On following evil orders at work

In a piece for Medium (link here), Sarah Griffiths interviews psychological researcher Julia Shaw (University College London) on her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019). Here’s what Dr. Shaw says about the negative implications of our tendency to follow orders:

Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

Among other things, these dynamics can lead us to take part in cruel and abusive behaviors. History is riddled with examples of this, including participation in torture and genocides.

In response, Shaw suggests three things that we can do to avoid engaging in mistreatment of others, at the behest of someone in authority:

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad.

…The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” … (s)o you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

…The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow.

At work

Naturally I’m translating this into workplace settings: What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker? How should that individual respond? What are the costs and consequences of resisting versus going along?

Certainly we can all grow as individuals and develop stronger moral and ethical groundings in terms of how we respond to directives to do wrongful things to others. In that sense, it seems that the three things suggested by Dr. Shaw require a lot of foundational work on ourselves, well before the precipitating events arise. Those events will test us, and decisions on how to respond will emanate from our core foundations.

That said, I am only mildly optimistic about our collective ability to respond to work abuse in the individualized manner suggested by Shaw. Typically these forms of interpersonal mistreatment are enabled or endorsed by organizational leaders. Our tendency to take our cues from the top — the very tendency centrally acknowledged by Shaw — creates shared presumptions that succeeding on the job means accepting, or at least not resisting, the accompanying values and behaviors. By contrast, someone “playing the hero” in the face of wrongful behaviors is often left to do so on their own, with all the accompanying risks.

Rather, the solutions are more systemic. We need a stronger, more inclusive labor movement to provide a countervailing voice for everyday workers. We need laws against workplace bullying. We need stronger enforcement of existing workplace protections. Ultimately, we need to embrace dignity as the primary framing value for our society, joined with a commitment that dignity should not be sacrificed for the right to earn a living and pursue a vocation.

True, advocating for these changes often requires speaking truth to power, but at least if we do so more collectively, our chances of success are much greater than going it alone.

On peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing

From the World Health Organization

Periodically I am asked about the value of peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying or mobbing. Although such groups exist, I have not participated in one. However, I have given this topic much thought over the years and read into a number of resources that shed some light on the potential benefits and downsides of peer support. Furthermore, during the past 20 years, I have had countless exchanges with targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and these discussions have yielded invaluable insights as well.

With all this in mind, I decided to gather together some resources and suggestions that may be useful to those who are participating in peer support groups for targets, especially those who are organizing and facilitating them.

Training/expertise in peer support group facilitation

Good intentions alone are not sufficient for creating a peer support group, especially given the deep and complicated emotions and consequences of bullying and mobbing at work. Rather, it’s extremely useful to get some expert guidance. A lot of that information is provided in the mental health context.

The best short, accessible, and free(!) guide for mental health peer support groups that I’ve found is Michelle Funk & Natalie Drew, Creating peer support groups in mental health and related areas (2017) (pdf link here), published by the World Health Organization. In only 28 pages, this excellent guide provides a wealth of helpful advice and guidance on creating, facilitating, and participating in peer support groups. It also contains a rich reference list for those who want to learn more.

Mental Health America provides a Center for Peer Support (link here) with an array of valuable resources. For those who seek more formal training in peer support, MHA offers a national certification program (link here).

Training/expertise in workplace bullying/mobbing/abuse

Especially for group facilitators, but really for any participant, gaining expertise in dynamics and impacts of workplace bullying and mobbing is very important towards understanding how to support one another and finding ways to move forward.

The gold standard is the Workplace Bullying Institute’s “Workplace Bullying University” program, a three-day, intensive, graduate-level seminar facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie (link here). I have attended this program and can attest to its comprehensive, immersive, and interactive learning approach.

For those who want a less expensive alternative, Dr. Namie offers a 2.5 hour video seminar, “Workplace Bullying Action Plan & Tutorial,” for targets of workplace bullying (link here). The Workplace Bullying Institute’s main website (link here) is a freely accessible treasure trove of information as well. Furthermore, although mainly for employers, I worked with the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a deep webpage of resources on workplace bullying (link here).

For those seeking an encyclopedic, authoritative, but concededly pricey, resource on workplace bullying and mobbing here in the U.S., I’m happy to recommend Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, editors, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018), a two-volume treatise with some two dozen chapter contributors (link here).

Finally, several weeks ago I recommended a “go-to” list of four affordable books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here): 

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009);
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014);
  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014); and,
  • William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004).

Training/expertise in psychological/mental health first aid

Training in psychological first aid will help peer support group participants understand trauma and recognize the boundaries of when people should be referred to counseling or medical assistance.

Johns Hopkins University offers an online course in Psychological First Aid via Coursera (link here). The course is free, with a modest charge to receive certification:

Learn to provide psychological first aid to people in an emergency by employing the RAPID model: Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition.

Utilizing the RAPID model (Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition), this specialized course provides perspectives on injuries and trauma that are beyond those physical in nature.

The course is taught by Dr. George S. Everly, who is the co-author, with Dr. Jeffrey M. Lating, of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid (2017).

Training/expertise in coaching

Training and experience in personal coaching may come in useful here. Many basic coaching skills are useful for peer support interactions as well. In contrast to common belief, coaching is not about being prescriptive or directive. Rather, it is mostly about asking the right questions, listening, and helping individuals discover insights, answers, and solutions. 

Coaching training programs abound, and the one I heartily recommend is the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC, link here). Some six years ago, I did the year-long IPEC core energy coaching program, and I’m very grateful for it. Although I eventually decided not to set up my own coaching practice, the personal growth I experienced and the communications skills that I developed continue to provide welcomed benefits today. Having undergone that training, I’m confident that a good coaching program can enable one’s growth as a peer support group facilitator.

Legal, liability, and ethical issues

I would be remiss if I didn’t put on my legal hat with this topic. Although the risk of a peer support group facilitator or participant being sued may be remote, I’ve seen a few pages for peer support groups that suggest requiring all participants to sign liability waivers.

I’m not going to start rendering legal opinions on that possibility here, especially given the global readership of this blog and the varied legal jurisdictions represented. However, suffice it to say that legal, liability, and ethical issues should not be ignored, especially the importance of avoiding what could be interpreted as providing psychological counseling or legal advice.

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I hope this information has been helpful for people involved in peer support groups for bullying and mobbing targets. Readers who have identified other useful resources are invited to mention them in the comments section.

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A simple question to ponder

I’m reading The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (2016) by historian Michael Puett (Harvard) and journalist Christine Gross-Loh. The book is an outgrowth of Dr. Puett’s wildly popular undergraduate course on Chinese philosophy, which Gross-Loh wrote about for The Atlantic in 2013 (link here). In touting his course, Puett promises that “This course will change your life,” and apparently the students are buying into the claim.

The book starts us with Confucius. In contrast to philosophers who “jump right in with big questions” such as “Do we have free will? and “What is the meaning of life?,” Confucius “asked this fundamental and deceptively profound question”:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

It’s a question that can take you very, very deep. I’ve been pondering it since reading the passage over the weekend, and I’m far from done.

Puett and Gross-Loh go on to suggest that this inquiry can lead us to change how we live and act, built on the assumption that we are not destined to be stuck in place. 

The Path is one of those short (200 pp.), profound-sounding, easy-to-read books that makes for a popular graduation gift. However, I think it resonates even more strongly with those of us who have been around the block a few times.

Of course, positive individual change is not always so simple as wishing or allowing for it to occur. If, for example, someone has been subjected to severe abuse, the trauma from that experience can have serious impacts on mental and physical health and personal behavior. Nevertheless, I submit that this simple inquiry can be a pathway towards positive change in our lives. In fact, it may be especially enlightening for those who are dealing with significant challenges and who want to make positive transitions in their lives.

So, once again, ask yourself:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

Let’s follow an Eightfold Path to psychologically healthy workplaces

A decade ago, I put forth a list of eight questions designed to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers. I called it the “Eightfold Path” to a psychologically healthy workplace. Looking back at it, I would add “dignity affirming” to the qualities implicated by these questions. Otherwise, I pretty much still like what I wrote. Here goes:

1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?

2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?

3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?

4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?

5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?

6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?

7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?

8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

The conceptualization of this list was strongly influenced by relational-cultural theory, as pioneered by Dr. Jean Baker Miller. (Go here to access the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute’s website.) Dr. Miller, whose work came to my attention via Dr. Linda Hartling of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network (link here), asserted that “Five Good Things” come from growth-fostering relationships:

1. “A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person or other persons.”

2. “The ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as other situations.”

3. “Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person(s).”

4. “An increased sense of worth.”

5. “A desire for more connections beyond the particular one.”

As we consider what types of organizations and work experiences we want to create and sustain, these points should continue to inform us.

Published: “On anger, shock, fear, and trauma: therapeutic jurisprudence as a response to dignity denials in public policy”

The International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, has just published my article, “On anger, shock, fear, and trauma: therapeutic jurisprudence as a response to dignity denials in public policy.” Through May 18, you may click here to obtain free access to the article.

This piece is not about employment law and policy, but it embraces a relevant theme, namely, how the making and content of public policy can either advance or deny our dignity. Here’s the article abstract:

This article asserts that when policymaking processes, outcomes, and implementations stoke fear, anxiety, and trauma, they often lead to denials of human dignity. It cites as prime examples the recent actions of America’s current federal government concerning immigration and health care. As a response, I urge that therapeutic jurisprudence should inform both the processes of policymaking and the design of public policy, trained on whether human dignity, psychological health, and well-being are advanced or diminished. I also discuss three methodologies that will help to guide those who want to engage legislation in a TJ-informed manner. Although achieving this fundamental shift will not be easy, we have the raw analytical and intellectual tools to move wisely in this direction.

Although it’s a scholarly journal piece, it’s relatively short (10 pp.) and accessible to non-legal folks.

The article appears as part of a special issue honoring Prof. David Wexler (U. Puerto Rico/U. Arizona), a co-founder of the therapeutic jurisprudence movement. It was co-edited by Profs. Amy Campbell (U. Memphis) and Kathy Cerminara (Nova Southeastern U.). The journal is hosted by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.

Talking about workplace bullying and disability at the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (www.nfb.org)

Last week I had the privilege of discussing workplace bullying and disability at the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium, an annual conference sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the feedback I received, I believe that my presentation offered a useful contribution to the conference. (More on that below.) In addition, for me personally, the biggest gift of the conference was being able to experience it and learn from other participants.

Perspective-changing

I’ve been to dozens of academic and professional conferences during my career, but this was my first attendance at a larger event where people living with various disabilities — in this case, especially those with visual impairments — formed such a significant share of fellow participants. One might claim that I was long overdue in this regard, and I would strongly agree. It is a perspective-changing thing to spend an extended period of time in such a setting, to be in a very different kind of normalcy. Many of the lawyers, advocates, and scholars are living with disabilities that happen to be among the focal points of their work. Substantively, this diverse mix positively influenced the quality, depth, and authenticity of exchanges on topics that are sometimes understood and treated superficially. 

Conferences, symposia, and workshops have their own cultures or vibes. Some are friendly, while others are stuffy. Some help to foster a sense of community and inclusion, while others feature preening and posturing. The tenBroek event is a community builder, where people hatch ideas, teach and mentor one another, and renew friendships and acquaintances. It’s not as if everything is all hearts-and-flowers consensus. Among other things, there were earnest discussions about the need for more racial diversity among speakers and attendees. Nevertheless, the tenBroek symposium serves as an important annual gathering spot for folks interested in legal and policy issues concerning disabilities of all types.

Workplace bullying and disability

The session on bullying, harassment, and the civil rights of persons with disabilities was the final panel of the conference, and I happened to be the last speaker on it. This gave me an opportunity to explain the basics of what we know about bullying and mobbing at work, then go into why existing employment protections have proven inadequate to provide relief to so many abused workers. I then discussed the Healthy Workplace Bill and why it’s needed.

Although we have long understood that work abuse can cause mental disabilities or exacerbate current ones, we know a lot less about the experiences of those with physical disabilities and workplace bullying. During my remarks, I said that we would benefit greatly by learning more about that.

I also put in plugs for two organizations whose overall missions are very consistent with the work being done by folks at the conference, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (link here) and Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (link here), both of which I’ve mentioned frequently on this blog. (In fact, it was my connection with Prof. Michael Perlin, a mental health law expert who is active in both of these communities and serves on the NFB board, that led to my invitation.)

About Jacobus tenBroek

I also learned a little bit about Dr. Jacobus tenBroek , the NFB’s founder and a remarkable individual. The NFB’s Lou Ann Blake, in a 2006 biographical profile about tenBroek (link here), wrote the following:

Most Federationists know that Dr. Jacobus tenBroek founded the National Federation of the Blind in 1940. However, today in 2006, thirty-eight years after his death from cancer on March 27, 1968, the majority of Federationists may not be aware that Dr. tenBroek was also a constitutional law scholar, a civil rights activist, a leader in the reform of social welfare, and a distinguished national and international humanitarian. From his days as a law student until his death, Dr. tenBroek produced thousands of written documents, including letters, speeches, law review articles, and books.

Wow, what a powerhouse. No wonder his spirit helps to drive this conference.

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Toxic work environments in the social justice, non-profit sector

Image courtesy of Clipart Kind

I have long insisted that workplace bullying and other forms of worker mistreatment are not limited to the big bad corporate sector. The non-profit sector has its own problems with bullying and toxic work environments. Recent reports about working conditions at two prominent social justice non-profits, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Amnesty International, are sadly reinforcing this reality.

Southern Poverty Law Center

Bob Moser’s recent, in-depth New Yorker piece about the Southern Poverty Law Center, examines the work climate, fundraising operations, and allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment at the venerable civil rights organization, in the wake of the termination of co-founder Morris Dees, a lawyer and well-known figure in the civil rights community. Moser writes:

The official statement sent by [SPLC president Richard] Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”

To Moser, a one-time SPLC staffer, the apparent circumstances that led to Dees’s ouster were not a surprise. Upon his arrival as a writer in 2001, Moser quickly understood that the organization was a place of contradictions:

But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.

Prior to Moser’s arrival, several periodicals had published articles critical of the SPLC’s own record on racial and sexual diversity:

Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization…made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.

The article (link here) goes into a lot more detail, and it’s not a flattering picture. It makes me very sad. I have contributed to the SPLC in the past, and my late mom, a kindergarten teacher, used some of their educational materials in her classroom. I guess that’s all the more reason to pay attention to this look inside the organization.

Amnesty International

Al Jazeera reports that Amnesty International, the prominent human rights advocacy group, is engaging in a lot of internal reckoning about bullying, discrimination, and mismanagement within the organization (full article linked here):

Following the suicide of a staff member, Amnesty commissioned an independent review of its company culture, which found that some of its staff have been victims of bullying, public humiliation, discrimination, and abuses of power, and that these issues threaten the organisation’s credibility.

The report surveyed hundreds of employees as part of its investigation and found widespread mismanagement and a “toxic” work environment.

According to the report, 39 percent of staff had developed mental or physical health issues because of working there, and 65 percent didn’t believe their well-being was a priority for Amnesty.

“I think this was a problem that was left festering for decades,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty’s secretary-general, told Al Jazeera.

Naidoo, who began his role in August last year, is looking to address these issues quickly.

He said these problems, in part, come from the inherently stressful nature of their work, as well as from an outdated management structure and the company’s failure to prioritise its staff’s well-being.

At least AI’s leadership appears to be taking this seriously. It’s too early to say whether the Southern Poverty Law Center’s leadership understands its systemic problems.

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The theme of bullying and working conditions generally in the non-profit sector has been a repeated focus of this blog. Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 blog piece, “Toxic leaders in social change non-profits“:

Just because a non-profit organization is dedicated to changing the world for the better, don’t assume that its leadership is committed to creating a healthy, supportive workplace for the staff. That’s the underlying message of a terrific presentation by Vega Subramaniam, co-founder of Vega Mala Consulting, who presented on toxic leadership in the non-profit, social change sector at this year’s just concluded Work, Stress, and Health conference.

…Subramaniam and her business co-founder, Mala Nagarajan, are using interviews and surveys of workers in non-profit, social change organizations to study the presence and effects of toxic leadership….

…Subramaniam reported that they could “literally copy and paste” examples of toxic leadership as experienced by one worker to another. These included creating cultures of mistrust, micromanaging and holding “incessant meetings,” capricious behaviors, unfair blame for mistakes, coercive work demands, and engaging in misrepresentations to grant funders.

Workers found that sorting out and coping with these toxic environments became all consuming, with negative effects on their careers, health, and personal lives. It makes sense: Those who work for cause-driven non-profits are often drawn by the organization’s social mission. It’s a chance to make a difference, maybe even change the world, or at least a corner of it. Especially against the backdrop of this idealism, being bullied and otherwise mistreated in such jobs can be a devastating experience.

(Vega Subramaniam contributed a wonderful chapter reporting her research, “Working Bullying and Mobbing in the Nonprofit Sector,” to the book set I co-edited, Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018).)

For more on the non-profit sector, please check out:

Finally, in 2013 I was interviewed by Carey Goldberg of WBUR radio, Boston’s NPR news station, on “Bosses From Hell: Workplace Bullying In The Non-Profit Sector.”

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Hat tip to my brother, Jeff Yamada, for the article on Amnesty International.

 

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