Sheila Keegan’s “The Psychology of Fear in Organizations”

I’ve been spending some time with The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) by Dr. Sheila M. Keegan, a British consultant and psychologist, and it’s a keeper. It doesn’t sugar coat the difficult realities of working conditions in so many organizations, yet it also looks ahead at what we can do to change them.

Dr. Keegan has done her homework for this book. Those who are attentive to high levels of fear and anxiety in many modern workplaces will find plenty of research and analysis that validates their concerns.

For those specifically interested in workplace bullying, there’s a subchapter that covers the basics, including references to work done by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The deeper value of this volume is how it places bullying and other negative behaviors in an organizational context.

Indeed, I consider the book title itself to be a triumph of messaging, expressly linking fear at work to organizations. After all, rare is the lone wolf supervisor or co-worker who makes everyone’s work life a misery, amidst an otherwise happy, functional workplace. Organizational cultures typically enable practices and behaviors that fuel fear, anxiety, and foreboding at work.

As far as responses and solutions go, Dr. Keegan’s prescriptions are more easily implemented in new organizations than in those with entrenched, negative cultures, but that reality can hardly be blamed on her. She helpfully identifies myriad ways in which leaders can transform their institutions. And rather than trying to sell us on an I’ve-got-the-magic-answer formula endemic to too many consultants, she offers choices based on an impressive range of research.

This is a valuable book that brings together a lot of information and insight, and it will be useful to researchers, educators, and evidence-based practitioners alike. I’ll be returning to it often.


From the table of contents of The Psychology of Fear in Organizations, I’ve listed the major chapter headings below. The book’s Kogan-Page webpage has more of the details:

PART ONE The nature of fear and how it shapes organizations

The paradox of fear

The cultural backdrop of fear

Perspectives on fear

Cultures of fear within organizations

Feeling fear at work

Over-control and manipulation in the workplace

Organizations in crisis

PART TWO How we can harness fear to improve productivity and organizational health through promoting human values

Being human

Creating psychologically healthy workplaces

Leadership and appreciative inquiry

Developing resilience

Building trust within organizations

The power of language

Building a culture of innovation

What about the future?


The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents


I’m looking forward to reading into a new book by MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015). Ethan Gilsdorf, writing for the Boston Globe, gives us a preview:

The crisis of conversation is at the heart of Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” With it, she hopes to spark a discussion about what we lose when we settle for fleeting texts, sound bites, and status updates, instead of pursuing meaningful, nuanced human connection.

. . . A sociologist and clinical psychologist, Turkle has studied the link between conversation and empathy, and how conversation supports self-reflection. In her new book, out Tuesday, she argues that our reliance on our devices endangers our ability to cultivate friendships, raise healthy kids, nurture intimate relationships, succeed on the job, and engage in civic discourse. “Fortunately, there was a flood of quantitative studies that supported what I was saying.”

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, writer Jonathan Franzen opines that it “makes a compelling case that children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.”

Creating communities for positive social change: Face-to-face helps, a lot

The themes raised by Turkle resonate with me very strongly, including their application to social change initiatives.

I recently hosted a small workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. Some 15 North American law professors, lawyers, and judges gathered for two days of close dialogue on how we can mainstream a legal framework that supports psychological health and well-being.

The event was successful both as an experience and as a seed planter. We enjoyed our discussions immensely, and people felt energized by the event. A good number came away with new ideas and leads for their work. Others are planning to host similar, small-scale events. The workshop also helped us to do some spadework that eventually will give the therapeutic jurisprudence movement a stronger sense of organization and public identity.

I must admit I was a dictator on one point: I put the event in a room that was not set up for PowerPoint. Instead, I wanted us to be looking at one another as we talked, rather than gazing at a screen. While this no doubt cramped the presentation styles of some of my dear colleagues who graciously adapted to my neo-Luddhite approach, I think the format achieved its purpose of enhancing the quality of our discussions.

Face-to-face interaction, a/k/a getting to know people in person, makes a difference. I have witnessed and benefited from this dynamic over and again at workshops, seminars, and conferences that enable people to have real conversations. And now these observations are buttressed by research cited by Turkle.

A hybrid approach for the 21st century

That said, in no way do I wish to dismiss the value of other communications options, including digital technology. Use of electronic media can enhance and strengthen connections made at conferences and programs. Conversations over the phone and via Skype/Facetime/video conferencing platforms can be enriching and interactive. E-mail, messaging, and social media sites offer great ways to stay in touch and to engage in dialogue and collaborative activities. And I’ve seen terrific, substantive, meaningful conversations and exchanges take place on Facebook.

In looking at this big picture, it boils down to embracing face-to-face dialogue as the gold standard, but understanding that other forms of communication are extremely valuable too. Such combinations can be especially useful when people are separated by distance, a common occurrence in the world of work today.


Related posts and sources

  • The American Psychological Association’s Psychology Benefits Society online newsletter reposted my article, “Conferences as Community Builders,” building off of the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference in held earlier this year in Atlanta.
  • Last year I wrote an essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful” (Suffolk University Law Review Online), an outgrowth of a 2014 therapeutic jurisprudence program in Boston, making a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and intellectual exchange, while moving at a slower, more contemplative pace.
  • Two years ago, I wrote a piece, “Why conferences?,” following the 2013 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Los Angeles.

Workplace bullying strategies and tactics: An updated round-up

Two years ago, I did a quick little round-up of common strategies and tactics employed by workplace aggressors, as discussed in various articles here. It’s time for an updated version. I’ve included short snippets for each; please click on the topics to read the original posts.

Blackballing (2015)

“Blackballing is a prime form of eliminationist behavior. It also is awfully hard to detect and trace, because it typically occurs under the cloak of confidentiality and private communications.”

Button pushing (2014)

“Workplace aggressors are often experts at button pushing. They know how to get a rise out of someone, and if it causes the target to say or do something that gives the aggressors even more of an upper hand, then all the better.”

Gossip (2014)

“If gossip is for the purpose of maliciously trashing someone’s reputation and pushing them out of the workplace, then the situation may be part of a bullying or mobbing campaign.”

Superficial civility enabling bullying (2014)

“But at times, the organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work.”

Bullies claiming victim status (2013)

“We’ve seen it countless times: Workplace bullies claiming to be the victims of workplace bullying.”

Splitting (2013)

“Eddy describes splitting in work settings as a personal and hostile process that promotes extreme, all-or-nothing positions and ‘often involves projection,’ i.e., tagging “’others as being divisive and inappropriate in the ways that they are actually being divisive and inappropriate themselves.'”

Gaslighting (2012)

“Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.”

“Puppet master” bullying vs. mobbing (2012)

“Let’s start with what I call puppet master bullying. In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob.”

Workplace cyber-bullying (2012)

“A new study of British university employees concludes that targets of workplace cyberbullying often fare worse than those who experience traditional bullying.

Making targets disappear (2011)

“Bad organizations choose to ‘forget’ less flattering events of their institutional history, especially those that conflict with their self-generated mythologies. Sometimes that process requires them to create new unpersons out of individuals associated with those events.”

People, let’s avoid Peeple like the plague

Screenshot of Peeple website

Screenshot of Peeple website

In this era of online trolling, bash-filled comments sections, cyberbullying, and the like, the last thing we need is a new social media app that invites us to rate and evaluate, well, practically anyone and everyone.

But the creators of Peeple don’t see it that way. Using the creepy (in this context) tagline, “character is destiny,” they are launching a social media site that will allow individuals to rate their friends, co-workers, dates (current or former), family members, and acquaintances. Here’s a snippet from their online description.

Peeple is an app that allows you to rate and comment about the people you interact with in your daily lives on the following three categories: personal, professional, and dating.

Peeple will enhance your online reputation for access to better quality networks, top job opportunities, and promote more informed decision making about people.

Authentic and relevant information about you and others you interact with is paramount to our vision for this app. Users will require a Facebook account to access the application, to verify and validate the minimum age requirement. To prevent multiple and fake profiles users will also need to validate that they are a real person with their cell phone number which will then text them a pin to login with.

I wanted to write about Peeple earlier this week, when I first spied news articles about it and started hearing from others asking my opinion. But I had to resist the pull to launch into an immediate diatribe; waiting a few days was the blogging equivalent of counting to ten instead of replying immediately to something outrageous.

Thankfully, in an excellent columnWashington Post digital culture critic Caitlin Dewey has already written much of what should be said about this new launch:

When the app does launch, probably in late November, you will be able to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to everyone you know . . . . You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose.

. . . It’s inherently invasive, even when complimentary. . . . One does not have to stretch far to imagine the distress and anxiety that such a system would cause even a slightly self-conscious person; it’s not merely the anxiety of being harassed or maligned on the platform — but of being watched and judged, at all times, by an objectifying gaze to which you did not consent.

Nevertheless, if you scroll through the Peeple website and read Dewey’s full column, you’ll see that Peeple’s co-founders, “Nicole” and “Julia,” think of themselves as pioneering, empathetic entrepreneurs who simply want to make us better human beings. In fact, they even claim to be supporters of the anti-bullying movement:

Our mission is to find the good in you. Peeple has shown active support to the anti-bullying movement by providing users the ability to report other users. Negative comments don’t go live on the app for 48 hours; they simply go into the inbox of the person who got the negative review and then are given a chance to work it out with the person who wrote the review. If you can’t work it out with the person you can publicly defend yourself by commenting on the negative review.

Peeple has already stirred up a hornets’ nest of criticism, and for good reason. This is pretty sick stuff. The sunny worldview presented by the app’s early marketing borders on the delusional. I normally don’t like to use such strongly condemning language here, but this is a terrible idea.


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Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct

(Image courtesy of

(Image courtesy of

For some workplace aggressors, bullying someone out of a job isn’t enough. In addition, they must find ways to continue the torment even after a target has left the aggressor’s place of employment. Especially if the aggressor is the target’s former supervisor, these behaviors may include ongoing efforts to sabotage the target’s attempts to obtain new employment. Common examples are innuendo-filled whisper campaigns spread through a professional or vocational network and maliciously negative references presented as “opinion” rather than “fact” in order to preempt defamation claims.

The aggressor’s goal? To blackball (others might say blacklist) the target out of a career and to undermine his or her ability to earn a livelihood.

Last spring I wrote about how the “eliminationist instinct” may manifest itself in our workplaces:

We typically hear the term “eliminationist” in association with massacres and genocides. The eliminationist instinct captures a facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented or brutally excised. When this form of dehumanization surfaces on a mass scale, it fuels some the worst outrages in human history.

In addition, manifestations of the eliminationist instinct are hardly limited to large-scale horrors. They may appear in the workplace as well. True, the perpetrators are not mass killers, but their actions embody an easy ability to dehumanize others. Lacking empathy for their targets, they ply their trade with words and bureaucratic actions, rather than with weapons or instruments of physical torture.

Blackballing is a prime form of eliminationist behavior. It also is awfully hard to detect and trace, because it typically occurs under the cloak of confidentiality and private communications. Bullying targets often put the pieces together when they encounter odd but consistent difficulties in their job searches, such as hiring processes that went very well until — they surmise — the prospective employer started to contact people not on their reference list. Blackballing also may be at play when applications for jobs where the target is very qualified are repeatedly met with radio silence.

If the bullying supervisor is well known in the particular profession or trade, it makes things ever more difficult. The same superficial charm and facile ability to lie that allows the aggressor to thrive inside the workplace may have managed to fool those in the aggressor’s external network, too.

There are no easy tactics for dealing with this. Negotiating a positive reference as part of one’s exit strategy may be an option, but even if successful, it doesn’t guarantee that the aggressor won’t find a way around such an agreement. Oftentimes, overcoming malicious blackballing is a product of perseverance and certain pieces falling together in the right way.


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A book list for intellectual activists and difference makers

In my forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), I include an annotated bibliography of some 40 books that provide insights and guidance on intellectual activism, which I define “as both a philosophy and a methodology for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation.”

Here are 10 representative listings from that bibliography. You may freely download a draft of the article, which contains the full bibliography, here.


Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, and Steve Max, Organizing for Social Change: Midwest Academy Manual for Activists 4th ed. (2010). Manual for grassroots activists by leading trainers and educators associated with the Midwest Academy, which has trained thousands of activists since its creation in 1973.

Community and the World: Participating in Social Change (Torry D. Dickinson, ed., 2003). This valuable and welcomed collection of articles covers many topics related to community-based learning, adult education, and scholarly activism, featuring a multicultural and global orientation. A diverse array of educators, learners, and social change agents contributed to it.

John-Paul Flintoff, How to Change the World (2012). Provides a trenchant historical and practical overview on the different ways to make an impact on society.

Howard Gardner, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds (2004). The renowned psychologist examines how people change their minds on matters ranging from everyday choices to major social and political issues.

Robert Jensen, We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013). A journalism professor, Jensen urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic” in helping us to understand and confront the economic and social challenges of our era.

Kathleen A. Kendall-Tackett, How to Write for a General Audience: A Guide for Academics Who Want to Share Their Knowledge With the World and Have Fun Doing It (2007). Helpful, encouraging guidebook for those who want to translate their research for more general audiences via articles, books, and social media.

George Lakoff, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (2006). Linguistics professor Lakoff applies his expertise to political communication, suggesting ways in which progressives can more effectively persuade the public.

Michelle E. Martin, Advocacy for Social Justice: A Global Perspective (2015). Interesting takes on social justice advocacy, framed by human services and social work perspectives.

The Public Intellectual (Helen Small, ed., 2002). Sampling of perspectives on the role of public intellectuals in society. The late Edward Said’s essay, “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals,” is particularly recommended.

Telling Stories to Change the World (Rickie Sollinger, Madeline Fox & Kayhan Irani, eds. 2008). Stimulating collection of essays about storytelling as a strategy for social justice advocacy on a global scale.

Let’s make character a primary criterion for selecting leaders

Think about it: What if individual character was a primary criterion for selecting our leaders in business, the public sector, and the non-profits? How would that improve our organizations, our society, and our quality of work life?

On Friday and Saturday, I hosted a workshop for a group of lawyers and law professors who affiliate themselves with therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. TJ, as we call it, implicitly embraces legal outcomes that support psychological health and well-being. We enjoyed two great days of insightful, spirited, supportive discussions. I’ll be writing more about the overall workshop soon.

As often occurs at TJ-related gatherings, the side conversations with our colleagues plant more seeds of interest. During the wrap-up group dinner at a local Boston eatery, TJ co-founder David Wexler and I were discussing the topic of introverts vs. extroverts, prompted by David’s reading of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). Cain suggests that society’s attraction to extroverted personality traits correlates with our downplay of individual character; the “Culture of Personality” has triumphed over the “Culture of Character.”

The observation rings true for me. All too often, being able to sell one’s self in the room has become a dominant factor in selecting our leaders. Flash, style, and charisma — the “wow” impact — may crowd out other qualities that have deeper and longer-term significance. Character is among those qualities sometimes given the short shrift.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, however, if characteristics such as moral courage, honesty, empathy, and maturity were placed front and center in what we look for in our leaders? Think of what a better place the world would be if we did. Even we find ourselves swimming upstream on this one, when selecting leaders we should look at individual character and urge others to do the same.


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