Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries

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Two summers ago, Yes! magazine devoted its cover package to the power of storytelling for purposes of driving positive social change. I’ve thought about that collection of articles often in connection with the challenges of telling stories about workplace bullying, both to educate the public generally and to advocate for passage of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Of course, it’s relatively easy to summarize frequent bullying behaviors, their prevalence, and their destructive effects on individuals and organizations. For example, I start a lot of my talks on workplace bullying with a quick section that covers these basics. I often find a lot of people nodding their heads in recognition of the behaviors I’m describing and how people are affected by them.

Similarly, stories of overt, in-your-face bullying behaviors are pretty easy to summarize. This form of workplace mistreatment is probably the closest thing we have to common schoolyard bullying or verbal domestic abuse. The facts are fairly straightforward and easily comprehended.

But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick and easy summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.

Over the years, many individuals who have experienced more complex forms of bullying at work have shared their extended narratives through long personal statements, social media, and self-published books. The inherent problem is that very few of them translate easily into digestible summaries that maintain the attention spans of legislators, journalists, and the public. I know of many other instances of severe workplace bullying that are hard to comprehend in their entirety without a strong understanding of all the players and institutions.

By their very nature, some stories are complex. They require time and effort to get their significance. In an age resistant to detail and nuance, the challenge of finding receptive audiences for these complicated stories of bullying at work yields no easy answers. This will continue when the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law. The storytelling challenge will then move from the court of public opinion to courts of law. It will be up to legal advocates to help craft these narratives with, and on behalf of, their clients.

Success vs. significance on the job

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Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber, in an excellent blog piece for Next Avenue, recounts a talk he attended featuring Dr. Aravind Srinivasan, a pioneering eye surgeon:

Here’s what Srinivasan said: “There’s a difference between success and significance. Success is what happens to you. Significance is what happens through you. Success is what comes to you. Significance is what you give away to others.”

The good doctor’s observation caused Webber to reflect:

It’s the kind of distinction that, when you hear it, makes you stop and think. You think about the difference between success and significance. And you think about your own life and the culture in which we live.

We live in a culture that worships success. Money is the default setting we use to measure success: The more money you make, the greater your success. The greater your success, the more you are deemed worthy.

We tend to equate wealth and success with intelligence and talent. If you are rich enough, famous enough, successful enough, you are qualified to have important opinions. You’re worth listening to. You may even be qualified to run for President.

Beware of avaricious success seekers

If “success is what comes to you” and “significance is what you give away to others,” then let me say: Beware of grasping, covetous success seekers.  They rationalize raw ambition to the exclusion of so many other qualities and values. They walk over and through other people; the skillful ones do it with smiles on their faces and may be appear, at least from a distance, as charming or even “friendly.” They may manipulate and bully as necessary, especially if someone is in their way. Whether due to insecurity, entitlement, or some combination of both, they believe that the brass ring should be theirs for the grabbing.

I have seen these folks in higher education, as I’m sure you’ve seen them in your vocation. There’s another odd dynamic that I’ve noticed about this type of individual in my business: They have a knack for racking up accolades relatively early in their careers, even when it’s not clear that they’ve accomplished anything of . . . well . . . significance. It’s almost as if they’re getting public brownie points for building their resumes. These honors and recognitions fuel their belief that future kudos are their birthright.

Instead…

Generically speaking, most of us want to be “successful,” however we might regard the term. Indeed, aspirations, goals, hopes, and dreams are all fine. So let’s pursue them with authenticity, guided by an inner ethical voice that says we should strive to make contributions of significance and treat others with a baseline of dignity.

Commencement time: Books worth reading

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Every year around this time, I offer a nod to the commencement season. This year I thought I’d go back to some previous posts to identify books that may be especially meaningful during this time of completion, transition, and starting anew:

Pictured above is a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater. The book examines topics such as authenticity, virtue, vocational identity and selection, living significantly, work-life balance, authority, individual choice, personal stories, and death. It’s a bit too weighted toward American and “Western Civ” authors to be called a multicultural reader, but it gathers an eclectic group of writers nonetheless.

My guess is that more undergraduate seminars have used this book than have adult education classes or reading groups. Nevertheless, I think it’s an excellent choice for those in midlife and beyond who are thinking in big picture terms about their lives.

Allow me to especially recommend one of the selections: Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych (reprinted in full as the Epilogue) is especially powerful and wise.

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Brené Brown‘s Daring Greatly (2012) draws its title and inspiration from a 1910 speech that former President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, titled “The Man in the Arena.” One particular passage from the speech has become rather famous as an inspirational call to living a courageous, engaged life:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Brown’s conceptualization of daring greatly draws us away from the kind of boyish, chest-thumping image that characterized Teddy Roosevelt’s public persona. Rather, she associates vulnerability with daring greatly. According to Brown, only by being vulnerable to setback, rejection, disappointment, and failure can we reach these higher places in our work lives, personal lives, and other endeavors.

Charles D. Hayes is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life are hidden gems. Here’s the opening to his Preface from The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004), my favorite among his wonderful books:

When thoughts of our own mortality begin to crop up with increasing frequency, it’s time to pause and contemplate our legacy. We’re reminded to ask ourselves what of value we intend to leave for posterity. After the tangibles of the estate are settled, what will our successors remember about us? Is there something we can do now that will generate a lasting, positive effect in the lives of our descendants?

Some of the most instructive and inspirational books are written by folks a generation (or two) ahead of us who graciously share their life lessons with their successors. Hayes writes especially for those in the “September” of their lives, but anyone can benefit from his wisdom.

One of the most personally influential books I’ve read is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1956). Frankl was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who lost almost all of his immediate family in the Holocaust. The first part of the book details his concentration camp experiences. The second part explains his theory of logotherapy. Frankl believed that life’s essence is about a search for meaning: “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing a something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Logotherapy is based upon these premises.

In 1991, the New York Times reported that, based on a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Man’s Search For Meaning belongs to a list of “the ten most influential books in [the United States].”

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We usually associate graduation with celebration, and often rightly so, but it also can be a time of significant transition. To understand these processes, looking inward can help us to weigh options. On this note, William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (rev. ed., 2004) may be very useful. Here’s a brief passage:

People who have discounted or blocked out the inner callings from the future have cut themselves off from the very signals that really vital people use to stay on their paths of their own development. It is no wonder that people who have silenced those inner signs find meaningful careers difficult to launch and to maintain, or that when they encounter times of transition, they are so confused and distressed.

Overall, this is a wise and helpful book for those who want to get beyond quick advice and breezy self-help manuals. It’s especially helpful for folks who are transitioning during mid-life and beyond and who are eager to think deeply about how they want to create the rest of their lives. For those completing degree programs later in life, it may carry extra relevance.

Trump: If you’re bullied, get over it

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Donald Trump continues his apparently relentless campaign to prove that he is the most empathy-free presidential candidate in U.S. history. During an interview with Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly, he shares his view that targets of bullying just have to get over it. As reported by the Associated Press:

Months after he savaged her on Twitter and elsewhere, Donald Trump tells Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that people who are bullied “gotta get over it” and fight back.

. . . Trump says he’s a counterpuncher who goes after people when they go after him, only 10 times harder.

Asked if he was ever bullied, the Republican presidential candidate said no. But he said bullying doesn’t just happen to children. “People are bullied when they’re 55,” he said.

For the sake of my own sanity, I have avoided paying too much attention to Trump. However, I have been well aware of him, going back to when I lived in New York City during the “greed is good” decade of the 1980s. It was then that his now familiar displays of narcissism and arrogance became his personal behavioral brand.

Correspondingly, I have yet to see evidence of genuine empathy or kindness in the man.

In a seemingly unprecedented way for a presidential candidate, Trump is attracting the attention of psychologists who are publicly commenting on what makes him tick. In the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic, psychologist Dan P. McAdams (Northwestern U.) probes the Trump psyche and concludes:

Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.

Okay, so the race for President is not necessarily about finding a good and kind soul. I get that. However, let’s think about the stability of someone who justifies punching back “10 times harder” when he feels wronged. Does this mean that a minor act of military aggression against the U.S. would — in his so-called judgment — justify a massive retaliatory strike? What would it take to provoke him into unleashing America’s nuclear arsenal?

We are frighteningly close to being one November election away from finding out the answers.

Are calls for resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming?

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Last December, literary critic and New York Times editor Parul Sehgal questioned the growing chorus of calls for greater resilience and grit on the part of younger folks. In a piece for the Times Sunday magazine, she wrote:

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting.

. . . But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.

Sehgal examines these calls for resilience in the context of younger folks on college campuses, especially when used to counter students’ concerns about racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion. Many critics of these advocacy efforts are suggesting that today’s students are too soft and take offense too easily. Sehgal, however, suggests that “demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.”

This debate is likely to become more intense. Right now, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016) is one of the hottest new non-fiction books. In a recent interview in the Times’ Education Life supplement, she summons her research to argue that grit is the most significant factor in determining someone’s likelihood of success:

My lab has found that [grit] beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.

Duckworth says that once someone identifies an interest or passion, they should then pursue it with determination:

So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are setbacks.

Relationship to workplace bullying and incivility

I’m especially interested in this topic because it carries great relevance for the workplace. One of the most common and misdirected responses to concerns about workplace bullying is that many of the targets are weaklings who cannot deal with the normal ups and downs of a job. Furthermore, some confuse abusive bullying with lesser forms of negative workplace behavior, such as incivility and disrespect.

My sense of this?

First, genuine workplace bullying is about abuse, not bad manners or even angry arguments and disagreements. We need to keep reinforcing the point that bullying is not about a bad day at the office or generally lousy management.

Second, treating others abusively is wrong, and that includes workplace settings. It doesn’t matter if the intended target of that abuse is “strong,” “weak,” or somewhere in between.

Third, an abuser isn’t “off the hook” because he happens to target someone who is more vulnerable. In fact, if he goes after someone because he perceives a person’s vulnerability, well, that speaks volumes about the messed up ethics, morality, and psychological make up of the abuser.

Fourth, most of us stand to benefit by being resilient. For all but the rarely blessed, life will deliver its share of setbacks, disappointments, and sometimes hard body blows. The better we can process and deal with these ups and downs, the better our overall lives will be.

Finally, having a greater reserve of resilience and grit can help us to cope with the really bad stuff at work, including bullying, mobbing, and harassment. This reserve is not bottomless, however, as many resilient and gritty individuals have experienced. Just about everyone has a breaking point, and there are countless instances of work abuse that have taken people past it.

Bottom line? Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.

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Charging tuition for credit-bearing, unpaid internships

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I’m delighted that Washington Post reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel is shining a light on the all-too-common practice of colleges and universities charging full tuition for unpaid internships that earn academic credit. In a front-page, bottom-of-the-fold story in today’s edition, she reports on Seton Hall University (New Jersey) students who are mounting a petition drive, calling upon the university to stop charging for internship credits:

Seton Hall University senior [Joshua Siegel] is among a group of students petitioning the school in South Orange, N.J., to stop charging for internship credits.

“It’s unfortunate that the school, which is not providing the service, not facilitating the process, not suffering any strain on its resources, feels it is owed compensation for me performing a function on my own,” Siegel said.

The university is responding by saying that the resources invested in overseeing, supervising, and monitoring internships justify that tuition charges. This response echoes what others within the higher education industry are saying in defending this practice.

True, a university expends resources in sponsoring credit-earning internship programs. However, those resources are largely administrative, with some faculty oversight that doesn’t come close to demanding the time and effort devoted to traditional classroom teaching and evaluation of students. I believe that charging some fee for facilitating and overseeing credit-earning internships is appropriate, but not close to full tuition.

Here’s one of my quotes in the Washington Post article:

“This is a huge ethical issue for universities that they are sneaking under the rug,” said David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. “In this era of skyrocketing student debt, the fact that students are probably having to borrow money to do an internship for free is appalling.”

Insurance coverage for online workplace bullying and harassment?

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When safety risks are such that the insurance industry is addressing them, then you know they are both costly and frequent. And so it is with cyberbullying, with at least one major insurer now moving to cover expenses resulting from electronic bullying and harassment.

Jim Finkle, in a piece for Reuters news service, reports that Chubb, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies, now offers a $70/year rider to its master family protection policy, providing $60,000 of coverage “for expenses resulting from ‘harassment and intimidation’ over personal computers, telephones or mobile devices.” Finkle adds:

Covered costs include psychiatric care, temporary relocation services, education expenses, public relations services and cyber security consulting.

The policy kicks in when cyber bullying results in wrongful termination, false arrest, wrongful discipline at a school or a diagnosis of debilitating shock, mental anguish or mental injury.

Right now, the policy rider is available in only four states — “Colorado, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin” — but the company is taking it nationwide.

Potential coverage for workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Although it’s likely that school-related bullying has figured most prominently in Chubb’s decision to offer this policy, the inclusion of wrongful termination and diagnoses of mental anguish or injury generally as triggering events indicates that electronic forms of workplace abuse are also covered.

Of course, this may lead to tricky questions under the policy, as bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work often mix face-to-face, behind-the-back, and online behaviors. Insurance companies are not generally known for generous interpretations of their own policies, so I can imagine some disputes arising over eligible and ineligible forms of workplace mistreatment.

Further evidence

This isn’t the first time that the insurance industry has started to grapple with workplace bullying. Five years ago, I reported that insurance companies are starting to include bullying-related legal disputes in their employment practice liability insurance policies for employers. This development was prompted by the likelihood of workplace anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill being enacted.

When it comes to understanding risk assessment, the insurance industry is among the leading indicators. This is all further evidence of growing public understanding about bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations.

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