If you work in higher education, beware the C word

(Image courtesy of classroomclipart.com)

(Image courtesy of classroomclipart.com)

If you work in higher education as a professor, staff member, or low-to-mid level administrator, pay attention if you hear some variation of the following coming from the top: We’re bringing in XYZ Consulting to help with strategic planning and to assess what changes we need to make in order to survive/thrive/rightsize/move up in the rankings.

Consultant. The dreaded C word.

Lest I be accused of being so holed up in the ivory tower that I’m living a reality-free existence, allow me to state up front: Change is a part of life, and that includes work life. Furthermore, planning is, on the whole, a good thing. And not all consultants are harbingers of bad things; a good consultant, hired at the right time and for the right reasons, can make a positive difference.

That said…

All too often, the corporatized, administrative takeover of the modern university includes board members and senior administrators retaining fancy consultants to press “business like” templates onto whatever institution happens to be paying them the (very) big bucks.

Of course, because this is higher ed, there will be processes designed to create an illusion of input and participation from the worker bees. They may include “open forums,” “listening sessions,” “office hours,” and online in-house surveys. There may even be a strategic planning facade that carefully manipulates the make-up of committees and working groups to ensure that safe and reliable people make up a clear majority. A few contrarians may be included in these groups as well, but they will be politely marginalized and/or ignored.

The final reports may or may not be shared with the broader university community, but you can bet that nothing will be released to the rank-and-file unless it has been vetted and approved by the board and senior administrators. Typically, these reports bear many similarities, usually recommending cost-cutting measures that reduce the number of full-time faculty, administrators providing direct student services, and lower-level staff.

Those who work in the offices of presidents, provosts, and deans often will not be affected by these cuts. However, plenty of presidents, provosts, and deans will hide behind the recommendations of consultants in making “necessary” and “painful” cuts, accompanied by the appropriate crocodile tears. Ironically, the exorbitant amounts of money used to pay consultants could’ve been used to save jobs.

Not infrequently, there’s an incestuous relationship between the world of higher ed consultants and higher ed administrators, with a revolving door similar to how connected operatives go back and forth between policy making government positions and lucrative private sector jobs. Conflict of interest? Maybe not technically, but in other ways that count, absolutely so. The administrator-consultant complex is one of the murkier, under explored aspects of modern higher education.

So, everyday denizens of higher ed: If you hear the C word — consultant — coming down from on high, be afraid, be very afraid.


Consultants and the “outsourcing of leadership” (2014)

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012)

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)


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Mainstreaming human dignity as a core societal value


How can we mainstream human dignity as a core societal value?

Our current political debates tend to center around economics and rights. Both are important. Societies need economic systems that allow us to create, distribute, share, buy, and sell. We also need legal systems that establish, maintain, and protect rights.

But broader moral values must be present to drive and shape these economic and legal systems. I can think of no better starting place than human dignity.

UN Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, provides rich ground for us to anchor this value. Its 30 major provisions, or “Articles,” are worth reading in their entirety, but these are especially relevant to topics discussed on this blog:

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.


Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

A challenge to the dignitarian movement

To my American readers, especially, a question: How often has human dignity come up during any of the presidential candidate debates hosted on behalf of either major party? The answer to that question raises more questions, and one of them is how to make human dignity a centerpiece value for our society.

This coming week I’ll be traveling to New York City to participate in the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict sponsored by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a global, multidisciplinary network of scholars, activists, practitioners, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. I have served on the HumanDHS global advisory board for several years, and recently I agreed to join its board of directors.

During my opportunities to share ideas with the group, I’ll be raising this question of mainstreaming human dignity. Among my points will be the critical importance of spreading this message beyond our friendlier constituencies. How do you reach people whose first reactions may be dismissive, or even derisive? If the tone of conventional public rhetoric these days is any indication, then we will have plenty of chances to try out different approaches.

I’ll be sharing more ideas on this theme during the week to come.


Relevant posts

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Making human dignity the centerpiece of American employment law and policy (2014)


Good books as therapy?

Can good books help to improve our mental health? Ceridwen Dovey, writing earlier this year for the New Yorker, suggests so, invoking the term bibliotherapy as the practice of matching readers with quality fiction to help them cope with life’s ups and downs. Here’s how she introduces the term:

Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” In it, the author describes stumbling upon a “bibliopathic institute” run by an acquaintance . . . in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value.

. . . Today, bibliotherapy takes many different forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia.

Dovey cites studies suggesting that reading good literature can positively effect one’s emotional health. She became exposed to bibliotherapy through a course at The School of Life, a London-based adult education center. Her instructor, Ella Berthoud, co-authored with Susan Elderkin The Novel Cure, From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You (2013). The book includes alphabetical listings of emotional states,  health issues, and challenging life events accompanied by book recommendations for each.

If you’re angry, for example, Berthoud and Elderkin recommend Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. If you’re searching for happiness, they tout Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. If you’re dealing with emotional scars, they suggest F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Antonya Nelson’s Bound.


I must confess that I am not the right person to assess bibliotherapy as a healing practice, at least if the book lists are limited to higher end novels and classic literature. My own leisure reading leans heavily toward history, sports, and mystery and suspense. While I was pleased to see two of Stephen King’s books recommended in The Novel Cure (The Stand and The Shining), there were lots of titles I’ve never heard of in the listings.

Nevertheless, I’m enough of an avid reader to know how books can influence our moods for the better. Bibliotherapy may not be a replacement for more formal healing and mental health modalities, but it may merit, umm, a place on your shelf.

Storytelling for social change


The best stories, including those intended to drive positive social change, are natural and authentic, not contrived and formulaic. That said, stories need planning, shaping, and editing in order to connect with others. After all, raw, scrambled recitations of events, experiences, impressions, and facts are much less likely to hold someone’s attention in any medium.

That’s why I was pleased to stumble upon A Changemaker’s Eight-Step Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change (2013), published by Ashoka Changemakers. It’s freely accessible as a 14-page pdf booklet.

A Changemaker’s Guide is full of advice and resources on how to use storytelling as a change making tool. Here are the eight steps of social change storytelling detailed in the guide:

Step 1. Reflect and build your narrative arc.
Step 2. Identify your key audience (i.e. the general public, social innovators, thought leaders, funders)
Step 3. Select your core message.
Step 4. Choose your story type (i.e. challenge story, big idea, how-to, impact).
Step 5. Create your call to action.
Step 6. Select your story medium (i.e. written, video, audio, spoken).
Step 7. Create an authentic and concrete story.
Step 8. Optimize channels for sharing your story.

A lot of people discover this blog because of their own not-so-great work experiences. Some may be considering ways to tell their stories. This resource will provide ideas, guidance, and inspiration. 


Related posts

A book list for intellectual activists and difference makers (2015)

What’s the plot line of your work life story? (2011)


Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying


At our October workshop on workplace bullying held in Boston, no topic generated more intense discussion than post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED).

PTED is a psychiatric disorder proposed by Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist, grounded in his findings that people may become so embittered by a negative life event that normal functioning is impaired. In a 2003 article published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics (abstract here; article must be purchased), Dr. Linden defines the elements of PTED:

  • “a single exceptional negative life event precipitates the onset of the illness”;
  • “the present negative state developed in the direct context of this event”;
  • “the emotional response is embitterment and feelings of injustice”;
  • “repeated intrusive memories of the event”;
  • “emotional modulation is unimpaired, patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge”; and,
  • “no obvious other mental disorder that can explain the reaction.”

Linden lists other symptoms, including severe depression, “feelings of helplessness,” disrupted sleep, aggression, and even suicidal ideation. PTED lasts “longer than 3 months,” during which “(p)erformance in daily activities and roles is impaired.”

PTED is not yet a recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considered the most authoritative source for defining mental disorders. However, Dr. Linden and others are producing a growing body of peer review research on PTED that supports the possibility of eventual inclusion.

PTED and workplace bullying

When I first wrote about the relationship between PTED and workplace bullying some four years ago, the post attracted dozens of comments from readers. The topic obviously strikes a chord, with some nodding their heads in agreement and others questioning its application to bullying.

The word embitterment tends to carry negative connotations. Someone tagged as embittered is often regarded as being angry and unpleasant. Because the term refers to individuals, it’s easy to dismiss how they got this way. In fact, more often than not, they are blamed for stewing in their own juices, as if they had a character flaw. The circumstances that triggered these emotions — in this context, various forms of workplace mistreatment — usually get a free pass.

However, I suggest looking at this differently. How about acknowledging that anger, even deep, ongoing anger, is a natural response to unjust actions and behaviors that threaten or destroy one’s health, livelihood, and/or career? Obviously being stuck in a state of embitterment isn’t good for anyone, but let’s not blame a person for having these feelings, while failing to hold an employer accountable for having precipitated the response.

As for moving beyond embitterment, that’s a necessary piece of the discussion as well. Last year I wrote about the challenges that some targets of workplace bullying face in getting “unstuck,” at least to a point where the bullies and bullying behaviors no longer have an emotional stranglehold on their lives. Acknowledging embitterment as a potential and normal consequence of workplace bullying can be an important part of that recovery process.


Thanks to Tanya Sidawi-Ostojic for her Boston workshop talk on PTED. She will be continuing her doctoral research on this topic, which certainly merits our attention.

Related posts

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Getting unstuck (2014)

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (2014)

Friday morning musical contemplation

Reading through the news this morning, well, call it corny or trite, but this song came to mind. I’ve pasted in the Jackie DeShannon version above, and here are the lyrics, courtesy of Google Play:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No, not just for some but for everyone

Lord, we don’t need another mountain
There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb
There are oceans and rivers enough to cross
Enough to last ’till the end of time

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No, not just for some but for everyone

Lord, we don’t need another meadow
There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow
There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine
Oh, listen, lord, if you want to know

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No, not just for some, oh, but just for ever, every, everyone

What the world needs now is love, sweet love (oh, is love)
What the world needs now is love, sweet love (oh, is love)
What the world needs now is love, sweet love (oh, is love)

Looking ahead: How can we advance worker dignity in 2016?

(Image courtesy of free-letters.com)

(Image courtesy of free-letters.com)

Maybe it’s the time change and the raw, colder weather here in Boston, but I find myself already looking ahead to 2016, thinking about how we can advance worker dignity during the year to come.

For many readers, those thoughts go to workplace bullying and how we can stop it. Here in Massachusetts, we’ve got a decent chance of turning the Healthy Workplace Bill into law during the 2015-16 session of the legislature. We’ve got some 58 sponsors and co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the bill has been ushered through the main House committees and is ready for a House floor vote, and we’re only halfway through the session.

In addition, I’m still buoyed by the workshop on workplace bullying that we held in Boston a few weeks ago as part of Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week. It made for intensive, enlightening, and interactive discussions among an exceptional group of people committed to stopping workplace bullying and advancing worker dignity. I hope that other groups will plan similar gatherings.

So if you’re inclined, please consider this question for yourself: How will you support worker dignity during 2016? Whether it’s practicing the Golden Rule at work, helping to pass anti-bullying legislation, pro-actively creating better workplaces, or any of many other options, there’s something you can do.


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