Is incivility a just response to cruelty?

Is it right to disrupt a prominent public official’s otherwise quiet dinner at a restaurant, even if she is the co-architect of a governmental policy that many claim is cruel and immoral? It’s not a hypothetical question, as the recent experience of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen illustrates. Devra First writes for the Boston Globe:

On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she ate dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana in D.C. “Shame! Shame!” they shouted repeatedly. “End family separation! If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

What they were referring to, of course, was the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen, as a Globe editorial recently said, was the face of that policy. And here she was at a Mexican restaurant, albeit one run by Todd English (chef de cuisine Juan “JC” Pavlovich is a native of Mexico).

The protesters were political activists who oppose the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Here’s the video of their interruption of Secretary Nielsen’s dinner, posted to Facebook:

Widespread, bipartisan criticism and outrage, including an unusual and strong opinion piece by former First Lady Laura Bush in the Washington Post (calling the Trump policy “cruel” and “immoral”), have forced the Trump administration to call a halt to its child separation policy. However, this comes too late for a few thousand kids and their families already separated. To its great shame, the administration never bothered to put in place a logistical plan to reunite these families. So these poor people are still in limbo, and for now the kids will remain in various camps, cages, and buildings, most of which were never designed for child care.

Child psychology experts have likened the administration’s policy to child abuse and opined that many of the kids will live with the resulting psychological trauma for years.

And what of dinner interruptus?

Devra First (quoted above) is not a political writer; she’s the Globe‘s food and restaurant critic. However, she sees the significance of protest in places where we normally gather to enjoy food and drink:

Restaurants are where we set aside our differences and come together at the table. Yet — or perhaps thus — such venues are also ideal theaters for protest. It is easy to see that black men are the ones who get the cops called on them while waiting for friends at Starbucks. It is easy to see that same-sex couples are the ones to whom bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes.

Those who work in the food industry are uniquely positioned — and uniquely entitled — to advocate for immigrants. After all, their businesses depend on the people Trump says threaten to “infest” this country.

How one sees the administration’s immigration policies — as either a significant moral outrage or an instance of politics & policy on the edge — may well predict how one feels about protesters loudly interrupting Secretary Nielsen’s gourmet Mexican dinner.

In normal instances, I strongly prefer civility over incivility. But I don’t regard this as a normal disagreement over public policy; I see it as a cruel and willful disregard of basic human dignity that already constitutes a shameful chapter in American history. Nielsen’s burdens in searching out a peaceful dinner venue are minor compared to the trauma being inflicted on these children and their families by the policies she has spearheaded. Is it bad form to remind her of this while she carries on as if nothing was wrong?

In praise of thoughtful dissenters

(image courtesy of quote fancy.com)

In a 1954 broadcast critical of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow urged upon his listeners that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” Given today’s often poisonous political and social atmosphere, buttressed by bad leaders fueling these dynamics, Murrow’s words continue to ring very true.

And if you’re looking for some contemporary commentary about the importance of dissent in our institutions, workplaces, and civic life, then I’m pleased to recommend a new title by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (UC-Berkeley), In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (2018). In her book, Dr. Nemeth poses a challenge to leaders and institutions that drive us toward consensus, without leaving room for thoughtful dissent and questioning. Here’s a description, drawn from her website:

Good decision making requires divergent thinking, an unbiased search for information on all sides of the issue, a consideration of multiple alternatives, the weighing of the cons as well as the pros of any given position etc. Regardless of good intentions or even education and training, we don’t do this. We are subject to biases and most social processes conspire to narrow the range of considerations. Consensus and the seeking of it are culprits, not because we follow the consensus right or wrong, but because we think about the issue from that perspective.

By contrast, dissent opens the mind and actually stimulates divergent thinking. It not only challenges and breaks the hold of the majority, it stimulates the information search and consideration of alternatives; it widens the strategies used in problem solving and increases the originality of thought. This is true even when the dissenter is wrong. It is true even when we vigorously dislike the dissenter and her ideas.

The take-home of this book is two-fold. There are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.

Okay, I hear you: Isn’t reaching consensus a good thing? Don’t we all want to “get to ‘yes'”?, to paraphrase the title of a popular conflict resolution book. Obviously decisions have to be made, for in their absence, things can grind to a halt. Nemeth is not advocating for such outcomes or calling for people to be knee-jerk naysayers. Instead, she’s saying that when decisions result from weighing differences of opinion, the outcomes are often better.

There are lessons in this book for everyone. For example, when I’m in leadership roles or in the classroom, I can be welcoming of differing points of view. However, when I feel very strongly that I’m right, I can get impatient, especially when I perceive that other comments are not well reasoned. Nemeth understands that dissenting opinions — even ultimately erroneous ones — can slow down the process, but she urges their importance nevertheless.

Believe me, I’ve been in academic workplaces long enough to see the damage wrought by marginalizing and even squelching dissenting voices. Organizations that do not encourage genuine input often pay for their insularity. Sadly, their leaders rarely comprehend or admit those costs, instead preferring to bumble along with a top-down approach. Inclusive leadership, bolstered by the confidence to encourage thoughtful dissent, is the better way to go.

Ruminating, problem solving, and coping in the midst of work abuse

In an article recently published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (abstract here), researchers Abbas Firoozabadi, Sjir Uitdewilligen, and Fred R. H. Zijlstra pose their key question in the title: “Should you switch off or stay engaged? The consequences of thinking about work on the trajectory of psychological well-being over time.”

Basically, they wanted to explore how taking our jobs home with us affects psychological well-being, especially when it comes to how we deal with work-related problems. Their focus was the distinction between ruminating (in this context, repeatedly thinking about the negative emotional aspects of a work experience) vs. problem-solving (analyzing potential responses and solutions). As some readers can already see, this study has significant implications for those experiencing forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work.

Study details and findings

As explained in the article abstract, the study was conducted with “123 participants with full-time and primarily mentally demanding jobs,” using the following methodology:

We conducted a 3-wave longitudinal study with a time lag of 6 months between each wave. At the first measurement moment, participants filled out a survey over 5 consecutive working days assessing work-related affective rumination and problem-solving pondering during evenings. Exhaustion and health complaints were assessed at the first measurement moment as well as after 6 and 12 months.

The researchers found:

The results showed that affective rumination is a significant predictor of increase in exhaustion over time. Problem-solving pondering was not found to be a significant predictor of change in psychological well-being over time. These findings demonstrate that work-related rumination during evenings may lead to health problems over time depending on the type of rumination. It suggests that unlike affective rumination, problem-solving pondering during evenings has no influence on psychological well-being over time.

Bottom line, slightly boiled down: Ruminating about work challenges will likely have negative health effects, while thinking about work challenges in problem-solving mode is a typically a break-even proposition in terms of health.

Applied to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Over the past 20 years, I’ve heard or read hundreds of stories about severe work abuse. I’ve concluded that for targeted individuals, ruminating over these terrible experiences is one of the most common and debilitating thought patterns. It is a form of ongoing re-traumatization.

Researchers Firoozabadi, Uitdewilligen, and Zijlstra were not specifically studying the psychological health effects of bullying-related behaviors, but their research has significant implications for those who are experiencing work abuse. Their study results dovetail with what many have observed or experienced: Ruminating about workplace mistreatment can create and exacerbate health problems, while operating in problem-solving mode is less likely to have such impacts. In fact, the latter may even improve psychological well-being by injecting needed doses of hope and empowerment.

If one could easily flip the switch from rumination to problem-solving, well then, a lot of problems would be solved, right?! However, in many cases of work abuse, it’s more complicated than that, especially when psychological trauma enters the picture. All too often, trauma and rumination go hand-in-hand. Targets of work abuse often ruminate about what happened and how it has affected them. It’s harder for them to shift the focus toward potential responses and solutions.

This may very well be a neurological effect, not necessarily a personality trait. As research has found, traumatic experiences can cause the side of the brain governing emotions (the so-called right side) to go into hyper-active mode, while the side of the brain governing logic, communication, and decision making (the so-called left side) shuts down. As I’ve written before, this understanding helps to explain why many targets of work abuse ruminate about the experience of that abuse and its effects on their emotions, while finding it difficult to develop an ordered narrative of relevant events and engage in problem-solving.

(As a side note, I’ll offer some unscientific, indirect evidence of this dynamic, drawn from writing this blog since 2008: Blog posts on workplace bullying that validate the experiences of being abused at work tend to attract a lot more search engine hits and Facebook “likes” than those that are problem-solving or solution-oriented in nature.)

The ruins of rumination — and potential coping responses

In a 2010 Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Edward Selby provides a useful primer on rumination and its effects:

Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Basically, rumination means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting.

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What’s so bad about rumination though, it’s all about problem solving right? While it’s true that problem solving and planning are essential to overcoming a difficult problem, people who ruminate tend to take these activities too far and for too long. . . . Sometimes people will ruminate about the problem so much so that they never even develop a solution to the problem.

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The research is extremely consistent. People who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety, and those problems are hard to overcome for someone who fails to change ruminative thought patterns.

Fortunately Dr. Selby suggests how people break out of their cycles of rumination. He strongly recommends pursuing a genuinely enjoyable, distracting activity:

So how do you overcome rumination? Well have you ever heard the phrase, “get your mind off of the problem?” The answer is simple, to overcome rumination you need to engage in some kind of activity that fully occupies your mind and prevents your thoughts from drifting back to the problem.

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There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, and the best one to use is one that is personal for you. For example, some good activities include reading a book, playing a game, exercising, talking to a friend (but not about the problem!), or watching a movie. Of course you are only limited by your creativity and access to different activities. Importantly, you have to enjoy the behavior for it to work.

Losing one’s self in something good

Selby’s advice is congruent with pieces that I’ve written in this blog about the importance of immersive hobbies and pastimes, especially for those who are dealing with toxic work situations. In a 2015 blog post, “Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job,” I wrote:

For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business.

. . . Therapy or counseling, and mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation, may be helpful for coping with bullying at work. In addition, consider the possibility of a meaningful, life-affirming endeavor in which you can lose yourself in a good way.

I emphasize words such as meaningful and immersive. I am well aware that this is not as simple as picking out a hobby or pastime from some random list. (In this context, “Why don’t you try collecting coins?” is about as helpful as “You need to get over it.”) Rather, it’s about connecting to a positive activity decoupled from work. It will not address the bullying itself, but it may well provide a safe and enjoyable space away from it.

In that post, I told a story about Dr. Shelley Lane, who was experiencing workplace bullying at a college where she had previously worked:

When Dr. Shelley Lane was experiencing severe bullying at the community college where she worked and recovering from foot surgery that limited her mobility, she retrieved the personal journals she wrote during a formative year spent studying abroad as a young undergraduate and turned them into a book project.

In the Preface to her eventually published study abroad memoir, A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-Of-Age (2010), she wrote:

Soon thereafter fate provided me with two reasons why I should read them [her personal journals] again: a new president at the community college where I worked who made Attila the Hun appear weak and timid, and foot surgery that had me in crutches for four months. I finally returned to the journals to keep my mind away from the workplace bully and to forget that I wasn’t easily mobile.

In Dr. Lane’s case, there were good outcomes on multiple levels. First, she left that college for a better job at a better school. Second, as I wrote last year, she would later author a book, “Understanding Incivility: Why Are They So Rude?,” for which I was privileged to write the Foreword.

Not the last word, but hopefully of help

Dear readers, this obviously isn’t the last word on rumination and how to deal with it, but I hope it is of assistance to those who are experiencing it. Moving from rumination to problem-solving can be an important step toward healing and recovery. May it be so for you if you are in this difficult place.

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Additional relevant posts

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016)

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

Summer work is mostly about writing

My writing workspaces are not nearly as ornate! (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; photo by DY)

With spring semester final exams and papers graded, another academic summer begins. I understand that because I don’t teach in the summer, many folks assume that I have “summers off.” In reality, much of this time is devoted to writing. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to focus on serious scholarly projects. 

Among other things, I’m writing a new law review article about therapeutic jurisprudence, and it will complement my work as board chair of our new International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. In this piece I’m attempting to make the case that American law should be framed by human dignity and psychological well-being. This article is a broad outgrowth of my longtime research and advocacy work on workplace bullying.

One of the biggest perks of working in this mode is that I’m not tied down to my office. I like to work at home or in the Boston Public Library. I’ve also been traveling a lot, and my laptop goes with me, typically joined by small piles of notes and article printouts. I can even get work done on airplanes, if the passenger seating space is sufficient. (For me, JetBlue is generally the best in that regard. By comparison, flying coach on an American Airlines 737 triggers claustrophobia and prompts even greater empathy for chickens confined to battery cages.)

Of course, long gone are the days when the summer seemed endless. It goes quickly, and soon another school year beckons. And in Boston, the seasons change, too. Before we know it, the leaves will be turning color as the cycle continues.

P.S. By the way, I just revised and beefed-up one of this blog’s most popular posts, “Gaslighting at work.” Especially because the term has entered our popular and civic culture more prominently in recent years, you may find it of interest.

The Boston Public Library is a pretty cool place to work. (Bates Hall reading room; photo by DY)

Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Themes of work and employment in “The Americans”

FX’s “The Americans,” the one-hour drama series featuring a husband-and-wife team as deep-cover Soviet spies operating out of a Washington D.C. suburb during the 1980s, came to the close of its superb six-year run last Wednesday.

If you’re unfamiliar with “The Americans,” here’s the brief rundown: On the surface, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings are juggling everyday suburban life, raising their two kids (Paige and Henry), and managing a travel agency. However, they are really Soviet plants, deeply involved in espionage and intelligence activities, which often require them to assume new identities in order to gather information and fulfill mission directives. To make things more complicated, their new neighbor across the street is Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent who does intelligence work. The relationships between the Jennings and Beeman families help to frame the entire series.

Indeed, “The Americans” is very much about relationships, however fraught with Cold War intrigue. And as I’ve written before, it’s also a show about managing one’s work life, under the most trying of circumstances. I’d like to build on that theme here, while keeping spoilers down to a minimum!

Raising their games

As I recall, early reviewers regarded “The Americans” as a very good cable drama, but most stopped short of tagging it as brilliant. However, it would finish as one of the most widely hailed series on TV today. Some pundits are rightly calling it one of the best ever on the small screen.

As I see it, this evolution in the show’s reviews goes much beyond its discovery by a more appreciative audience. Rather, from season to season we become witnesses to everyone raising their games, including the cast, directors, producers, writers, and crew. This final season, in particular, had an edge-of-your-seat genius to it. For some time it was known that this would be the show’s last run, and the ability to work within that timeframe paid off completely.

Call this a lesson in how to go from good to great.

Creating art

Last week’s episode ranks as one of the best series finales ever — perhaps the best in terms of beautifully resolving (or not resolving) multiple story arcs — and I’m guessing that it will be studied in acting and film school classes for years to come.

In particular, the critics have already gone gaga over the parking garage face-off scene featuring Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, and Stan. Yeah, it was that good. If there’s such a thing as an Emmy award for a single scene, then this gets it, hands down.

As for Rhys, Russell, and Emmerich, please give them Emmys for their overall performances this season.

Love at work

Romance between co-workers can be full of risks, challenges, and dramas. So it was with Rhys and Russell, on screen and off. Soviet intelligence authorities paired Philip and Elizabeth as a couple before they were planted in the U.S.; this was an arranged marriage purely for purposes of spycraft. They grew into love during the course of their working relationship.

Offscreen, Rhys and Russell became a couple too, and they remain together. This is a common occurrence in Hollywood, but one made more interesting because of the evolving relationship between Philip and Elizabeth.

From nostalgia to immersion

Especially for late Boomers and early Gen Xers, “The Americans” grabs us from the start by playing to our nostalgia for the 80s. You have the 80s music, clothing, hairdos, cars, gadgetry, and all that stuff.

To me it seemed a little over the top at first. But whether it was a crass strategy to reel us in via constant product placement or a deliberate use of commercial and cultural markers to establish the historical context, it did draw us back to those years. Once there, the nostalgic button-pushing would soon give way to the rich, ongoing drama and developing storylines. 

Masks at work

“The Americans” is about putting on masks at work, literally and figuratively. Here’s what I wrote about that aspect of the show four years ago:

The other day, it hit me that “The Americans” is, at least in part, about putting on masks at work. Elizabeth and Philip must wear these masks almost all the time, even with their kids.

In their work, they take on different roles, identities, and personalities. . . . Elizabeth and Philip have no purely authentic selves in terms of their structured lives.

Granted, most of us cannot relate to the lives of deep cover spies. But many of us have been in jobs where we couldn’t quite be ourselves. In fact, most jobs require putting parts of our personalities on the shelf. And in the cases of jobs done largely for a paycheck, big chunks of our personalities may be buried while at work.

At the same time, we may be expected to show qualities of friendliness, courtesy, or deference, even when we don’t honestly feel them. Organizational psychologists call this “emotional labor,” and it can be taxing.

Suffice it to say that Philip and Elizabeth expended more emotional labor than any ten regular people could provide in their aggregate lifetimes!

Moral and ethical decision making

With the Jennings, especially ice-in-her-veins Elizabeth, the moral and ethical code boils down easily to the ends justifying the means. The possibility of violence, of course, is an ongoing presence in many of the show’s story arcs, and the show has piled up a lot of dead bodies, often with ruthless dispatch.  But what sets “The Americans” apart are the many ruses, lies, and deceptions that constitute enormous interpersonal abuses, all in the name of duty. Good, decent people are swept into the web and changed forever.

Still, is this really any different from a well-paid CEO saying that we regretfully had to cut jobs of longtime employees to ensure the financial health of the company, when in reality the company simply chose to put shareholder earnings first? And don’t virulent displays of workplace bullying, mobbing, gaslighting, and harassment mirror the heartless psychological cruelties of Philip and Elizabeth?

Work-life balance

Folks, if you want a prime example of the obliteration of work-life balance, then Elizabeth and Philip serve it up grandly! Put simply, they have no balance. Almost everything is about duty and responsibility. For both, the job often comes first, followed by parenting. I don’t know if I can recall a single genuine vacation or trip, or even a movie and dinner, that didn’t involve their spy work.

Of course, the opportunity to make a difference sometimes requires personal sacrifices, including the loss of what we might call free time. With the Jennings, however, the sacrifices increasingly reach into their souls. 

Institutions as employers

Throughout the series, the relationships of individuals to larger institutions are significant.

Elizabeth and Philip seemingly have leeway in how they fulfill their orders, but they and other Soviet operatives must answer to their superiors in Moscow. In the land of the free, Stan, too, has wiggle room as an agent, but he must answer to the vertical, bureaucratic structure of the FBI.

Ultimately we have two sharply contrasting political ideologies, but when it comes to employment, top-down power relationships often prevail under both.

Politics and work

The Jennings are driven by political ideology, especially Elizabeth, whose commitment to the Soviet ideal remains strong through the heart of the series. Philip’s wavering has consequences for his work and their relationship.

In America, the business, public, and non-profit sectors certainly have their own true believers who bring a sense of mission to their jobs, grounded in ideological commitments. “The Americans” invites us to think hard about how rigid political and social beliefs can inform what we do for living, how we go about it, and the limitations of working in this mode.

Start at the beginning

If you haven’t tried “The Americans,” then the only way to do so is from the beginning. To be honest, I wasn’t immediately addicted to this show. As I suggested above, I think it started out as a very good drama before it grew into something spectacular. It took me a while to get sucked into its world, but once that happened, I was hooked for good.

Given that television binge-watching tastes are so individual, I won’t presume that “The Americans” is for all readers here. But if you want to give it a try, then it’s available on various streaming platforms and season DVDs, and I’m sure a series box set is in the works, too.

 

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