Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

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As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

In praise of late bloomers

We have a societal obsession with youth and shiny new things. This obsession seems to permeate our popular culture. In terms of work and hiring, organizations always seem to be on the lookout for young, rising stars. We put these early standouts on a pedestal and a fast-track.

But what about folks who might be described as late bloomers? You know, those people who might not make a big splash in their early years, but who get better with age? Journalist Rich Karlgaard puts himself in this category, and he’s written a book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement (2019), that explores the phenomenon of late bloomers and what they have to offer us.

Karlgaard devotes a chapter of his book to “The Six Strengths of Late Bloomers.” They are:

  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Resilience
  • Equanimity (“mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation”)
  • Insight
  • Wisdom

That sounds like a pretty good package of attributes, yes? How many organizational cultures and performances would improve markedly with more of these qualities shaping their workforces?

In an interview/podcast for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (link here), Karlgaard explains a bit more about the reasoning behind his book:

I wish we’d see more of a push, more encouragement for late bloomers. By the way, this idea that we have unfolding gifts over the many decades of our lives is not my speculation. There was a terrific 2015 study led by Laura Germine at Harvard with a colleague at MIT, and they asked the question, at what decade of our lives do our cognitive abilities peak? It’s a really complex and intriguing answer. It depends what kind of cognitive intelligence you’re talking about. There are many of these forms of cognitive intelligence.

Sure enough, rapid synaptic processing speed, working memory, the things that make you a great software programmer or make you a very effective high-frequency trader on Wall Street, those peak in our 20s. But then in our 30s, 40s and 50s, deeper pattern recognition, empathy and compassion, communication skills — all the things you need to grow and be effective as a leader — come into play. Then in our 50s, 60s and 70s, a whole set of attributes that lead to what we might call wisdom come into play.

For readers of this blog who have suffered setbacks in midlife, Late Bloomers may be instructive and inspirational as they consider potential career options and transitions. It just could be that their late bloomer qualities will guide them towards something much more rewarding and fulfilling.

When the workplace causes depression and anxiety

In a recent piece (link here) on coping with depression and anxiety in today’s workplace, Yahoo finance writer Jeanie Ahn acknowledges that organizations themselves can trigger these conditions:

Workers should also recognize that the organization they work for could be dysfunctional: “The more disturbing the workplace, the more vulnerabilities and personal foibles will emerge,” says Dr. Lynn Friedman, a clinical psychologist and executive career counselor based in Washington, D.C.

Just like physical ailments, mental health can worsen from working long hours, lack of sleep, stress, overwhelming workloads, and toxic work environments.“One way to support people to be healthy is to look at areas of dysfunction in the workplace and address them in a direct and straightforward way,” says Friedman.

Of course, this plays right into the topic of workplace bullying and mobbing, which is responsible for causing a host of physical and mental health problems.

Disclosing to an employer

Regardless of whether a mental health situation has been caused or exacerbated by a toxic work environment, the question of disclosing the condition to one’s employer is full of complexities. If a condition rises to the level of a disability, then disability discrimination laws may require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for it. However, there are no guarantees here. Especially if the organizational culture is hostile or dysfunctional, it’s quite possible that disclosure and an accommodation request will yield negative results, including retaliation and/or being pushed out of one’s job.

Adds Yahoo’s Ahn:

“In an ideal world, you should be able to disclose a mental health issue without being discriminated against, but the reality is we don’t live in that perfect world,” says Darcy Gruttardo, director at the Center of Workplace Mental Health.

About half of workers in [a recent American Psychiatric Association survey] expressed concerns about discussing mental health issues at work; a third worried about consequences if they seek help. For those thinking about talking about it at work, Gruttardo recommends talking to your primary care doctor first to get any symptoms under control, before approaching human resources or an employee assistance program (EAP).

Missing from this analysis is the potential role of labor unions. Unionized workers will typically be able to approach their union representative for advice and support. In some cases, additional protections relevant to mental health treatment may be contained in a collective bargaining agreement. Like all types of organizations, some unions are much better than others at serving their members, but at the very least they provide options that other workers don’t enjoy.

As I say often on this blog, there are no easy answers when it comes to handling such matters. Organizations differ markedly in their fairness and integrity, as do individuals within them. At the very least, it’s important that we continue to understand organizational roles in supporting or undermining the mental health of workers. Only then can we consider solutions and responses.

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Workplace bullying: Does adversity nurture compassion?

 

Does experiencing bullying at work or another form of interpersonal mistreatment make us more compassionate towards those who going through similar situations?

Ideally, we’d like to think that experiencing such adversity would build our sense of empathy for others who are dealing with like challenges. However, a 2014 study (link here) by Rachel Ruttan (Northwestern U.), Mary-Hunter McDonnell (U. Penn.), and Loran Nordgren (Northwestern U.) advises us to check those assumptions. Here’s the article abstract:

For those who are struggling with a difficult experience and who seek the support of others, it is a common assumption that others who have been through the experience in the past will be more understanding. To the contrary, the current research found that participants who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment) more harshly evaluated another person’s failure to endure a similar distressing event compared to participants with no experience enduring the event. These effects emerged for three naturally occurring distressing events, as well as one experimentally-induced distressing event. The effect was driven by the tendency for those who previously endured the distressing event to view the event as less difficult to overcome. Taken together, the paper’s findings present a paradox such that, in the face of struggle or defeat, the people we are most apt to seek for advice or comfort may be the least likely to provide it.

Let’s understand that this study is not claiming any absolutes. It suggests that those who have “previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment)” may be less likely to support others who going through similar experiences. It’s not a blanket characterization of all people who have experienced mistreatment.

Personal observations

In fact, I know darn well that people who have experienced bullying and mobbing can be extraordinarily supportive of those who are enduring like abuse at work. The core of the workplace anti-bullying movement has been built on the shoulders of these folks. This includes countless numbers of people who, on a professional or volunteer basis, have helped and are helping targets of workplace mistreatment through counseling, coaching, and informal support.

Of course, as the study suggests, this is not always so. And I have witnessed this, too. For example, years ago, I took part in an extended online conversation in which a self-identified workplace mobbing target dismissed the experiences of self-identified targets of workplace bullying, claiming that her suffering was much greater than theirs. It was not an easy exchange.

In essence, the psychology of abuse is complicated and yields a variety of responses from those who have been subjected to it. Nevertheless, the large cadre of bullying and mobbing targets who have joined together to support each other and to advocate for change embodies our efforts to enhance the dignity of work and workers.

Understanding workplace bullying and mobbing: Creating your own personal learning network

Many people who read and subscribe to this blog do so because they have a specific interest in workplace bullying or mobbing. This includes workers who have been bullying or mobbing targets, as well as practitioners and advocates in various fields who are trying to address these forms of abuse. Over the years, I have been gratified by comments and e-mails from readers who report that they have found these writings helpful in building their understanding.

But obviously a single blog is insufficient to provide a proper grounding in this subject area. Thus, to guide readers who want to learn more, I have shared recommended reading and resource lists, with an eye toward enhancing depth and breadth of understanding. They’ve included (click on title to access):

Recently I also provided some suggestions and resources for peer support groups:

What about a personal learning network?

In addition, for those of you whose interests in workplace bullying and mobbing are more than casual, I would like to suggest the possibility of creating a personal learning network (PLN). As defined and explained in Wikipedia:

A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection.

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Specifically, the learner chooses whom to interact with in these media and how much to participate. Learners have certain goals, needs, interests, motivations and problems that are often presented to the people they include in their PLN. Moreover, the learner will collaborate and connect differently with various members. The learner will establish stronger relationships with some members and have a low level of connection with others. Not all nodes will be equal. Some of the member roles include searcher, assemblator, designer of data, innovator of subject matter, and researcher.

In other words, a PLN involves a pooling and sharing of knowledge and resources. In the context of workplace abuse, it is similar to a peer support group, but its focus is on building knowledge and understanding, rather than dealing directly with personal impacts and consequences. Of course, it’s quite possible to have these functions overlap in a single group, as well.

For those seeking to make these connections, I hope that my new Facebook page (link here), which has attracted some 750 followers since I created it earlier this spring, can help to serve that purpose.

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P.S. A note to subscribers: Oh, the curse of writing on a tablet instead of a real keyboard! Earlier today I inadvertently posted, rather than merely saved, a headline for this planned post, without the content. I apologize for cluttering your inbox!

Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)

For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”;
  2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”;
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”;
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; and,
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.

I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.

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Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):

  1. “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
  2. “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
  3. “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
  4. “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
  5. “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”

Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.

Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.

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Cross-posted with my “Musings of a Gen Joneser” personal blog.

Decades of repeated sexual misconduct complaints finally lead to a resolution at Harvard

Here in Greater Boston, the local news is reporting that Harvard University has stripped retired professor Jorge Dominguez of his emeritus status, following a review of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct towards women at the university spanning decades. From the Harvard Crimson (link here):

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced in an email to FAS affiliates Thursday that she has stripped former Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez of his emeritus status and disinvite him from the FAS campus following the conclusion of a months-long investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under the sanctions Gay imposed, Dominguez will lose the rights and privileges afforded to emeritus faculty members. He will be unable to hold an office on campus, teach and advise students, or receive support from administrative or research assistants.

The Office for Dispute Resolution investigation into Dominguez found that he engaged in “unwelcome sexual conduct” toward several individuals multiple times over a decades-long period, according to Gay.

. . . In a February 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report, at least 10 women publicly accused Dominguez of repeated acts sexual misconduct. A follow-up Chronicle story revealed that Dominguez faced sexual misconduct allegations spanning four decades from 18 women.

“Emeritus” status is a courtesy title commonly given to retired professors who have provided long service to a university. While presumably the university’s actions do not affect his past compensation, they essentially render him persona non grata on the Harvard campus and serve as a very public rebuke of his career.

Four decades?

Okay, so it’s good that Harvard stepped up, did a real investigation, and acted upon its results.

But I think the lede is being buried here: The real story is that it took them four decades — with allegations from 18 women — to engage in real action on this professor.

Why so long?

I’m not privy to the inner workings at Harvard, but I’ve been studying and experiencing academic life for years. It’s safe to say that, on balance, colleges and universities are not the most courageous organizations around, especially if they are led by senior administrators and boards who are primarily focussed on preserving and advancing institutional reputations.

For example, as the horrible revelations of sexual abuse at Michigan State University (Nassar scandal concerning sexual abuse of women gymnasts) and Penn State University (football program and child sex abuse) have documented, academic administrators repeatedly swept concerns under the rug in order to save their schools from public scrutiny and accountability.

Through it all, there’s an ongoing belief system that holds sway, namely, that those who are subjected to abuse and mistreatment count for much less than the reputations of the institution and those who hold privileged positions. It’s about moral and ethical failure.

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