Transforming our “age of anger” with care and understanding

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In a compelling long-form piece for the Guardian, Pankaj Mishra writes that “we find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities.” Invoking Donald Trump (“the biggest political earthquake of our times”), Brexit, the Middle East, “insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand,” terrorism, and other disturbing events, he acknowledges that “we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.”

He concludes his thoughtful analysis with a call for understanding:

With so many of our landmarks in ruins, we can barely see where we are headed, let alone chart a path. But even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.

The complete article is well worth the time of anyone who is trying to comprehend our world today. Also, a fuller explication of Mishra’s analysis will appear in his forthcoming book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present. For now, however, I’d like to take Mishra’s core points and apply them to clusters of events over the past weekend.

Marches and rallies

It could be argued that the marches and rallies that took place around the world on Saturday were a manifestation of that age of anger. After all, the original Washington D.C. women’s march was organized in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, fueled by outrage and alarm.

But something funny happened at these events: Though perhaps prompted by anger, the large marches and rallies were voiceful, peaceful, and — yes — loving. Here in Boston, some 175,000 people (mostly women, but with a good number of men and kids) gathered to be heard, with reportedly not a single incident requiring police intervention.

Throughout Saturday and into Sunday, friends on Facebook posted photos and personal accounts from these female-led rallies in cities and communities across the country. Yes, anger and defiance may have brought them to these places, but their posts and photos communicated a sense of bold, joyous, and uplifting solidarity.

I have been on Facebook since 2009, and I can’t remember that social media site ever feeling so energetically alive. The posts from march participants were fresh, vibrant, even jubilant. My friends felt, quite accurately, that they were participating in historic events. I was so happy for them, and deeply appreciated what they did.

Meanwhile, in a small Boston conference room…

While many of my friends were at the marches, I was participating in a two-day “Integral Practitioner Lab” in downtown Boston, hosted by the Center for Transformative Learning at Meridian University in California. Here’s a partial explanation of the program from the university:

Many of us are are called to lives of sacred purpose where we seek to join professional livelihood with personal meaning and passion. However, there is a widening gap between the challenges of complexity and our individual and collective capabilities.

To realize our potential for passionate and meaningful livelihood, we must close this gap by building a bridge of capability.
The Integral Practitioner Lab at Meridian University offers the opportunity to identify, develop and refine a unique constellation of competencies that are required for impact.

This was, in essence, a gently directed, co-created series of conversations, guest speakers, and demonstration exercises embracing the broad topic of building bridges between individual and social change, facilitated by Meridian president Aftab Omer and Meridan faculty member Zak Stein. There were about two dozen of us in all, drawn from a surprisingly varied list of locations.

The major highlight was getting to know a warm, smart, and impact-making group of individuals. Our gathering included coaches, therapists, entrepreneurs, educators, consultants, and writers. With nary a PowerPoint slide in sight, we engaged in some 16 hours of dialogue and exchange about the state of the world and how we can contribute to its betterment. During this time, we learned about each other’s interests and projects, with our final focused activity being a break-out session of small group coaching.

Another highlight for me was an interactive session, via video conferencing, with Jean Houston, a renowned, visionary author and researcher who has joined Meridian as its chancellor. Dr. Houston addressed the anxieties and concerns about the world’s current political, social, and economic disruptions felt by many in the room. Pointing in part to Saturday’s peaceful marches and rallies around the world, but without offering false hopes, she suggested that these stark challenges have led us to a singular, mythic moment of opportunity to transform our society in healthier, more humane ways.

On a personal level, I was gifted with the opportunity to participate in an extended coaching exercise involving the full group and guided by Dr. Omer. In it, I was a client of sorts, attempting to learn more about my “developmental edges,” i.e., those aspects of ourselves that we can develop in order to be more effective in matters that we care about. This session deeply clarified my self-awareness of how I can be a more fiercely effective change agent toward making our laws and legal systems more receptive to psychological health and well-being, while working through feelings of anger over injustice, unfairness, and abuse. (To any of my fellow participants reading this, thank you, I am grateful beyond words.)

***

I admit it: Current events of the past year or so have sometimes put me in a funk, capped off by the presidential inauguration on Friday. But between those marching on the outside and the dialogue in our conference room, the weekend gave me a true lift, providing hope — to borrow from Pankaj Mishra — that we can better understand our society and achieve “greater precision in matters of the soul.” Our talents and commitments are needed, so let us work on ourselves and the world around us to make transformational changes.

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream

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Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the term “gaslighting” is now going mainstream. The American Dialect Society has declared it one of the “Words of the Year,” defining it as “psychologically manipulat[ing] a person into questioning their own sanity.” Wikipedia may not be as academically authoritative a source, but its current explanation of gaslighting is right on point:

Gaslighting . . . is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. . . . Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I’ll get to the Trump connection in a minute, but for now, a bit of background.

Origins of the term

It starts with an old movie.

I first became familiar with gaslighting several years ago when folks in the workplace anti-bullying movement used it to describe crazy-making behaviors at work. In my December 2012 piece about gaslighting as a form of workplace bullying (which has become one of this blog’s most popular posts), I shared Dr. Martha Stout’s explanation of the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

In the movie, Bergman’s psychological deterioration accelerates when she cannot get anyone to believe her claims.

America’s Gaslighter-In-Chief?

Gaslighting started to appear in the mainstream media last year, largely associated with Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail. Last spring, for example, U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer wrote an insightful piece about Trump’s gaslighting behaviors via his campaign tactics and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

The gaslighting tag continues. Here’s a snippet of Frida Ghitis’s commentary for CNN about Trump’s behavior, published earlier this week:

Is Donald Trump really a “big fan” of the intelligence community, as he claimed on Twitter, or did he disparage intelligence professionals when he repeatedly referred to them and their work in sneer quotes about “Intelligence” briefings and the “so-called ‘Russian hacking'”?

Did Trump mock a disabled reporter, or did your eyes, and the Hollywood elite make you think he did?

Did he convince Ford not to move a car plant to Mexico, saving American jobs, or was it all a fabrication for publicity?

Did he win the election with a historically narrow victory, or did he score a “landslide”?

. . . Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident.

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.

Trump’s behavior has pushed buttons on a very personal level as well. After the election, Suzannah Weiss, writing for Everyday Feminism, invoked gaslighting in describing how Trump’s candidacy was a triggering event for abuse survivors and now relates to our political future:

As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.

. . . Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.

Lately even the academicians are getting into the act. For example, English and journalism professor Ben Yagoda (U. Delaware) delves into the history and use of the term, leading to Trump, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:

The new prominence [of the term] came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

Significance for workplace anti-bullying movement

It appears that Donald Trump’s gaslighting behavior was not simply for the campaign trail. As Frida Ghitis writes in her CNN piece, “If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day.”

How will this modeled behavior impact the workplace anti-bullying movement? Will Trump actually validate gaslighting and bullying behaviors, in essence sending a message that if it’s appropriate behavior for the President, then it’s right for everyone? Or will the nation recoil at this recurring manipulative, deceitful conduct and realize that we need a lot less of it everywhere, including our workplaces?

These questions of personal conduct have quickly transcended political lines. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes for the Washington Post:

Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.

Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.

Bystander intervention in workplace bullying situations

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Can bystander intervention training help us to address workplace bullying and other forms of on-the-job mistreatment?

That was a major question on my mind when I made a quick trip to New York City this past weekend for a bystander intervention training session hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn and facilitated by trainers Kirsten deFur and Julia Martin.

The overall focus of this excellent introductory training was not on bullying per se, but rather on everyday types of harassment and aggressive conflict that we may encounter in various public settings. Many of the scenarios discussed by participants involved harassment on the subways. For we urban dwellers, a public subway system is often the great equalizer, where we’re all randomly tossed into a mix of humanity. It’s hardly surprising that situations often arise in such close-quartered settings.

The training gave us a valuable overall framework for understanding the dynamics of bystander intervention, emphasizing points to think about instead of pretending to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  • “Bystander paralysis” is normal; we freeze up for a variety of reasons and don’t take action. Intervention training is designed to help us get beyond that.
  • In terms of steps, among other things, we have to assess the situation (very challenging at times), decide whether to get involved, and intervene effectively. We typically don’t have much time to go through this process.
  • Specific interventions vary, including the “Four Ds” of direct, distract, delegate, or delay.
  • At times, not getting involved is the right decision.
  • De-escalation of the situation is the ideal process outcome.
  • This is not easy.

I deeply appreciated the grounded quality of the training and dialogue. This was not about preaching against inaction or indifference. Rather, the session assumed we were all there because we cared about this topic, and then implicitly understood that taking action in these situations must be done wisely.

What about the workplace?

So how do I answer the question I posed above? Yes, bystander intervention training may help us to develop approaches for dealing with bullying and abuse at work, but we need to take the discussion deeper than this terrific intro session to reach that point. Indeed, in a short conversation I had with trainer Kirsten deFur after the session, we concurred that bystander intervention in workplace scenarios can be especially complicated.

For those of us interested in bullying in any environment (school, work, community, and so on), bystander reactions and responses have become an increasing point of attention. As I’ve observed many times here, all too often those experiencing bullying also bear witness to bystander abandonment. In the workplace, this can include co-workers who were regarded as friends. For what it’s worth, here are some of my initial observations and caveats concerning bystander intervention at work:

  • Assessing a situation can be especially hard in a work setting. Obvious verbal and physical harassment on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, and other factors is easy to comprehend. But so many other workplace mistreatment scenarios — especially bullying — involve combinations of overt and covert behavior. Claims of covert, indirect mistreatment may be especially challenging to to unpack and understand.
  • Legal protections come into play, too. A bystander intervening in a sexual harassment situation may be protected under anti-retaliation provisions of employment discrimination laws. However, a bystander intervening in a generic bullying situation may be without legal protections, because — at least in the U.S. — we have yet to enact comprehensive workplace anti-bullying laws.
  • At times it may be wise to get permission of the targeted individual before intervening. Someone may, for example, be willing to tolerate a certain level of mistreatment while quietly seeking a new job to escape the toxic work situation. Perhaps that individual has good reason to know that an intervention, however well-intended, may backfire.
  • Power relationships matter greatly in this context. Let’s say you have a supervisor mistreating a subordinate. That supervisor’s boss could likely intervene without getting into any trouble. But an intervention by another subordinate of that supervisor may simply add another name to the target list. It’s not to say that the subordinate shouldn’t intervene, but the risks of doing so are much greater — and with a much lower likelihood of success.

Yes, this is a pretty sobering assessment. But as the training session in Brooklyn reinforced, bystander intervention, while motivated by some of our best instincts, is not easy stuff. It’s a topic to be embraced with both heart and wisdom.

Ageism in the American workplace (and its continuing relevance to workplace bullying)

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Rita Pyrillis, writing for Workforce, details the ongoing realities of age discrimination as America’s proportion of older workers continues to rise:

The number of older workers is on the rise. As their ranks grow they will play an important role in the U.S. economy, according to the National Council on Aging. By 2019, more than 40 percent of Americans over 55 will be employed, making up more than one-fourth of the U.S. workforce, according to the not-for-profit advocacy group. In 2014, older workers made up 22 percent of the workforce, according to the council.

Today’s mature workers are generally healthier and more active than their predecessors and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet they are far more likely to experience age-related job discrimination than their younger counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the AARP. In fact, age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1997 and 2007, 16,000 to 19,000 annual complaints were filed, compared to 20,000 to 25,000 filings per year since 2008, according to the EEOC.

Concerns about age discrimination continue to dovetail with this blog’s focus on workplace bullying. Workers who are bullied in middle age and beyond often face difficult odds in securing new jobs after leaving or being pushed out of bad work situations. Along with the common challenges that often confront older workers seeking new jobs, when workplace bullying enters the picture, targeted individuals may experience depression, psychological trauma, and a loss of trust and confidence — among other things.

Last month, I highlighted a Next Avenue blog post and forthcoming book by Elizabeth White about the challenges facing older workers who have lost their jobs. I’ve now had a chance to spend some time with Ms. White’s new book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal (2016), and I’m happy to recommend it. Although not specifically about workplace bullying, it will be especially helpful to those 50 and older who are trying to get their practical and emotional bearings in a job market inhospitable to mature workers. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s online description:

You’re in your fifties and sixties and have saved nothing or not nearly enough to retire. . . . Are there actions you can take (or not take) to have a shot at a decent retirement?

Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal culls wisdom from boomers navigating the path ahead. It invites you to join with others to look beyond your immediate surroundings and circumstances to what is possible in the new normal of financial insecurity. . . . 

Containing over 100 online resources, Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal is the book to read to help you navigate the emotional aspects of where you’ve landed. It is where to turn when you want to know what steps you can take to steady yourself enough to go another round.

Also, for more about linkages between ageism and workplace bullying, these earlier posts may be of interest:

Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too (2015)

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

Workplace bullying, social connection, and social support

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartsign.com)

Last week I mentioned an excellent 2015 Vanity Fair article by Sebastian Junger, detailing the history of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a diagnosis, primarily as it has applied to soldiers in the military. As the piece moves toward its conclusion, Junger thoughtfully and provocatively looks at PTSD in a social context to explain why so many returning veterans struggle with psychological trauma upon their return:

In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “lack of social support” was found to be around two times more reliable at predicting who got PTSD and who didn’t than the severity of the trauma itself. You could be mildly traumatized, in other words—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan—and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.

He even appeals to anthropology for a deeper understanding of trauma:

This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”

This long-form piece is well worth your attention if you want to learn more about PTSD in a deeper historical and societal context.

Relevance to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

All of this, of course, carries great significance for workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. We know that PTSD is one of the major impairments associated with this mistreatment. An underlying reminder of the Junger article is that strong social support, both in and out of the workplace, can make a positive difference to targets of work abuse, perhaps even to the point of preventing long-term PTSD.

Unfortunately, we also know that for too many targets, social isolation rather than a human safety net is the norm. Some may not have had a strong social base before the abuse began, which left them instantly bereft of support once things turned bad. Others experienced the disintegration of their social base during the bullying, with co-workers abandoning them or diving for cover, while close friends and family couldn’t get their heads around the dynamics of the abuse.

This is among the many reasons why greater public education about workplace bullying is an absolute necessity. We need to make the public more aware of the prevalence of bullying and mobbing at work and its pernicious effects on individuals and organizations. Moreover, we need to be part of that broader movement to educate the public about PTSD and similar mental injuries and conditions.

How do you take and keep notes?

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Janet uses a hardcover sketchbook for her notes.

Okay, dear readers — especially academicians, students, lifelong learners, frequent conference goers, and other “information society” folks — here’s my question: How do you take and keep notes?

This Way Out (1972), a classic early guidebook to non-traditional higher education by John Coyne and Tom Hebert, includes some marvelous chapters on lifelong learning skills and practices, pre-digital style. It says this about taking notes:

Make a decision now for life, just how you are going to keep your lecture and reading notes. We wish we had done this earlier so that we could have saved them. We’re always in situations where we take notes. Watching a TV discussion, public lectures, conversations. We have finally settled on 4-by-6 inch scratch pads, and yellow legal pads for interviews and long lectures. There must be better systems. One friend takes notes (any size), quotes and interesting miscellaneous Xeroxes, stapes them to 5-by-8 inch cards which he labels and keeps in a card file.

Of course, their note taking system is a blast from the past. The mere idea of recording notes onto paper is foreign to a lot of folks, especially in this digital age of tablets and software programs like Evernote and OneNote.

That said, I remain drawn to taking notes the old fashioned way. It is an aesthetic as well as educational preference.

For some reason, this topic has been on my mind recently. In a recent post I wrote about a fellow singing class student who keeps written notes on each voice class session. At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.

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And at times she goes artistic.

Alas, unlike Janet, and ignoring the sound advice of Mssrs. Coyne & Hebert, I have not developed a uniform personal note taking system. When I have my act together, I am biased toward Moleskine notebooks. But I also use other brands of notebooks and sketchbooks, my weekly (paper) calendar, scraps of paper, and yes, my computer and tablet. (Sidebar: Even Moleskine has bowed to technology, now offering a “Smart Writing System” that integrates paper and digital writing using a “paper tablet.”)

Individual preferences aside, for purposes of learning and retention, taking notes by hand may very well be more effective than typing them into a laptop or tablet, as suggested by a study published in the research journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So, this is my gentle case for taking notes like some of us learned in grade school. Here’s to heading over to your local stationery or office supply store and picking up a notebook or sketchbook, along with a nice pen that makes writing a pleasure.

Organizational authenticity and workplace bullying

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I’d like to offer a proposition: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse are much less likely to occur in organizations that embrace and practice authenticity.

This statement requires some unpacking, but I think the inquiry itself is worthy of our consideration.

First, let’s adopt a definition. Management consultant and scholar C.V. Harquail defines an “authentic organization” this way on her Authentic Organizations website:

An organization is authentic when its actions, its character, and its sense of purpose are aligned with and support each other.

Dr. Harquail further elaborates that an authentic organization “actively supports its members, customers, and constituencies in their own authenticity as they work with the organization to achieve its purpose.”

More informally, I read this definition as saying that an organization is authentic when it is comfortable in its own skin. This quality, of course, must come from and extend to key organizational leaders. 

When organizations and people are not comfortable in their own skins, then they are out of alignment. This can fuel insecurities and conflicts (internal and external) that, in turn, lead to bullying and similar behaviors.

Think about it: If you’ve experienced or observed workplace bullying, mobbing, or abuse, did it occur in an organization that had its act together, or did it occur in one that was dysfunctional and felt, well, kind of shaky? When assessing individual instances of bullying, understandably we often focus on specific tormenters. However, it’s highly unlikely that they could get away with it while working in an authentic organization. In fact, at such an organization, they might not even be on the payroll to begin with, right?

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