“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

Workplace bullying: HR to the rescue?

“Never fear, HR is here”??? (Image courtesy of clipartkid.com)

Over the weekend I was talking with a good friend about the roles that human resources offices play in responding to potential workplace bullying situations. We shared the observation that despite our considerable knowledge of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we could not cite a “poster case” example of HR decisively and effectively coming to the rescue of a severely bullied worker.

This is not meant to be a snarky putdown of HR or the central role it plays in modern organizations. It’s just that stories of HR intervening on behalf of a bullied or mobbed employee, especially when the perpetrators are powerful individuals within the organization, appear to be rare. By contrast, we hear a lot of anguished tales about how “HR was useless,” “HR threw me under the bus,” and “HR protected the bullies.” In the worst instances, HR has actively furthered, supported, and enabled the abuse.

That said, I think it’s important to correct or at least soften this narrative if stories of positive HR intervention are out there, as they must be. After all, successful interventions are more likely to be handled quietly, so these accounts may not become more well known. I invite readers to contribute their stories of being helped and protected by HR in bullying or mobbing situations in the comments.

***

In a later post, I’ll list and discuss some helpful resources for organizations that want to empower their HR offices to prevent and respond to workplace abuse situations in proactive and ethical ways.

“First World” ethics of the Amtrak Quiet Car

photo-617

Dear readers, here’s a little “First World” ethical topic for you: Personal behavior while riding in the Amtrak Quiet Car. The Quiet Car has become an interesting laboratory for observing (1) whether seemingly advantaged adults will obey the simplest of rules and (2) what happens when those rules are broken.

The Quiet Car is designated for passengers who want a quiet, library-like atmosphere, with minimal conversations limited to whispers, no cell phone usage, and no loud gadgets or music. At the beginning of the trip, and at each major boarding stop, Amtrak conductors announce this information over the public address system. It can be hilarious to hear the slightly sarcastic inflections in their voices when they give this spiel, reflecting obvious weariness over mediating disputes between passengers who have, shall we say, different understandings of Quiet Car etiquette.

You see, on any given trip, at least a couple of passengers will behave as if the Quiet Car exists to provide them with a quiet place to conduct their cellphone calls or to chat with a traveling companion. Lest anyone assume that the transgressors are over-gadgeted Millennials, let me clarify: In my years of observation, middle-aged adults in business attire are the more likely culprits.

Several weeks ago I was riding in the Quiet Car on a trip from Boston to New York. For the first 20 minutes, a well-dressed couple who appeared to be in their 50s kept up a loud, ongoing conversation in the row right behind me. I could hear them easily even as I listened to music using earbuds. I finally turned around and asked if they could keep it down. While I think that I was fairly restrained, they nevertheless looked at me with annoyance. They didn’t stop their conversation, but they managed to lower it to a whisper.

Over the years I’ve wondered about the people who so breezily ignore these clearly articulated rules of courtesy. True, the violations are minor or trivial in the grand scheme of things. But are the loud ones in the Quiet Car more likely to break the rules (quietly, of course) in business and public life? Do these same folks believe that they’re “special” when it comes to applying more significant ethical and legal standards?

Class, please discuss.

In academic leadership, resume and character are separate entities

resumeclipart

Image courtesy of clipartfest.com

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during a quarter of century in academe is that one’s resume and character are separate entities.

Okay, a quick clarification: In academe a resume is called a curriculum vitae, or c.v. A c.v. is a resume on growth hormones, detailing activities that normally are summarized in a page or two. For someone with a lot of publications and speaking appearances, a  c.v. can easily top ten pages.

In any event, whether we call it a resume or a c.v., the bottom line is that an impressive paper record and upstanding personal character do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is especially the case with professors who enter the world of academic administration, harboring ambitions of deanships, college presidencies, and other high-ranking positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of good, ethical people in academic administration. Many bring a spirit of servant leadership to their work, as opposed to raw, preening ambition. But there’s another group, a pretty big one, that calls to mind writer William Deresiewicz’s excellent essay on leadership, based on a talk he gave to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

I have quoted often from this essay in this blog. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. For dwellers in academe, especially, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll see some people you recognize in his descriptions — hopefully none involving a mirror!!

The rise of the type of leader described by Deresiewicz is one of the problems infecting academic life today: Too many ambitious climbers, not enough servant leaders. At a time when higher education needs its best people at the helm, I’m afraid it’s a very mixed bag.

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

photo-541

Alison Flood reports for The Guardian newspaper that “Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year.” She continues:

Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

I couldn’t help but think of popular “post-truths” circulated by some employers to their rank-and-file workers:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “Each and every employee matters to us.”
  • “We’d hate for a union to come in and interfere with the direct communications we enjoy with our valued employees.”
  • “We’re absolutely committed to equal opportunity.”
  • “Don’t worry, you can trust the HR office with all of your concerns.”
  • “Think of us as one big family here.”

I’m sure that readers can add their own post-truths to this list.

Of course, at some workplaces, many of these statements actually apply. But in too many places of employment, the more you hear them, the less truth they happen to carry. 

The mantra of bad organizations: “That’s in the past, forget about it, let’s move on”

photo-489

When a dysfunctional organization seeks to move on from one failed chapter to the next, one of its biggest challenges is ensuring that the mistakes, miscues, and injustices of the immediate past disappear. After all, accountability can be brutal, especially for those in charge, so why must the previous events and actions muddy up everyone’s boundless excitement for the glorious future?

Thus, the message is sent from on high: It’s a brand new day. We can’t afford to dwell upon the past. Let’s move forward with our great new leadership ideas initiatives slogans!

Those who aren’t on board with the regime facade change may be marginalized or worse. They may even vanish and be rendered unpersons to help erase institutional memories that are best forgotten.

This pattern occurs over and again at lousy organizations in every sector — public, private, and non-profit. It is the tactical refuge of bad leaders who somehow get repeated chances to screw up. Sadly, it also appeals to the words of philosopher George Santayana quoted above, for organizations that cannot remember their past are surely doomed to repeat it, typically with recurring negative consequences.

%d bloggers like this: