Exhaling: An election where decency and empathy mattered

Reporting for The Guardian (link here), David Smith’s lede about President-elect Joseph Biden’s Nov. 8 victory speech captured the emotions of the moment for many Americans and friends around the world:

Joe Biden ran jauntily on to the stage, wearing a black face mask but suddenly looking several years younger. Looking, in fact, like millions of Americans felt, with burdens to bear but a spring in his step.

The new US president-elect offered a Saturday night speech that did not brag or name call, did not demonise immigrants and people of colour, did not send TV networks and social media into meltdown and did not murder the English language.

After the mental and moral exhaustion of the past four years, Biden made America sane again in 15 minutes. It was an exorcism of sorts, from American carnage to American renewal.

Two prominent historians have made similar statements during news interviews. Michael Beschloss opined that “American democracy went through a near-death experience” during this time, while Jon Meacham asserted that “Empathy, decency, and democracy were on the ballot this season.”

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, the main reason why I haven’t posted in a month — easily the longest span between postings during the 12-year life of this blog — is that I’ve been processing the results of this Presidential vote, which I consider to be the most important national election of my lifetime. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote a month ago about the incumbent and his Democratic challenger:

No other public figure has ever had such a negative effect on my day-to-day quality of life. I feel like I have been forced to endure an abusive civic relationship. The fact that much of my work as an academic addresses behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, and abuse of power has sharpened my understanding of what we’ve been enduring.

By contrast, I think well of Joe Biden. He is a decent human being and a capable, street-smart public servant. I have long believed that he is the best candidate to win back the White House from its current occupant. When I put my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I was happy to vote for him and Kamala Harris. I pray that I voted for the winning ticket.

While I have shared my political beliefs on this blog from time to time, I have purposefully avoided making it a so-called political blog. However, I believe the span of 2016 to 2020 will be regarded as one of the most momentous and disturbing chapters of this nation’s history. It will take us many years to recover from this time.

I am working on a modest little writing project with a small group of other experts on bullying and mobbing behaviors to frame the 2016-20 period through the lens of abuse and mistreatment. I will share more about it at the top of the new year. In the meantime, I will return to writing about topics that have been the main focus of this blog. As always, I appreciate your readership.

America votes, and the results will define our future

As the United States experiences an alarming, nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases, we face an election that will define us for the foreseeable future. The nation’s fundamental integrity and heart quality are on trial. If we do not elect a new President, it is quite possible that the American experiment is over.

Among many other things, I have been saddened and appalled at how the current administration has mishandled the pandemic. Reelecting the incumbent will be the equivalent of imposing a death sentence on hundreds of thousands of unwitting victims, fueled by the dishonesty, ignorance, and cruelty that have defined this man’s nearly four years in office.

The incumbent is doing everything he can to suppress the vote in battleground states and plant seeds of doubt in the election results if he loses. We have never seen anything like this in the modern history of presidential politics.

No other public figure has ever had such a negative effect on my day-to-day quality of life. I feel like I have been forced to endure an abusive civic relationship. The fact that much of my work as an academic addresses behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, and abuse of power has sharpened my understanding of what we’ve been enduring.

By contrast, I think well of Joe Biden. He is a decent human being and a capable, street-smart public servant. I have long believed that he is the best candidate to win back the White House from its current occupant. When I put my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I was happy to vote for him and Kamala Harris. I pray that I voted for the winning ticket.

The weeks to come will determine the future of America’s soul, not to mention our ability to defeat and recover from a deadly pandemic. We live in momentous times.

***

Cross-posted to my Musings of a Gen Joneser personal blog.

MTW Newsstand: Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week edition

Hello dear readers, it’s Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, an annual observance launched by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Among other things, I’d like to share some relevant articles with you:

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, “Global Workplace Bullying Developments Continue during Covid-19,” SAI Global (2020) (link here) — “In this blog, I review new laws around the world that prohibit bullying in the workplace, as well as an international standard that will address violence and harassment at work that becomes effective soon.”

Mickey Butts, “How Narcissistic Leaders Make Organizations Less Ethical,” Greater Good Magazine (2020) (link here) — “A new paper by Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Jennifer Chatman and her colleagues shows not only the profound impact narcissistic leaders have on their organizations, but also the long-lasting damage they inflict.”

Manuela Priesemuth, “Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces,” Harvard Business Review (2020) (link here) — “While direct interactions with ‘bad bosses’ can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.”

Brian Truitt, “New survey: Women in Hollywood are twice as likely as men to experience unchecked bullying at work,” USA Today (2020) (link here) — “A new survey from The Hollywood Commission confirms that abusive conduct is a pervasive problem in Hollywood made worse by the entertainment industry’s power imbalances – and the targets of the bullying are often young workers and assistants.”

Mike Krings, “KU law, journalism scholars sum up nonexistent state of workplace cyberbullying laws,” KU Today (2020) (link here) — “While technology has provided a way for many parts of life to carry on virtually, it has also provided space for negative elements of life such as cyberbullying to increase. Schools have made strides in combating the problem in recent years, but two University of Kansas scholars point out in a new book chapter that American law is woefully unprepared to handle workplace cyberbullying.”

Elizabeth Mulvahill, “When Teachers Bully One Another,” We Are Teachers (2020) (link here) — “Indeed, while there is news story after news story about student-on-student bullying, no one is talking about the problem of teacher-on-teacher bullying. But for teachers facing harassment from their colleagues every day, the proverbial struggle is real.”

Will “de-densifying” reduce workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment in the COVID-transformed American workplace?

In a piece for The Guardian over the summer (link here), Cassidy Randall speculated on the future of American office life, as employers consider options for full or partial re-opening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in parts of the US, some companies have moved forward with plans to let their employees re-enter the office after months of working from home.

In the absence of federal guidelines around best practices, office managers will probably need to rely on an abundance of caution. This may turn offices into ghost towns of their former selves, with gatherings by the water cooler, big meetings and buzzing shared spaces disappearing for the foreseeable future.

Anticipating a possible uptick in infection rates during the fall, she emphasized the likelihood of “de-densifying” staffing patterns and staggered shifts to moderate the number of workers present in the office at any given time. This could mean, at least for now, the cessation of large, in-person staff meetings and crowded work areas.

The disturbingly stubborn rates of COVID-19 infections have no doubt caused many employers to continue to permit workers to spend parts or all of their week working from home. In some circles, this has raised the question of the necessity of maintaining large offices and on-site work requirements, even after we find our way through this pandemic. A prominent example of this revamping is Microsoft. As reported earlier this month by Tom Warren for The Verge (link here):

Microsoft is allowing more of its employees to work from home permanently, the company announced Friday. While the vast majority of Microsoft employees are still working from home during the ongoing pandemic, the software maker has unveiled “hybrid workplace” guidance internally to allow for far greater flexibility once US offices eventually reopen. The Verge has received Microsoft’s internal guidance, and it outlines the company’s flexible working plans for the future.

Microsoft will now allow employees to work from home freely for less than 50 percent of their working week, or for managers to approve permanent remote work. Employees who opt for the permanent remote work option will give up their assigned office space, but still have options to use touchdown space available at Microsoft’s offices.

Better work environments?

I’ve been looking at these assessments in part through a lens of whether the coronavirus-impacted work environment will affect prevalence rates and the nature of various types of workplace abuse. Back in May, I offered this preliminary forecast for when physical workplaces start to reopen:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

What I didn’t anticipate was the now very real possibility that some (many?) organizations may never return to the fully occupied physical workspaces that were the norm before the pandemic suddenly defined the contours of our lives.

To the extent that bullying, mobbing, and harassment are very relational activities, de-densifying via continued physical distancing and staggered employee shifts may help to reduce the prevalence of these forms of mistreatment. However, some of the bad behavior, as I mentioned, will simply port over to an online setting. After all, less-than-wonderful co-workers can be jerks on Zoom and scheme and manipulate in the digital fog. This could give rise to more covert forms of bullying, sabotaging, and undermining of others.

It’s also possible that, as I suggested in May, most people will try to rise above the fray, grateful to be employed, while recognizing that we should all bring a sense of team play to the current work situation.

For now, it’s too early to know whether these work-at-home practices will become a new normal. But this bears watching, especially by those of us who are attentive to the various ways in which workplace mistreatment may manifest itself.

New article: “Should Public Policy Center on Society’s Well-Being?”

Dear readers, I’m delighted to share with you a short piece I wrote, “Should Public Policy Center on Society’s Well-Being?” (link here), for the first issue of The American Commentator, an online magazine published by the Americans for Democratic Action Education Fund, a progressive political and policy education group on whose board I serve.

In the article, I assert that societal well-being should be a framing goal for the making of public policy. In offering the case, I reference my work in drafting and advocating for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Here are some snippets:

Should public policy adopt core values of well-being, human dignity, and compassion? Should it embrace outcomes that are therapeutic versus those that are anti-therapeutic? Should it reject measures that are based largely on economic productivity, with little to no regard as to how wealth and resources are distributed and deployed?

***

To help us develop frameworks for advancing traditional liberal values with a compassionate, humane, yet practical voice, I propose that the field of therapeutic jurisprudence can critically inform our understanding. Founded in 1987 by law professors David Wexler (then at the University of Arizona) and the late Bruce Winick (University of Miami), therapeutic jurisprudence (or “TJ”) is a school of legal theory and practice that examines how laws, public policies, and legal systems can produce therapeutic or anti-therapeutic results. While respecting traditional legal precepts such as precedent and due process, TJ inherently favors outcomes that advance human dignity and well-being.

***

Therapeutic jurisprudence principles have informed my work in drafting and advocating for workplace anti-bullying legislation, informally known as the Healthy Workplace Bill, which serves as the template for legal reform efforts across the nation to create a legal claim for severe, targeted psychological abuse at work. In addition, I have invoked TJ in calling for human dignity to be the framing principle for American employment law generally.

I hope you’ll consider reading the full article! It’s about a 10-minute read. And you can access the entire first issue of The American Commentator here.

Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Devoted and skilled advocate for equal rights and equal opportunity

The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a deeply sad and momentous occasion. As an Associate Justice of the Court, Justice Ginsburg was a steady and passionate voice for equal rights and equal opportunity. Given the moniker the “Notorious RBG,” she became a hero and pop culture icon to so many women, especially, who rightly looked to her as a role model.

Justice Ginsburg’s important contributions to American jurisprudence will be studied by lawyers, judges, law professors, and law students for many years. After all, the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the voting patterns and written opinions of individual Justices, attract considerable attention. Every American law student takes a required course in Constitutional Law, where Supreme Court cases interpreting the U.S. Constitution form the main focus of study. In my Employment Discrimination course, we devote primary attention to Supreme Court decisions interpreting major federal employment discrimination laws.

Ginsburg’s death leaves a significant void on the Court and has triggered what will be an ugly and divisive political battle over the confirmation of her successor. If Donald Trump and Senate leader Mitch McConnell succeed in filling this vacancy, it is likely that the ideological balance of the Court will be tipped in a way that threatens reversals in women’s rights, workers’ rights, and civil rights generally for a generation.

Attorney Ginsburg

But I shall leave that for a later commentary. Rather, as we reflect upon Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s signature contributions, I’d like to focus on her legacy as a public interest lawyer. Even had she never sat for a day on America’s highest court, her work as a pioneering advocate for needed changes in the law would have left a great record of accomplishment. As Moira Donegan writes for the Guardian (link here):

Strategic, contemplative and disciplined, but with a passion for the feminist cause that is rarely admitted into the halls of power, Ginsburg established an impressive legal legacy long before she became a judge. Over the course of a two-decade career as a lawyer before her appointment to the DC circuit court of appeals, she successfully argued cases that expanded civil rights law and 14th amendment protections to women, undoing a dense network of laws that had codified sex discrimination in all areas of American life.

***

Ginsburg is the rare supreme court justice whose most significant work was done before she joined the court….Ginsburg personally argued six gender discrimination cases before the then all-male supreme court, winning five. She built on her victories one by one, establishing precedents that made future victories easier to win.

***

First was Reed v Reed (1971), a monumental victory that struck down an Idaho law favoring men over women in estate battles. That case extended the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to women, barring laws that discriminated by sex. Ginsburg followed this case with victories in Frontiero v Richardson (1973), barring gender discrimination in compensation of military members, and Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975), striking down gender discrimination in state benefits. Her tactics were savvy; she framed gender discrimination in ways that made the practice seem unreasonable even to hardened misogynists.

Indeed, perhaps Attorney Ginsburg’s body of work best informs everyday lawyers and law students who wish to use their training to advocate for desired changes in the law. While serving as a law professor at the Columbia and Rutgers law schools in the 1970s, she forged an association with the American Civil Liberties Union that would fuel her advocacy work. This included co-founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and serving as its General Counsel. The period covered much of her most significant civil rights litigation work.

It is a testament to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s character, determination, and ability that she has left multiple legacies. Among these, her work on the Supreme Court will be the defining one to many. But I hope that lawyers and law students, particularly, won’t forget her vital contributions as a legal advocate.

Amid this pandemic, folks are digging deep to provide welcomed goods and services

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’m going to sound a little Pollyannish in this entry. Yesterday it struck me once again how many people are digging very deep to provide goods and services to all of us, to keep small businesses up and running, and to generally give us some semblance of normalcy as we continue to live in the shadow of this pandemic.

Yesterday I walked over to the main retail district of my Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston for a visit to the Post Office, a long-needed haircut (yes, even us balding fellows need a trim now and then), and a stop by my local food store.

I first went to the Post Office to pick up some stamps. It reminded me of how helpful my mail deliverer has been during this time, especially given how many packages I’ve received during the past few months.

I then walked into Sal’s Barber Shop to see everyone in masks and plastic partitions between each chair. After a short wait, I sat down for my first haircut since March. It was over quickly (like I said, it’s mostly chrome on top), and I felt completely safe in that environment. The owner was so grateful for my business, but I felt like I should be thanking them for keeping their shop open, while following safety guidelines.

Finally, I went over the main store of City Feed & Supply and filled a small bag with some goodies for home. (The City Feed’s grocery delivery service has been a lifeline for me during this pandemic!) I was happy to see the store’s co-founder setting up tables and chairs as part of a new local initiative to allow for more outdoor cafe and dining service. I hope that we’ll get a long New England fall so that folks can safely enjoy their coffee, pastries, and sandwiches in some nice weather.

I claim no great epiphanies from yesterday’s neighborhood sojourn, just a deep and renewed appreciation for those whose labors are contributing so much to the sometimes buffeted, but always resilient, fabric of our communities. During challenging times, these everyday heroes step up to make a positive difference in our lives. 

 

Teaching as everyday leadership (pandemic edition)

The new “back to school” prep

This strange, anxious, and difficult period, marked by a pandemic that has changed our lives dramatically, has caused me to engage in no small amount of reflection on my role as an educator. I keep coming back to the notion of teaching as a form of everyday leadership.

By March, the coronavirus situation was well on its way toward becoming a global pandemic. In response, my university — like so many others — announced that we would be teaching the rest of the semester online. For a lot of faculty (including yours truly), that meant using the Zoom videoconferencing platform that now has become a staple in many millions of lives. This fall, it’s pretty much more of the same, except that we’re starting off the term online, rather than switching modalities in mid-semester.

I’m grateful that we have technologies that allow us to have live classes. Under normal circumstances, most of us would prefer to be in face-to-face classrooms. But these are not normal times, at least in a city that was one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots during the spring and early summer. We’re doing better now, but we cannot take this threat lightly.

This isn’t what our students signed up for in terms of an educational experience. I’m a law professor, and in normal times, both our full-time day and part-time evening students have the benefit of studying law right in the heart of Boston. They have the use of a beautiful building and a spacious law library, with a variety of on-site services ready to help them. They are within walking distance of legal employers, courthouses, and government offices.

For now, however, instead of having all that, most are logging in from their homes or workplaces to attend law classes online. The disruptions to their usual lives and to their degree programs have often been substantial.

Of course, I understand that the lives of educators, administrators, and staff in higher education have been upended as well. We will never forget the unsettling transition of suddenly going into lockdown mode, while wondering if the most momentary contacts with the outside world will cause us and people we care about to get very sick. Adapting our work lives around these new realities hasn’t been easy.

Nevertheless, practicing everyday leadership means rising above our own challenges to educate, support, and inspire our students. How we present ourselves and engage our students in this online mode will greatly impact how they perceive the experience of studying remotely. Some will also look to us for cues on how to get things done, while emotionally navigating the dramatic changes in our lives.

I’m fortunate to teach at a university where our students are generally not entitled or spoiled. Quite understandably, they’re not happy with this situation, but they are doing their best to adapt to it. If they see their instructors putting in the effort to make these courses useful and interesting, then they are likely to respond in kind.

Of course, teaching is like that generally. The ability, effort, and emotional intelligence of individual professors always make a difference. But under current circumstances, these qualities matter even more.

Next Avenue on posttraumatic growth: PTG following PTSD

Barbra Williams Cosentino, writing for Next Avenue (link here), writes about recovery and renewal in a valuable piece on posttraumatic growth:

The concept of Posttraumatic Growth, or PTG, was developed in the 1990s by psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi, now distinguished chair of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth in Bluemont, Va., and his colleague Lawrence Calhoun.

It’s different from PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a constellation of psychological and often physical symptoms experienced after profoundly upsetting events such as a natural disaster, an assault or a terrible illness. Posttraumatic growth can be the reward for pain and suffering, a positive ending which can lead to rich and unanticipated rewards in terms of emotional, social and even spiritual health.

Cosentino reports that Tedeschi and Calhoun have developed a Posttraumatic Growth Inventory instrument, which measures how those who have suffered from trauma can grow in several dimensions. In more tangible terms, this can lead to a variety of positive changes:

Internal changes in perception, self-awareness and one’s sense of competence often lead to positive actions. Trauma survivors of any age may switch careers, find intensely rewarding hobbies, go back to school or take early retirement and travel.

Fortunately, individuals can facilitate their own posttraumatic growth in many ways, according to Tedeschi:

  • Learning the ways trauma can lead to a disruption of core belief systems
  • Developing emotional regulation skills which allow you to manage negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt and anger
  • Talking about the trauma and how you have been personally affected by it
  • Producing an authentic narrative about the trauma and our lives afterward so you can accept the reality and envision moving on
  • Providing service to others who experienced similar or different traumatic events

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing: Getting “unstuck”

I especially recommend Cosentino’s article for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing who are experiencing the challenges of getting “unstuck.” As I wrote in 2014 (link here):

One of the biggest challenges facing many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying is getting unstuck. Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Our emerging understanding of posttraumatic growth offers genuine, tangible hope for those who are recovering from severe work abuse. Practitioners and researchers working in this mode are onto somethingas I like to say, and the results have the potential to be life-changing for countless numbers of people.

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