Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm

Have you ever worked at a place where, well, it just seems that typical work-related pronouncements and conversations are big on lies and short on truth?

You’re certainly not alone in that experience, and now management consultant Ron Carucci is sharing a research study that identifies four institutional factors that contribute to lying becoming normal organizational behavior. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Carucci explains that his research team conducted a 15-year study, incorporating 3,200 interviews drawn from 210 organizational assessments, “to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company will be honest.”

With an emphasis on organizational measures, rather than individual personalities, their study identified four factors that contribute to a propensity to engage in frequent lies. From Carucci’s HBR piece:

  • A lack of strategic clarity. When there isn’t consistency between an organization’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace, we found it is 2.83 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information.”
  • Unjust accountability systems. When an organization’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair or unjust, we found it is 3.77 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Poor organizational governance. When there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues, truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors and gossip. . . . We found that when effective governance is missing, organizations are 3.03 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Weak cross-functional collaboration. . . . When cross-functional rivalry or unhealthy conflict is left unaddressed, an organization is 5.82 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. . . . Divisional loyalties paint those outside the team as an enemy to be feared, resented, or blamed.”

Taken together, these characteristics can be deadly for organizational integrity, but Carucci emphasizes that positive change is possible:

Because the factors are cumulative, an organization afflicted with all four is 15 times more likely to end up in an integrity catastrophe than those who have none. But that doesn’t have to be the case. By taking aim at these four issues, you can make it far more likely that your company will create the culture of honesty you, your employees, and your customers eagerly want.

Integrity catastrophe. I like that term. It says a lot.

Human impacts

As a consultant, Carucci’s focus is understandably on company performance, so his emphasis isn’t so much on how an organizational culture of dishonesty affects workers on the ground level. But we know that in its more toxic manifestations, that experience can be demoralizing, stressful, and head-spinning. It also promotes more of the same.

At the more extreme end, we have the practice of gaslighting, a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. In “Gaslighting at work” (revised 2018), I wrote this about 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 the human resources office 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.

Lose-lose

When I talk about workplace bullying, I often invoke the term “lose-lose.” In organizations rife with bullying behaviors, workers suffer, and the organizational performance suffers. The same goes for organizational cultures of dishonesty, which breed distrust, cynicism, fear, and anger. Cheers to Ron Carucci and his team for highlighting key institutional factors that fuel habitual lying, and for suggesting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Texting suicide case: When words have terrible consequences

In 2014, Michelle Carter, then 17 years old, used an ongoing series of text messages to repeatedly encourage her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, age 18, to die by suicide. Prodded by Carter, Roy killed himself by using a truck filled with carbon monoxide gas.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction, holding that Carter’s intentions and acts overcame concerns about freedom of speech. As reported by WBUR News:

A young woman who as a teenager encouraged her boyfriend through dozens of text messages to kill himself is responsible for his suicide, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday in upholding her involuntary manslaughter conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a unanimous decision in the novel case that Michelle Carter’s actions caused Conrad Roy III to die in a truck filled with toxic gas in a deserted parking lot nearly five years ago.

…”After she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote.

The Court’s full opinion may be accessed here.

Both of these young people had struggled with mental illness during the time preceding Roy’s death:

Carter and Roy both lived in Massachusetts but met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.

Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in Fairhaven, a town on the state’s south coast, in July 2014. Her case raised thorny legal questions about free speech and provided a disturbing look at teenage depression and suicide.

“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready – just do it babe,” Carter wrote in one message.

“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die,” she wrote in another.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has followed this case closely, expresses concerns that, in the court’s eyes, Carter’s actions didn’t become illegal until she directed him to get back into his poisonous gas-filled truck and then failed to call for assistance:

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.

The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.

Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.

Cullen would like to see the law cover the broader spectrum of Carter’s actions.

When it comes to this particular set of facts, I am comfortable with the legal result: A manslaughter conviction with a very light sentence. The crime for which Carter was found guilty sends the right message, while the sentence imposed takes into account her age, immaturity, and mental health status at the time. As to whether the criminal law should reach deeper into the ongoing course of Carter’s behavior that led to Roy’s death, I think it is worthy of discussion.

Furthermore, Cullen may be hinting at what some of us are thinking: There is something profoundly disturbing about this young woman. Yes, she may have psychiatric problems that call for treatment and understanding. But her own words also reveal how a sharp intellect and a seeming absence of conscience combined to prod and manipulate Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Especially given her age at the time of the act, I will defer to my colleagues with clinical and counseling training to opine on whether this is suggestive of a more baked-in personality disorder that could lead to future like behaviors. That said, in my psychological layperson’s view, she gives me the creeps.

Applications to workplaces

I pay attention to stories like this one in part because I ask how they may be pertinent to workplaces. Alas, there is no shortage of relevancy. The worst instances of workplace bullying and mobbing, and most toxic workplaces generally, are often fueled by intellectually sharp people who lack a conscience. Whether it’s targeted abuse towards an individual, or, say, a wave of ground-level layoffs without an ounce of sacrifice from highly-paid executives, the actions are frequently executed and/or enabled by those who are missing qualities of empathy and kindness. In cases of work abuse, words are typically deployed as weapons.

Here in the U.S., we pride ourselves on boasting that we enjoy the right of free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution. How true that happens to be in reality may be subject to debate, but it is part of our cultural norm nonetheless. In any event, we too often see that right as absolute, rather than acknowledging how freedom of speech should come with a responsibility — moral if not legal — to use it wisely. In some cases, an expression of speech becomes harmful conduct, such as when it is used intentionally to harass, bully, and hurt others. When words are used specifically to wound, and they achieve that desired objective, then we should at least be discussing the possibility of legal interventions.

We’ve already crossed that juncture with employment discrimination laws, under which harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected classes is an unlawful employment practice. We’re also working on creating legal protections against severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse via the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts legislature with over 90 co-sponsors. Adapting from sexual harassment law, the bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to signal needed legal protections.

Freedom of speech is necessary for open, democratic societies. But when words are used to abuse and destroy others, well, that’s not something we should be waving the flag about. A decent nation embraces human dignity as part of free expression.

 

Of maize and blue: Talking about workplace bullying, at the University of Michigan

I just had the distinct pleasure of spending two days on the University of Michigan campus, courtesy of a speaking invitation from the school’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS) and Dr. Lilia Cortina, a psychology and women’s studies professor and leading authority on workplace harassment and incivility. ICOS describes its mission this way:

ICOS, or the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies, has the single goal of enhancing the University of Michigan’s strength as a world center for interdisciplinary research and scholarship on organizations. We seek to enrich the intellectual environment of Ph.D. students and faculty interested in organization studies, by increasing the quality, breadth, depth, and usefulness of organizational research.

It was a wonderfully stimulating and intellectually rewarding visit. My talk, which you may access here, addressed some of the demographic and diversity aspects of workplace bullying. Here’s how I previewed it in my abstract:

This talk will examine bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work, with an emphasis on demographics and diversity. It will briefly sketch out some basics, a sort of “Workplace bullying 101.” It will then look at the demographic and diversity dynamics of these behaviors overall, especially pertaining to aggressors and targets, especially in the context of organizational cultures. Finally, it will take a closer look at gendered aspects of bullying and related behaviors at work, including (1) linkages between bullying and sexual harassment in the midst of the #MeToo movement and (2) complicated issues of bullying-type behaviors between women at work. Plenty of time will be reserved for comments and questions.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of colleges and universities to give guest lectures, and all have been a worthy expenditure of time and energy. What distinguished this visit from most of the others was the way in which the ICOS program goes well beyond the guest lecture to add in lots of additional conversations through small group meetings and meals.

In addition to my talk, my time on campus included meetings and meals with faculty in psychology, English, theatre, engineering, medicine, and business; a deep conversation about diversity initiatives with leaders of the university’s organizational learning programs; and multiple exchanges with U of M Ph.D. students, whose own research in organizations, working conditions, and diversity will no doubt command our attention sooner than later.

Some of my academic colleagues may be thinking, whoa, that’s a lot to be doing during a visit of barely two days. Indeed, when I first previewed the fulsome itinerary, I knew that I’d have to be “on” for most of that time. But I will attest that this is a very smart way to maximize the value of guest speakers’ visits and to give them plenty of opportunities to share their work and insights. It also tells them that their contributions are respected and trusted beyond the inherent boundaries of formal presentations.

Now that I’m back in Boston, I’ve got pages of notes and names from my short trip, some which will result in followup contacts and maybe even another blog post or two. In sum, it was a great visit featuring lively, informed, and appreciative dialogue throughout.

***

My talk can be accessed here. Go to this page to access presentations from other speakers in the ICOS series.

Sculpted tile: A lovely gift from my friends at ICOS

Are workplace abusers “emotional terrorists”?

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)

In my last post, I discussed a lengthy investigative piece in Variety magazine from December, detailing the story behind Live Nation Entertainment’s decision to place leading producer Heather Parry (“A Star is Born”) on leave, in the wake of multiple accusations of severe workplace bullying and verbal abuse. The Variety piece is loaded with anecdotes from former Live Nation employees, including this one from one-time development executive Wynn Wygal:

Wynn Wygal went to work as a development executive at Live Nation Prods. in November 2017. She said she immediately noticed that her colleagues tensed up whenever Parry walked by.

Wygal soon found that she was prone to angry outbursts, and her moods were impossible to predict.

“Heather berated me on a regular basis for a whole slew of trivial reasons,” Wygal says. “She didn’t like my tone of voice on a call. She didn’t like the way I phrased my emails. She didn’t appreciate my body language in a meeting… I braced whenever she called me into the office.”

Once, she says Parry threatened to fire her for not responding to an email within 15 minutes when she was at lunch with an agent.

Wygal says others were treated even worse, and that Parry was especially hard on the women.

“One day I was sitting in our lawyers’ office when she came in and berated our lawyer right in front of me and the other attorney,” Wygal says. “On multiple occasions I had colleagues come to me distressed and often crying about how Heather had treated them that day.”

“She’s an emotional terrorist,” Wygal says.

Emotional terrorist. Whoa, now there’s a loaded term. I was curious to see how it has been used in other contexts, and quick Google search yielded a lot of hits, especially in the realm of personal relationships. Here’s one from the Urban Dictionary, with a gendered spin:

A person (usually a female) who uses seemingly subtle or inconsequential text messages, body language, or short tone of voice to begin a surprise emotional attack against a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or Ex. The attack usually results in catastrophic relationship damage.

A person engaging in the planning and execution of heinous acts intended to kill relationships and scare off potential relationship commitment.

I’m not sure where they got the “usually a female” angle, but you get the point. It’s about searing, surprise emotional attacks that can destroy relationships.

Of course, this is all from the perspective of the person on the receiving end of the abuse. And given that targets of workplace bullying and mobbing often invoke references to psychological torture in describing their experiences, emotional terrorist is not off the mark. 

The term itself has no clinical meaning. However, it may characterize behaviors suggestive of a mental health disorder suffered by the person who is launching the verbal attacks. In that sense, listening to targets’ experiences and labels may help us to understand more about the psychology of workplace abusers. If we are going to adequately prevent and respond to these behaviors, then that greater level of understanding is necessary.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no)

In a lengthy, detailed investigative piece for Variety magazine last December, Gene Maddaus reports on Live Nation Entertainment’s decision to place leading producer Heather Parry (“A Star is Born”) on leave, in the wake of multiple accusations of severe workplace bullying and verbal abuse directed at subordinates.

The full article (here) provides extensive descriptions of numerous stories of bullying and harassment:

Over the past several months, Variety interviewed 23 former employees of Live Nation Prods. and of Adam Sandler’s production company Happy Madison, where Parry had previously worked for 10 years. Most of the people would only speak on condition of anonymity, but those interviewed on background described Parry as manipulative, demeaning, and verbally abusive.

The many specific accounts of bullying and harassment contained in the piece should help to educate those who dismiss these behaviors as mere personality differences or who claim that it’s simply about being a tough boss. To the contrary, these allegations describe behaviors that repeatedly cross the line into the category of abuse.

When Variety contacted me and explained that they were working on this story, I got the sense of a boss who repeatedly harassed and abused her underlings to ensure that only the subservient ones were left standing:

Experts say that such an environment will screen out people based on their willingness to withstand abuse, and not on their talents.

“The hazing and the breakdown process is trying to identify those who will act in a subservient way,” says David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University. “You end up with people who are technically competent but emotionally subservient.”

Hey, she’s just being a “creative”

Nevertheless, some in Hollywood defend such behaviors, explaining that, among other things, this is part of the creative process:

But bullying employees is still largely accepted in Hollywood. Some argue that there are rationales for it: it toughens people up, it weeds out those who can’t hack it, or it’s an essential part of the creative process.

Indeed, Live Nation CFO Kathy Willard appears to suggest that we need to give abusive “creatives” a break:

Willard also seemed to make allowances for Parry’s behavior because she is “creative.”

“We all know working with creatives, it’s an interesting world,” she said. “Creatives are different personalities.”

Good grief.

Are these folks really claiming that creative people have some innate quality of abusiveness toward others that is outweighed by their productive brilliance? Or maybe it’s another take on the oft-heard defense that we need to give super-talented folks a free pass if they happen to treat other workers like dirt. 

Generally speaking, I think it behooves all of us to be able to work with a wide variety of personalities at work. And maybe that includes extending some understanding toward those who aren’t very good at playing with others in the sandbox. But no one should have to withstand the abuse described in these reports as a condition of remaining employed.

Indeed, this is what the workplace anti-bullying campaign has stood for from the outset: That everyone is entitled to a baseline of dignity and decent treatment at work. It’s that simple.

Healthy Workplace Bill: Forty-five percent of the Massachusetts legislature supports workplace anti-bullying legislation

The Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), which permits targets of severe workplace bullying to seek damages in court and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively towards bullying behaviors at work, is gaining considerable momentum in the new session of the Massachusetts legislature. As of Friday, February 1, lead sponsor Senator Paul Feeney has been joined by 90 legislative co-sponsors in supporting the bill — representing some 45 percent of the Massachusetts legislature.

This is one of the strongest showings of legislative support for comprehensive workplace anti-bullying legislation at the bill-filing stage in the young history of the national advocacy campaign on behalf of the HWB.

As readers familiar with legislative processes know, the process of enacting new legislation — especially on cutting-edge subjects — is often a long slog requiring patience and commitment. This is our fifth full session of bringing the HWB to the Massachusetts legislature. We’ve continued to build support for the HWB during every session, and that work is paying off. The current list of co-sponsors far exceeds the previous record of 58 for the 2015-16 session.

***

For years, the lead sponsor of the HWB was Rep. Ellen Story, and her steadfast work brought us a long way. Since Rep. Story’s retirement, our new lead sponsor, Sen. Feeney, has stepped in to give the HWB his fullest commitment. Like Rep. Story, Sen. Feeney and his staff have worked closely with our advocates to build support for the bill.

On the advocacy front, special shout-outs go to two co-coordinators of this campaign: Deb Falzoi, whose invaluable efforts in leading our advocacy group and social media outreach have fueled the growing momentum behind the bill; and Greg Sorozan, whose vital work as a union leader through SEIU/NAGE (a major public employee union in Massachusetts) has given us critically useful insider assistance in advocating for the HWB in the legislature.

And at its core, this grassroots legislative campaign is about the thousands of individuals who are calling, e-mailing, and visiting their legislators to urge their support of the HWB. Many have shared personal stories of experiencing workplace abuse. A lot of folks are bravely stepping up to make a difference.

This work is far from finished. When it comes to legislative advocacy, there are no guarantees. That said, having 91 legislative supporters of the HWB in Massachusetts is a major step forward. We have gone from being a novelty, to a presence, and now to a genuine force. 

***

The Massachusetts HWB currently carries the docket number 1355. The permanent bill number for the 2019-20 session will be assigned later. For more information about the Massachusetts advocacy campaign for the HWB, see its website (here) or Facebook page (here).

***

As some readers may know, the seeds of the HWB were planted in a law review article that I authored (published in 2000 by the Georgetown Law Journal), in which I surveyed the serious inadequacies of existing employment protections for targets of workplace bullying and suggested the parameters of needed new legal protections. I drafted the original version of the HWB in 2002, and in 2003, it was filed for the first time in the California legislature — championed by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the pioneering Workplace Bullying Institute.

When I embarked on this work some 20 years ago, I had no idea of where it might lead. But thanks to the efforts of countless individuals, we are now creating growing legislative recognition that the harm wrought by workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse should be subject to legal consequences. At this point, it’s about building public support for legal measures to fill the huge gaps that leave workers so vulnerable to these forms of interpersonal mistreatment.

***

Here is the current list of supporters. Because the State Senate has a later deadline for co-sponsoring bills, it is very possible that we’ll be adding additional names.

Name District/Address
Paul R. Feeney Bristol and Norfolk
Ruth B. Balser 12th Middlesex
Jack Patrick Lewis 7th Middlesex
Diana DiZoglio First Essex
Steven Ultrino 33rd Middlesex
Lindsay N. Sabadosa 1st Hampshire
Maria Duaime Robinson 6th Middlesex
Denise Provost 27th Middlesex
Rebecca L. Rausch Norfolk, Bristol and Middlesex
Daniel M. Donahue 16th Worcester
Carmine Lawrence Gentile 13th Middlesex
Angelo J. Puppolo, Jr. 12th Hampden
Carolyn C. Dykema 8th Middlesex
Patrick M. O’Connor Plymouth and Norfolk
James T. Welch Hampden
Aaron Vega 5th Hampden
David Allen Robertson 19th Middlesex
Natalie M. Higgins 4th Worcester
James J. O’Day 14th Worcester
Joanne M. Comerford Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester
Louis L. Kafka 8th Norfolk
Tommy Vitolo 15th Norfolk
Tram T. Nguyen 18th Essex
Carole A. Fiola 6th Bristol
Mike Connolly 26th Middlesex
Adrian C. Madaro 1st Suffolk
Thomas M. Stanley 9th Middlesex
James B. Eldridge Middlesex and Worcester
Anne M. Gobi Worcester, Hampden, Hampshire and Middlesex
Kevin G. Honan 17th Suffolk
Patrick Joseph Kearney 4th Plymouth
Daniel J. Hunt 13th Suffolk
Bruce E. Tarr First Essex and Middlesex
Kate Hogan 3rd Middlesex
Marjorie C. Decker 25th Middlesex
Michael J. Rodrigues First Bristol and Plymouth
Edward F. Coppinger 10th Suffolk
Bud L. Williams 11th Hampden
Bruce J. Ayers 1st Norfolk
Elizabeth A. Malia 11th Suffolk
John J. Mahoney 13th Worcester
Paul McMurtry 11th Norfolk
John J. Lawn, Jr. 10th Middlesex
David M. Rogers 24th Middlesex
Danielle W. Gregoire 4th Middlesex
Todd M. Smola 1st Hampden
John C. Velis 4th Hampden
Tami L. Gouveia 14th Middlesex
Jay D. Livingstone 8th Suffolk
Lori A. Ehrlich 8th Essex
Sal N. DiDomenico Middlesex and Suffolk
RoseLee Vincent 16th Suffolk
Tackey Chan 2nd Norfolk
Daniel R. Carey 2nd Hampshire
Alan Silvia 7th Bristol
David Henry Argosky LeBoeuf 17th Worcester
Paul W. Mark 2nd Berkshire
Russell E. Holmes 6th Suffolk
Jonathan D. Zlotnik 2nd Worcester
Antonio F. D. Cabral 13th Bristol
Andres X. Vargas 3rd Essex
Christina A. Minicucci 14th Essex
Ann-Margaret Ferrante 5th Essex
Michael O. Moore Second Worcester
Sean Garballey 23rd Middlesex
Jonathan Hecht 29th Middlesex
James M. Kelcourse 1st Essex
Mathew J. Muratore 1st Plymouth
Liz Miranda 5th Suffolk
Jerald A. Parisella 6th Essex
Elizabeth A. Poirier 14th Bristol
Donald F. Humason, Jr. Second Hampden and Hampshire
Joseph A. Boncore First Suffolk and Middlesex
Julian Cyr Cape and Islands
Michael F. Rush Norfolk and Suffolk
Susannah M. Whipps 2nd Franklin
Jon Santiago 9th Suffolk
Carlos González 10th Hampden
Brian M. Ashe 2nd Hampden
Paul F. Tucker 7th Essex
James Arciero 2nd Middlesex
Stephan Hay 3rd Worcester
Daniel R. Cullinane 12th Suffolk
David T. Vieira 3rd Barnstable
Jeffrey N. Roy 10th Norfolk
Chynah Tyler 7th Suffolk
Michelle L. Ciccolo 15th Middlesex
Kay Khan 11th Middlesex
James K. Hawkins 2nd Bristol
Mindy Domb 3rd Hampshire
Natalie M. Blais 1st Franklin
%d bloggers like this: