such connections over time.

Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching

At the just-concluded International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, I presented a short paper, “Addressing Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Higher Education: The Roles of Law, Cultures, Codes, and Coaching,” as part of a panel discussion on legal issues in higher education. In assembling this talk, I drew heavily upon sources discussed in past blog entries, as I have long been interested in bullying behaviors in academe. Here’s a slightly edited version of my outline for the talk:

I. Introduction

  1. Short definitions
  • Workplace bullying – Intentional, often repeated, and health harming mistreatment of an employee by one of more other employees, using verbal and non-verbal means.
  • Workplace mobbing – An intentional “ganging up” on an employee by multiple employees, using bullying-type behaviors.
  • Workplace incivility – Behavior that violates conventional norms of workplace conduct.

2. Impacts

  • Reduced employee productivity, attentiveness, and employee morale, increased attrition and absenteeism;
  • Increased employee benefit costs and liability exposure;
  • For workplace bullying and mobbing, significant mental and physical health effects, including clinical depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation.

II. Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Academe

  1. Are they problems in academic institutions?

Yes, books and studies have documented this. See my blog post, “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in Academe: The Hell of Heaven?” (rev. 2014).

In the United States, political controversies in the aftermath of the 2016 election have fueled bullying, mobbing, and incivility on campuses.

2. Bullying, Mobbing, Incivility: Common Status Combinations

  • Board > administrator(s)/faculty
  • Administrator(s) > administrator(s)/faculty/staff
  • Tenured faculty > non-tenured faculty
  • Tenured faculty > tenured faculty
  • Faculty > mid-level administrator(s)/staff/graduate students
  • Staff > staff

3. My Pet Theory: “Dilbert in Tweed”

Academicians are adept at intellectual analysis, manipulation, and argumentation.  When applied to the tasks of teaching, scholarship, and service, these skills reinforce the most socially useful aspects of the academy.  But many of us who have worked in academe have seen what happens when they are applied in hurtful or even malicious ways.

Of course, exquisitely rationalized actions and explanations occur in many organizations, but in dysfunctional academic settings, they often rise to an art form.  After repeated such bludgeonings, we may become accustomed to, and sometimes all too indifferent towards, intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical “mal-manipulation.”  Call it Dilbert in Tweed.

Because this kind of mental facility often is at the heart of both perpetrating and defending bullying, academe becomes a natural petri dish for such behaviors, especially the covert varieties.  After all, so many decisions in the academy are based upon very subjective judgments.  This can create a particularly attractive setting for the passive-aggressive bully and the quiet-but-deadly mob.

(Passage adapted from David C. Yamada “The Role of the Law in Combating Workplace Mobbing and Bullying,” which appears in Kenneth Westhues’s edited volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004).)

III.       Relational vs. Non-Relational Organizational Cultures

Drs. Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, “Relational-Cultural Practice: Working in a Nonrelational World” (2002), paper published by the Wellesley Centers for Women:

A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, the authors identify three types of “non-relational cultures” that hurt morale and productivity:

  • “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
  • “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
  • brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

IV. A Suggested Therapeutic Jurisprudence-Informed Approach

  1. Build a relational work culture
  • Nurture civility and responsible speech, i.e., the Golden Rule
  • Manage incivility with non/less-punitive interventions (coaching, counseling)
  • Avoid civility codes

2. Prohibit Abuse

  • Anti-bullying provisions in employee policies
  • Progressive discipline
  • Avoid long, drawn-out, multi-layered disciplinary procedures
  • Incorporate legal liabilities and obligations: Especially discrimination & harassment laws (most nations); whistleblower & anti-retaliation protections (most nations); anti-bullying & mobbing laws (some nations).

Launched in Prague: The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence

With Prof. Shelley Kierstead, vice-chair, and a beta version of our forthcoming website

I’m delighted to announce the founding of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a new, non-profit, membership-based learned association devoted to advancing therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. Our opening event was a founding meeting on Tuesday at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, held in Prague, Czech Republic. Several dozen people from around the world filled a meeting room to discuss plans for this new organization, and the combined energies created a palpable sense of enthusiasm and engagement.

From the latest draft of our by-laws, here is what the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (aka TJ Society) is about:

Therapeutic jurisprudence…is an interdisciplinary school of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. TJ values psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions, without claiming exclusivity in terms of policy objectives. The TJ Society shall advance these overall purposes by supporting legal and interdisciplinary scholarship; identifying and promoting best professional and judicial practices; sponsoring conferences, workshops, and seminars; and hosting and participating in print, electronic, social media platforms.

Prof. David Wexler, TJ co-founder

For several decades, the field of therapeutic jurisprudence has existed as an expanding but somewhat informal global network of law professors, judges, lawyers, psychologists and other social scientists, and law and graduate students. These efforts have manifested themselves in a growing body of research and practice, as captured in a Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog, a searchable online bibliography of TJ-related scholarship, a new TJ scholarship journal, and a social media presence on Facebook.

However, it became clear that we needed to create a point of affiliation and organization for those interested in TJ. Tuesday’s launch meeting in Prague was a public fruition of that sentiment. Among other things, we discussed the foundational work for this organization, outlined plans for the near future, and held an open discussion to develop more ideas and identify interested participants. We also honored two colleagues, law professors Amy Campbell (U. Memphis) and Kathy Cerminara (Nova Southeastern U., Florida), with the first Wexler/Winick Distinguished Service Awards, our way of thanking them for their selfless service to the TJ community. The award is named for TJ co-founders David Wexler and the late Bruce Winick.

With Profs. Amy Campbell and Kathy Cerminara, award winners

I am serving as the TJ Society’s first board chairperson, and in that role I am facilitating the organization’s early work and providing leadership for our board of trustees. Joining me as officers are vice chair Shelley Kierstead, a law professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, and director Heather Ellis Cucolo, a New York attorney specializing in mental disability law. I hasten to add that all members of our board are rolling up their sleeves to help this new organization get off the ground. It is a really good and accomplished group of people, and we enjoy each other’s company and support. Here is the founding board:

  • Astrid Birgden, forensic psychologist, Australia
  • Amy Campbell, law professor, USA
  • Kathy Cerminara, law professor, USA
  • Heather Ellis Cucolo, attorney, USA (board director)
  • Martine Evans, law and criminology professor, France
  • Michael Jones, law professor and judge (ret.), USA
  • Shelley Kierstead, law professor, Canada (board vice chairperson)
  • Michael Perlin, law professor, USA
  • Pauline Spencer, magistrate judge, Australia
  • Nigel Stobbs, law professor, Australia
  • David Wexler, law professor, USA
  • Michel Vols, law professor, The Netherlands
  • David Yamada, law professor, USA (board chairperson).

In addition, these four distinguished individuals will be serving as permanent Honorary Presidents of the TJ Society, in recognition of their signature, core contributions to this field:

  • Peggy Hora, California state court judge (ret.) and international authority on creating solution-based courts
  • Michael Perlin, professor emeritus at the New York Law School and leading mental health & disability law expert
  • David Wexler, law professor at the University of Puerto Rico & the University of Arizona and co-founder of the TJ movement
  • The late Bruce Winick, University of Miami law professor and co-founder of the TJ movement.

We are also assembling a large and distinguished Global Advisory Council, currently with some 75 members, whose names and affiliations will be shared on our forthcoming website.

Faculty of Law building, Charles University, Prague, host for the International Congress

We have a lot of work to do this summer and early fall in order to (1) go public with the website; and (2) begin accepting memberships. We are building a website that will incorporate and link many existing TJ activities and projects, as well as add other research materials, information, and networking features. Interested individuals will be able to join the TJ Society through the website, with membership dues set at $25 US per year, except for students who may become members for free.

That work is already underway. We followed our Tuesday launch with an impromptu meeting of several board members this morning. We realize that starting up a new global organization primarily by e-mail communications and social media requires us to make the best use of our face-to-face time. We’ll be taking various work assignments with us to our various home locations. In the meantime, we’ll also spend a bit more time enjoying the sights of this beautiful old European city.

Old Town, Prague, is quite the sight

Prague: A week of learning about law and mental health

Postcard views everywhere in Prague. Here, Old Town Square.

I’m spending a week in Prague, Czech Republic, for the 35th International Congress on Law and Mental Health, sponsored and organized by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health (IALMH). Among other things, today I facilitated a session to launch the formation of the new International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (more on that in my next post), and tomorrow I’m presenting a short paper on workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in academe as part of a panel discussion on higher education.

The IALMH’s biennial Congress is a global event, with presenters and attendees from around the world participating in dozens of panel discussions running each day for a full week. Law professors, lawyers, and judges join psychologists, psychiatrists, and those from other professional and academic disciplines to discuss important issues of law and mental health. This has become an extraordinary educational conference experience for me, full of ideas, research, and insights that fuel my understanding of the linkages between law and psychology. It also has served as a welcomed venue to share some of my work with valued colleague.

Our host institution is Charles University in Prague, one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished universities. This year’s Congress opened on Sunday with a ceremony in the Great Hall of Carolinum, a significant building in the nation’s history that dates back to the 14th century. One of my therapeutic jurisprudence colleagues, Australian magistrate judge Pauline Spencer, received a major award at this ceremony, and I’ll have more to say about her work very soon.

Great Hall of Carolinum, Charles University, Prague

Believe it or not, a lot of learning occurs at this conference. Each conference day includes four 2-hour blocks of panel discussions. Most of us attend at least 2 or 3 per day, in addition to doing our own presentations and attending assorted meetings. To help reduce the temptation to lapse into truancy, the IALMH builds into the schedule several cultural and sightseeing events. This evening’s entertainment was a lovely concert by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

One of the most validating aspects of this gathering is the widely shared understanding that human emotions should matter a lot in the making and administration of law and public policy. We’re not all nodding our heads in agreement on everything said here, but at least we start with a consensus that psychology and mental health should play prime roles in shaping our laws and legal systems. Our challenge is to persuade more of our peers in the legal profession and in policymaking positions to see things similarly.

Awaiting the orchestra in the Rudolfinum, Prague

When it comes to workplace abuse, evil still trumps stupid

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman offers a provocative, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek thesis about bad leaders: We should fear the stupid ones more than the evil ones. In support of his point, Burkeman cites a humorous 1976 essay by economist Carlo Cipolla:

Cipolla has a technical definition of a stupid person: someone “who causes losses to another person [or group] while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses” – as opposed to a “bandit”, who pursues selfish gain at cost to others. “Day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments,” he writes.

…What makes stupid people so dangerous is that you can’t refer to their own self-interest to predict or explain their actions. “An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit,” Cipolla writes. “The bandit’s actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality.” Not so with the stupid.

True, anyone who has worked under not-so-bright leaders knows the havoc that they can wreak. These leaders may also suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias where incompetent individuals vastly overrate their abilities. A lot of dumb, absurd, crazy-making stuff can happen when such people are in charge, leading to massive frustrations and squanderings of time, effort, and money.

But when I apply the Burkeman/Cipolla thesis to workplace abuse, I find it grinding to a halt. When it comes to workplace bullying and mobbing, it’s the evil leaders we should fear the most — the ones who maliciously abuse others, encourage a culture of such behaviors, and/or look the other way when they occur.

True, work abuse may have no seeming rationality, in that it is bad for everyone (exempting perhaps abusers and their enablers), thus technically qualifying for the label of stupid. But make no mistake about it, genuine bullying and mobbing behaviors are motivated by a desire to instill fear or distress. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great American jurist, wrote that “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked” (The Common Law, 1881). Most of those who have been savagely mistreated at work know the difference as well.

Of course, on occasion we encounter those folks who are both evil and stupid, while possessing the power to impose themselves on others. If they are aware of their lack of competence (the opposite of Dunning-Kruger Effect), it may fuel insecurities that can drive bullying. When combined with their capacity for malevolence, abusive behaviors may well follow. And if they are in leadership positions, then really bad things can happen to subordinates who challenge them.

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