Ten popular MTW posts from 2019

Dear Readers, I’ve collected ten of the most popular MTW posts written during 2019. If you missed them before, I hope they will prove interesting and enlightening to you this time around. Here goes:

Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival and gave him a toe tag (link here) — When Charlie Bowlby faced heart surgery, his co-workers placed bets on the likelihood that he would survive and gave him a mock toe tag before he went off to the hospital.

Speaking truth to power: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing (link here) — Bullying and mobbing are forms of abuse, not bad manners, and we should treat them accordingly.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (link here) — Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s conceptualization of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — applies to many workplace bullying and mobbing situations.

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down? (link here) — One study suggests a link between kissing up to one’s superiors and picking down one’s subordinates.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige (link here) — The burgeoning college admissions scandal has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no) (link here) — A workplace aggressor should not be given a free pass simply because they happen to be creative.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here) — I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I repeatedly recommend to others.

A short speech in Rome (link here) — The text of my acceptance speech after receiving the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, at the International Congress for Law and Mental Health.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying (link here) — Discussing two feature articles, one a piece on a former corrections officer who faced savage bullying and sexual harassment, the other a piece on bullying of resident physicians.

On following evil orders at work (link here) — What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker?

Recovering from workplace bullying and other traumatic experiences: “Can’t” or “won’t”?

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

When it comes to folks who are dealing with severe workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, or other forms of targeted interpersonal mistreatment, we sometimes see people who seem to be stuck in a place of rumination and obsession:

He just won’t move forward. I think he prefers to suffer and be a victim.

She just can’t move forward. She’s suffering and feels very victimized.

On the surface, these two characterizations may not sound all that different. But dig even a little deeper, and the contrasts illuminate.

“Won’t” suggests that a traumatized individual has affirmatively chosen, for the time being, to stay in this bad place and not move forward. True, on a more hopeful note, it also assumes a power and ability to choose to get better. That said, there’s a judgmental ring to “won’t” as well, sounding a bit like victim blaming for a present “refusal” to proceed with recovery and healing.

“Can’t” suggests factors, internal and external, that limit a traumatized individual’s ability to recover, heal, and move forward. It implicitly suggests medical and external reasons for why someone is stuck in place. But it also connotes, at least in this context, that maybe someone is stuck there for the long haul.

I admit that in moments of frustration, I sometimes have used “won’t.” But in the process of learning more about psychological trauma, I now understand that “can’t” is the more appropriate term. Trauma is bear of a thing to wrestle with, and oftentimes those who are dealing with PTSD, depression, and related conditions due to abuse can easily get stuck in place.

However, if we are going to use the more appropriate “can’t,” then we should add an important addendum: …at least for now. You see, the good news is that a lot of progress is being made when it comes to understanding and treating trauma.

In connection with a new course I’m teaching called the Law and Psychology Lab (described here), I’ve returned to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking, accessible book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). In re-reading its chapters, I’m once again reminded of the complexities of trauma and the emergence of multiple treatment modalities for helping those who are experiencing it.

In essence, currently various trauma treatment approaches await those who are ready to seek and participate in them. Furthermore, I sense that we are still in the early stages of developing effective treatments. Thus, there is real hope for recovery and healing right now, and additional hope for even better treatments down the road.

Highly recommended

On forgiving yourself for dropping the ball

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Have you ever dropped the ball on a work-related project? I have, and it feels awful, even when I’ve had an understandable reason — usually related to being overcommitted and swamped. At times, the workload has been self-inflicted, the product of taking on too much or not being able to say no.

Typically, dropping the ball means that we’ve let others down by failing to do our piece of a project or delivering an inferior work contribution, due to lack of sufficient time or attention. Folks who have a tendency to overcommit or who may not be the best self-managers can be especially susceptible to dropping the ball. This includes people who have a strong sense of responsibility.

So what should we do when we drop the ball? I’ve given this some thought and come up with the following advice, while fully confessing that I haven’t necessarily practiced these points to perfection:

  • If you’re mortified and/or feeling guilty about dropping the ball, that’s good. It shows you have a conscience. Not everyone has that capacity.
  • In many instances, a sincere, honest apology is appropriate. It shows respect for the folks you’re working with or for, and it may well make you feel better and relieved.
  • If there are significant negative consequences — including practical, legal, or contractual ones — then owning up to the situation promptly is the best thing. It also may be possible to fix the situation.
  • Reflect upon how it happened and how to avoid similar problems in the future.

Above all, forgive yourself. Hold yourself responsible for your miscue and try to do better, but don’t let it be the bane of your existence.

Similarly, if someone drops the ball on you, try to be forgiving, especially if they apologize and explain what happened. After all, they probably feel bad and embarrassed on their end.

Of course, if you or someone else is dropping the ball all the time, then there’s probably a deeper or more systemic problem.

Ultimately, being responsible is a good thing, and so is cutting some slack for ourselves and others now and then.

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

In her excellent book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro), Dr. Robin Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

From this apt definition, we can tease out two major elements of gaslighting:

First, it is intentional and targeted toward a specific individual or group. It is not accidental or inadvertent. (After all, I cannot imagine a sincere apology along the lines of oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to gaslight you.)

Second, it is emotionally manipulative, designed to disorient and even frighten those on the receiving end. It’s about messing with someone’s perceptions of reality.

In short, gaslighting is a tool for taking, preserving, or abusing power. At work, it may be a component of workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, anti-union campaigns, or seemingly bizarre management pronouncements. I am glad that we have a term that captures such targeted, disorienting behaviors.

That said, there’s always the risk that the term can be overused.

In earlier posts, I predicted that now that gaslighting is becoming a more mainstream entry in our vocabulary of interpersonal abuse, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors at times. I believe this is now coming true. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed gaslighting being invoked in situations where the apparent factual circumstances did not justify its use.

Borrowing from an earlier post, gaslighting is sometimes confused with:

  • an honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • an argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • someone being obstinate or stubborn;
  • erroneous, even confusing, directives and instructions;
  • one side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “white lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • instances of incivility; or,
  • an incoherent explanation.

Indeed, I recently found myself characterizing a description of someone’s behavior as gaslighting, until I had to acknowledge that their actions didn’t reach that level. I believe that using the term gaslighting has become a, well, cool way of demonstrating that we’re in the know about the lingo of emotional manipulation. It then can be used as a sharp, negative, blanket label to characterize someone else’s objectionable statements or actions, even when they don’t quite fit the definition.

Especially in situations where negative emotions escalate, it can be tempting to slap a tag of gaslighting on communications (in person, on paper, or online) that become heated. However, if we are to save the use of this term for the specific, nasty tool of mistreatment that it is, then we should not hurl it across the room, so to speak, whenever angry disagreements occur. Unfortunately, there is enough real gaslighting going on to ensure many opportunities for its continued proper use.

Let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses

 

For those of us who are committed to making human dignity a framing characteristic of modern society, let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed an unsurprising but nonetheless troubling trend about traffic to this blog. On balance, pieces that discuss the hurt, pain, and injustice of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get higher readership stats than those that discuss systemic solutions, law reform, and possible paths toward individual healing & recovery.

This appears to be a twist on internet clickbait patterns generally, whereby online readers are drawn to negative topics that validate and fuel outrage. Let’s face it: Sometimes we’re more likely to curse the darkness than to light a candle. Especially if you’ve been a target of workplace abuse, it’s perfectly natural to react in such a manner.

But lighting that candle towards effective solutions and responses must be our primary objective. And therein lies the hard work before us. In terms of what that means, I can speak only for myself.

Of course, I remain steadfastly committed to enacting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. As I wrote earlier this year (link here), we’re on a gradual but inevitable march toward enacting workplace anti-bullying laws in the U.S. It’s taking a long time to do this, particularly in the face of corporate opposition, but we are making genuine progress.

Overall, I’ll be continuing work on several fronts that encourages our legal systems, places of employment, and other political and civic institutions to embrace human dignity as a primary framing value. I will be emphasizing this theme as part of my service on three non-profit boards, in particular: The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, and Americans for Democratic Education Fund.

I’m also excited about a new course I’m offering at my law school during the coming semester. It’s called the Law and Psychology Lab, and it will incorporate heavy doses of therapeutic jurisprudence, encouraging law students to examine how laws can support psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions. In addition to developing projects on topics of individual interest, the students will work on a larger, co-created group project with a specific theme, which for this initial offering will be bullying, abuse, and trauma along the lifespan. We will be making some of the results of our work publicly available.

Here’s to a 2020 full of positive change. Let’s all be a part of it.

France Télécom bullying verdict: Guilty, with bosses sent to prison

In a closely-watched legal case about a horrific campaign of workplace bullying and abuse linked to several dozen suicides by workers approximately a decade ago, executives of France Télécom have been convicted and sentenced to short prison terms for violating France’s moral harassment code. Angelique Chrisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom have been given prison sentences and fines after being found guilty of “institutional harassment” and creating a culture of routine workplace bullying that sparked a number of suicides at the company.

The landmark ruling is likely to send shockwaves through the French business world. It is the first time managers have been held criminally responsible for implementing a general strategy of bullying even if they had not dealt directly with the staff involved.

France’s moral harassment code allows for both civil (damages to claimant) and criminal (potential prison terms) claims associated with bullying, mobbing, and harassment. The criminal provisions are rarely used, but the allegations behind the France Télécom case were supported by considerable evidence.

As further reported by the Guardian‘s Chrisafis:

The court heard harrowing accounts of what one employee had called a terrifying management strategy to destabilise workers. Families described systematic psychological abuse against staff as bosses focused ruthlessly on cost-cutting and job cuts.

Between 2008 and 2009, 35 employees killed themselves. The company had been privatised and was undertaking a restructuring plan during which bosses set out to cut more than a fifth of the workforce – more than 22,000 jobs.

The investigation focused on the cases of 39 employees, 19 of whom killed themselves, 12 who attempted to, and eight who suffered from acute depression or were signed off sick as a result of the pressure.

At least one of the defendants has indicated that an appeal will be filed, so the legal proceedings in this case are probably far from over.

Relevance to the U.S.

As I wrote earlier this year about this case, American readers may be asking, if France Télécom wanted to reduce their workforce, then why didn’t they simply do a mass layoff? In France, employees have much stronger protections against termination compared to those in the United States, where most workers are subject to the rule of at-will employment, which allows employers to discharge them without cause. In a somewhat sick irony, the stronger French worker protections likely led France Télécom bosses to opt for a campaign of virulent bullying and abuse to prompt workers to leave “voluntarily.”

In the U.S., in most instances it would be unnecessary for an employer to use bullying to reduce a workforce by attrition, because it could announce a layoff for reasons of finances or restructuring and that would be that. Of course, we also know that this considerable power to hire and terminate hasn’t prevented bullying and mobbing from occurring in American workplaces — buttressed by the reality that it is often a legally enabled form of abuse.

Fallout

It’s too early to gauge the long-term impact of this court decision. This is a trial court ruling, subject to appeal, so it may be some time before this proceeding becomes final.

Nonetheless, we can hope that news coverage of this trial and verdict will buoy efforts to enact workplace anti-bullying laws around the world. This includes the Healthy Workplace Bill here in America, which continues to face strong corporate and employer opposition.

The fact that corporate executives have been found guilty and sentenced to prison for engaging in severe bullying and abuse will no doubt be satisfying to so many people who have experienced this form of targeted mistreatment. However, this case also illustrates how the wheels of justice can grind very slowly with only modest results. The events in question took place over a decade ago. The three convicted executives received one-year prison sentences, with eight months suspended, plus relatively small fines. That’s a small price to pay for abuse associated with many deaths and ruined lives.

Furthermore, it took dozens of completed and attempted suicides to call attention to what happened within this company. In the meantime, workplace bullying and mobbing continues to go unchecked in countless numbers of workplaces. Even if, thank goodness, the abusive behavior does not always translate into suicidal ideation, it leaves in its trail considerable trauma and severely damaged livelihoods and careers.

Regardless, I’ll take this development as a firm step in the right direction. Bullied France Télécom workers and their families received some semblance of justice by this verdict. Furthermore, it is bringing worldwide attention to the role of the law in preventing and responding to targeted work abuse. 

A workshop as annual ritual

The annual group shot, here honoring a request to ham it up a bit. (Photo: Anna Strout)

For over a decade, the annual December workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS) has become an increasingly significant event in my life. HDHS is a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, artists, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing humiliation in our society. The two-day workshop occurs each year at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City, attracting dozens of people from across the country and around the world. I have written about this workshop regularly on this blog, and for good reason: It is one of the most welcomed gatherings of the year for me.

Last week, the workshop beckoned again, and I hopped on an Amtrak train from Boston to New York. My participation would begin with a Wednesday board of directors meeting. In recent years, I have become more deeply involved with HDHS. Service on the board is now one manifestation of that closer engagement. The board meeting also serves as a nice lead-in to the workshop.

In a marvelous little book titled Rituals For Beginners (2016), author Richard Webster defines a ritual as “an action, or series of actions, performed in a prearranged, prescribed manner.” He adds that rituals help us to appreciate life. Most of them “involve an element of gratitude” for experiences that we might otherwise take for granted. 

Well, last Thursday morning, as I exited the subway stop at Columbia’s campus and walked up Broadway toward Teachers College for a Day 1 of the workshop, I had an epiphany: This is no longer “just” an annual event for me. Rather, it has become a meaningful ritual, a renewing, educational, and connective experience with friends old and new. While each year’s workshop provides plenty of variety, its essential format and timing provide a reassuring continuity, in the company of a pretty amazing group of people.

Here’s a brief rundown of my experience of the workshop:

Approaching the halls of Columbia University Teachers College (photo: DY)

With a breakfast sandwich and coffee from a nearby food truck in hand, I walk over to venerable Teachers College, whose International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution graciously hosts this gathering. Founded in 1887, Teachers College was the nation’s first full-fledged graduate school of education. It has since branched out into offerings on health, psychology, and conflict resolution. Its buildings aren’t shiny new digs, but rather older, unpretentious structures that speak of tradition and history. Those surroundings add to the ritual element of the experience.

Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner open the workshop (photo: Anna Strout)

Our workshop opens with a warm welcome from two individuals who are at the center of HDHS, Linda Hartling (director) and Evelin Lindner (founder and president). Evelin is a social scientist and writer, trained in both medicine and psychology. She travels the world doing workshops, giving lectures, and supporting the work of other change agents. Linda is a clinical psychologist and authority on relational-cultural theory. I frequently cite her brilliant paper, co-authored with Elizabeth Sparks (link here), describing organizational cultures in a relational context.

A pre-planned dignilogue in action (photo: Anna Strout)

The closest things we have to formal panel discussions are “pre-planned dignilogues,” which allow speakers to briskly (as in seven minutes each!) describe a project, publication, or initiative they’re working on, followed by Q&A. Pictured above, criminal justice professor Tony Gaskew (U. of Pittsburgh) is describing his “Life Support” project for individuals in Pennsylvania who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles.

I used my dignilogue talk to describe a new course that I’ll be teaching at Suffolk University Law School next semester, a “Law and Psychology Lab” that offers students opportunities to do practical projects applying psychological insights to law and public policy. 

A co-created dignilogue on improvisation and movement (photo: DY)

Our workshop also features “co-created dignilogues,” i.e., extended group discussions and presentations on topics developed each day by workshop participants. In the photo above, Beth Boynton, a nurse and medical improv instructor, is helping to facilitate a co-created dignilogue performance on improvisation and movement.

The gift of music from students at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn (photo: Anna Strout)

One of our Thursday evening traditions has been a musical performance by students from P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, led by their devoted music director, Fred Ellis, who happens to be a notable singer, musician, and song writer in his own right. Here are the kids doing one of their numbers, with Fred on the guitar.

Reporting on the HDHS conference in Brazil (photo: Anna Strout)

In addition to organizing the annual NYC workshop, every year HDHS holds a conference outside of the United States, typically in a country facing compelling social and political issues. This year’s conference was in Brazil, and it turned into something of a roving caravan in the Amazon. In the photo above, Gabriela Saab, a human rights and international law scholar and the newest member of the HDHS board, is sharing stories of her Amazon experience. (Go here for more.)

Michael Britton presents the annual Donald Klein lecture (photo: Anna Strout)

Psychologist Michael Britton is the presenter of the annual Donald Klein Memorial Lecture. Each year, Michael delivers a masterful, wise, and deeply humane talk about the state of the world, using an integrated perspective. This year, he focused on global warming and climate change and our roles in responding to it. It was the most cogent, holistic assessment of the topic that I’ve heard yet. (To watch the 43-minute lecture, go here. It will be time well spent.)

Claudia Cohen accepting her HDHS award (photo: DY)

Every year, HDHS presents a member of this community with its lifetime achievement award. This year’s deserving awardee was Claudia Cohen, a longtime HDHS workshop contributor. Claudia recently retired from a distinguished career at Teachers College, where she focused on organizational cultures and conflict resolution, and she is now doing anti-racism work in her home state of New Jersey.

Special guest Bill Baird (photo: Anna Strout)

On occasion, we are blessed with cameo appearances by noteworthy people. This year’s surprise guest was Bill Baird, often touted as the father of the reproductive rights movement. His pioneering advocacy work includes three victories before the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s pictured above with Evelin Lindner.

Good friends reconnecting (photo: DY)

The workshop serves as a reunion for old friends and an opportunity to make new friends for everyone. Pictured above, Linda Hartling and Bhante Chipamong Chowdhury, a Buddhist activist/monk and HDHS board member, share a moment. These impromptu conversations occur throughout the workshop and fuel both fellowship and future collaborations. 

I am grateful for the many treasured connections I have made through this workshop over the years. For those who are regular participants, these ties build and strengthen. We may also keep in touch through emails, social media, and occasional face-to-face get togethers during the rest of the year, but it’s this December workshop that brings us together in the most meaningful way. 

Our closing circle, with some singing to conclude our time together (photo: Anna Strout)

In recent years, we’ve been closing the workshop with music as well. Above, I’m helping to lead our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” which has become something of a tradition. Infusing the workshop with more music and singing helps to counterbalance the difficult subjects that are often the focus of our discussions.

In both direct and indirect ways, the HDHS workshop supports the work I do on workplace bullying and mobbing. Overall, the event reaffirms the critical importance of advancing human dignity in our society. It is deeply instructive and inspiring to hear others talk about their work in addressing abuse, mistreatment, and injustice in so many other settings. In addition, I have frequently discussed my workplace anti-bullying initiatives and found that topic to be very well received. It is validating to me that folks who are doing such important work in their own realms understand the significance of workplace abuse. On occasion, I’m able to share more of my work with fellow participants who are experiencing difficult work situations in their own lives.

Even I can be a work of art! (photo: Anna Strout)

And if you’ll excuse a personal indulgence, we’re now adding some art to the mix as well! Anna Strout, our devoted photographer and a gifted educator, activist, and artist, masterminded a project of trace drawings from photographs she took during the workshop. Here I am posing with her drawing of me!

So, this is a snapshot of what this workshop has come to mean for me. Such is the good power of this gathering that each year, I return to Boston reinvigorated for the work that I get to do. Rituals delivering that kind of energetic renewal are very special indeed. 

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Want to learn more? You may go here for a closer look at our 2019 workshop agenda. You also may go here to access videos of workshop events.

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