What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces?

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Over the years I’ve written a number of pieces discussing the qualities of good bosses, leaders, and workplaces. Here are a few that capture consistent themes about creating quality work environments:

NWI’s “Eightfold Path” to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace (2009)

Drawing on relational-cultural theory, organizational justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, the New Workplace Institute suggests asking these eight questions to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers . . .

Typing Your Workplace Culture (2009)

Building on the pioneering work of psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, Drs. Hartling and Sparks distinguish between healthy “relational” cultures and dysfunctional “non-relational” cultures. . . . A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2013)

I’ve been giving some thought to the personal qualities of the many bosses I’ve worked for, going back to high school and extending to the present day. A handful stand out as being especially good, and I’ve come to realize that they shared a lot of positive characteristics. Here goes: . . .

Is your organization a “can do” or “can’t do” kind of workplace? (2014)

The “can do” organization empowers and enables its workers to create, innovate, and initiate. While recognizing that resources aren’t limitless and that every new idea isn’t necessarily a good one, it nonetheless nurtures an ethic of support and encouragement. The “can do” organization can be an exciting, engaging place to work.

Great organizational leaders enable and empower others (2011)

But when it comes to leading organizations, the ability and willingness to encourage, support, mentor, inspire, and permit others to do quality work is the key to success. These leaders allow people to run with things, responsibly but enthusiastically, and sometimes the results can be extraordinary.

You want good leaders? (2010)

Attention organizations: If you want good leaders, then don’t promote the kiss ups, the kick downs, the scheming hoop-jumpers, and the ambitious conformists. Instead, select folks of genuine vision, courage, character, and good judgment. But don’t take my word for it. Rather, read this remarkable address to West Point cadets by writer William Deresiewicz, titled “Solitude and Leadership,” and published in the American Scholar.

Energy leadership, organizational culture, and workplace bullying (2013)

Is your organizational culture more “anabolic” or “catabolic”? And how does the answer to that question relate to workplace bullying? In his book Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life form the Core (2008), coach and therapist Bruce Schneider identifies two types of energies that can shape and even define an organizational culture . . . .

As U.S. universities embrace the New Gilded Age, what institutions will help us to grow a better society?

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

These trends are disturbing in and of themselves. Moreover, they raise a challenging question: If universities are heading in this direction, what institutions, structures, and networks will help us to blend research, theory, and service toward creating a better society? And how do we create decent, paying, sustainable jobs to support this work?

Of course, the fate of the public intellectual in higher education has been a subject of debate for some time now, especially since the 1987 appearance of Russell Jacoby’s important book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Among other things, Jacoby posited that sharp trends toward narrow specialization in academic scholarship were creating a professoriate that is less relevant to the major public issues of the day.

Yup, one could argue that part-time college teaching jobs, unpaid internships, “non-stipendiary” fellowships, and assorted volunteer gigs offer outlets for expression and creativity. And between individual blogs, sites like The Huffington Post, and free websites, there’s no shortage of online venues for publishing or sharing one’s work.

The problem is that most people have this weird need for food, shelter, and clothing. “Exposure” and “contacts” don’t pay for those basic necessities. A little bit of job security wouldn’t hurt either.

During the coming months, I will devote some space to exploring this and related questions, incorporating a variety of new and emerging voices on public intellectual life in this plutocratic, New Gilded Age. In doing so, I’ll be talking about educators, researchers, activists, practitioners, writers, artists, and others who share a common, understandable concern that our society has no place for them.

As a central part of this inquiry, we need to consider strategies for change. Is it possible to reverse the bad course taken by so many standard-brand universities? Or do we have to think about creating new, sustainable entities that embrace a different, better set of values? If so, how do we go about this?

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To the many readers who follow this blog because of its focus on issues such as workplace bullying, employee well-being, workers’ rights, and the like, stick with me on this one. Research and ideas matter, including within the realm of dignity at work. However, mainstream academe has not been a major driving force in calling for a more humane workplace, which means that we have to identify, support, build, and create the institutions that are eager to do so.

Creating new workplaces

When I named the New Workplace Institute in 2006, I did so with institutional transformation in mind, hoping that it would contribute to the development of better workplaces. Some seven years later, I now realize that the term “new workplace” has at least three meanings. One involves transforming existing organizations into better places to work. Another involves creating brand new workplaces that are healthier and happier than their predecessors. And yet a third involves individuals finding new places to work, hopefully much better than the ones they left, and possibly including a career shift.

Each form of “new workplace” brings its own opportunities and challenges. With apologies for diving rather deeply into conceptual perspectives that I’ve been mulling over during the past few months, I’d like to share a few thoughts on each:

Transforming an existing workplace

Transforming the culture of an unhealthy workplace may require blasting through hedgerows of resistance and hostility, especially in a toxic environment. If successful, the payoff can be significant. In most cases it requires a full-on commitment from the top, especially in workplaces where command & control has been the dominant decision making model. Creating transformative change from the middle or bottom of the organizational chart is not impossible, but typically such efforts can, at best, mitigate, rather than reverse, the effects of bad top-down management.

Starting a new workplace

Creating a first-rate new business or organization requires an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to the quality of work life. Many start-ups are big on the former but neglect the latter. Energies are driven by a vision of what the entity will do, requiring long hours and close attention to endless details. The founders are “all in,” and may not anticipate the day when they hire employees who do not necessarily share their round-the-clock zeal. Unless a commitment to building a psychologically healthy workplace exists from the start, it’s more likely that this new workplace will morph into the latest employer dealing with high levels of worker dissatisfaction and disengagement.

Finding a new workplace

Finding a new, good place to work can be liberating, especially if it follows a nasty layoff or prolonged exposure to a toxic work environment. Recovery and renewal are no easy tasks under such circumstances, but they are eminently possible. In some cases it may involve a career shift. In others it may mean creating your own business. These options may require much more than “simply” looking for a new job. In any event, thinking through all this and weighing options can be the first step on the road to something better.

Many stakeholders

Creating healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces requires many, many stakeholders. They include individual workplaces, labor unions, business groups, advocacy & public education associations, and legal & regulatory structures. In the background, consultants, coaches, and mental health providers can help to guide institutions and individuals to and fro.

This also requires individual commitment to effecting beneficial, healthy, and constructive change. Hopefully, from time to time each of us can step back to assess our contributions toward such efforts.

My Labor Day 2013 wish: Good, stable, bully-free jobs for Generation Jones

On this Labor Day 2013, I feel a special kinship with those of my generation — late Boomers and early Gen Xers born roughly from 1954 to 1965, sometimes referred to as “Generation Jones” — who have been pummeled by this meltdown economy and who have faced age discrimination and bullying in their efforts to get jobs and keep them.

Journalistic set piece

Just last week, the New York Times ran an article by Michael Winerip that represented a common, set piece example of current American journalism, a profile of a once-secure middle aged worker for whom the bottom has fallen out. In this case it’s a man who was earning a very good salary as a mid-level executive for a supermarket chain, until he lost his job last October. While he was still working, he created a support group to help laid off workers get back on their feet. Now he’s taking part in the same group, except in a very different role.

And to make things worse? The man recently suffered a heart attack. Having lost his health insurance with his job, he now owes the hospital over $170,000 for a six-day stay.

Facts and figures

The Times article further gathers some key figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that:

…while the economy may be improving, a substantial number of older workers who lost jobs — even those lucky enough to be re-employed — are still suffering. Two-thirds in that age group who found work again are making less than they did in their previous job; their median salary loss is 18 percent compared with a 6.7 percent drop for 20- to 24-year-olds.

The re-employment rate for 55- to 64-year-olds is 47 percent and 24 percent for those over 65, compared with 62 percent for 20- to 54-year-olds. And finding another job takes far longer: 46 weeks for boomers, compared with 20 weeks for 16- to 24-year-olds.

Age discrimination

There’s a ton of age discrimination occurring these days, but employers don’t have to worry much about facing liability. Here’s a piece of what I wrote earlier this year on this subject:

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act and its state law counterparts prohibit employment discrimination against job applicants and workers age 40 or over.

The excellent Next Avenue site recently ran a piece by Penelope Lemov titled “What It Takes to Win an Age Discrimination Suit,” but in reality it’s actually a sobering assessment of the difficulty of prevailing in such a claim.

Lemov notes that age bias claims have been on the rise since the economic meltdown in 2008…. Nevertheless, she aptly points out that “it has gotten harder and harder to win an age discrimination suit,” thanks to a combination of narrow interpretations of the law by federal courts and employers who are good at covering their tracks.

Bullied at work, too

Many middle aged workers who are fortunate to have jobs face what appears to be disproportionate levels of bullying at work. Earlier this summer I reported the results of a Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll that illustrates the problem:

The instant poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Mental health impacts

The mental health impacts on middle aged workers have been significant on an individual and collective level. As I wrote last spring, suicide has become a leading cause of death for middle aged adults, and rising prevalence rates are correlated with the severe downturn in the economy.

Unfortunately, these extraordinarily disturbing statistics have rotated off of our news cycle, when instead they should remain front and center as an example of what these years have wrought.

A Gen Jones Agenda

I feel like a lot of people in my generation have been thrown under the bus, through no fault of their own. Unfortunately there is little recognition of this looming tragedy in the halls of government or boardrooms of America. If they want to start paying attention, an agenda awaits them:

First, we need more good jobs at good pay. Large corporations currently are sitting on piles of cash. Corporate America, you see, has recovered from the recession, and then some. But this bounty has not translated into the return of jobs. The choice is clear, as I wrote earlier:

It’s not as if we’ve run out of important, meaningful work that needs to be done. If corporate America and Wall Street won’t create jobs despite their abundant earnings, then let’s tax their wealth and use the proceeds to put people back to work, fixing our bridges and roads, building connective public transportation systems, educating our children, providing affordable health care, safeguarding our communities, and caring for our elderly.

Second, we need to revive the labor movement. Good jobs at good pay have never come by accident. They often are the result of worker advocacy and negotiating, and labor unions are in the best position to provide that needed countervailing power in the workplace.

Third, we need innovative programs to help the long-term unemployed transition back into the labor force, such as this pilot program described by Adam Wahlberg for MinnPost.com:

The City of Minneapolis said this week that it is partnering with a Connecticut-based group called The Workplace to launch a job-training initiative geared toward helping veterans and unemployed individuals age 50 and older.

Called Platform to Employment (P2E), the program, which started in Connecticut in 2011, is now in 10 markets, including Chicago, Dallas, and Denver. P2E is designed to provide life skills in such areas as financial counseling, resumé writing, self-marketing, and stress-reduction, over a five-week period, before placing enrollees in jobs for an eight-week trial run.

Finally, we need to strengthen our age discrimination laws and to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill to provide legal incentives for employers to act better. Too many aren’t doing so on their own.

Repairing the damage done by the last five years won’t be easy, but these measures will put us in the right direction.

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Note: I fully realize that my age cohort is not the only one to be heavily impacted by our current economic state.  In particular, I remain very concerned about the prospects of younger folks who are graduating with heavy student loan debt, only to be offered unpaid internships rather than decent entry-level jobs. I’ll continue writing about that during the months to come.

 

The School of Life on finding fulfilling work

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Here’s a thought-provoking question that writer and lecturer Roman Krznaric poses at the end of the first chapter of his very good little paperback book, How to Find Fulfilling Work (2012):

What is your current work doing to you as a person — to your mind, character and relationships?

I’ve heard and offered less compelling variations of questions like this one — How’s work going? What’s good and bad about your occupation? Is your job meeting your needs? — but nothing so neatly framed.

School of Life series

How to Find Fulfilling Work is one in a series of short books on practical philosophy sponsored by The School of Life, a London-based entity that offers “a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.” The book series is entering the U.S., and this title will be available soon.

The School of Life sounds like a fascinating initiative. Reading its description makes me wish we had something similar here in Boston:

The School of Life is a place to step back and think intelligently about these and other concerns. You will not be cornered by any dogma, but directed towards a variety of ideas – from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts – that tickle, exercise and expand your mind. You’ll meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.

The quest for fulfilling work

Krznaric mixes ground-level philosophy, vocational guidance, and inspiration into this quick read. Here are the chapter titles:

The Age of Fulfillment

A Short History of Career Confusion

Giving Meaning to Work

Act First, Reflect Later

The Longing for Freedom

How to Grow a Vocation

The book concludes with helpful recommendations of books, movies, and other resources to help people in their quests for work that suits them.

But first: Basic needs and obligations

If you’re weighing your career and vocational options, especially with an eye toward pursuing more meaningful work, this book is worth your time.

But I also know that some readers are not in a position to be selective. They need decent paying work, period, and with bills mounting they’ll be grateful for whatever comes their way. Indeed, anyone who is free enough to consider options for making work a fulfilling activity in itself is very fortunate.

So, if you need to pay for food, shelter, and clothing, the type of work you’re doing may matter a whole lot less than getting a sufficient paycheck. And if your obligations include kids and/or other dependents, you may not be in a position to “go for the gusto.”

In fact, one of the few quarrels I have with Krznaric is his suggestion that financial fears can be softened by having a backup fund of three months worth of expenses in case the “dream job” falls apart. In the first place, saving up that kind of money is difficult in tough times. And secondly, a three-month emergency fund isn’t all that comforting anyway for someone who must care for others as well.

Onward

Still…my hope is that we will evolve into a society where decent pay and good work come together more often than not. Books like How to Find Fulfilling Work point us in the right direction. So, let’s put these options for individual initiative and change out there, and gravitate toward them when we can.

Starting a small business? Try SCORE first

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I never imagined that a workshop on how to start a small business would be so inspirational, but that’s how I felt after participating in a day-long program sponsored by the Boston chapter of SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

SCORE is a national non-profit organization with chapters across the country, working closely with the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide information and advice to individuals who want to start or build small businesses. SCORE counselors are retired executives who have proven themselves in the private and non-profit sectors, and they lead workshops and provide individual counseling — all on a pro bono basis.

“Getting Started Workshop”

I attended SCORE’s “Getting Started Workshop,” and here’s the agenda for the day:

A workshop for persons who are planning to open a new business or who are looking for assistance in the operation of an exisiting business.

Key Topics Covered, include:
– Entrepreneurship: is it for you
– Is your Business Concept reasonable
– What is a Business Plan and why do one
– How to build a Business Plan
– How to Market your Business
– Do you need an Operational Plan
– Human Resources
– How will you Finance your business
– Building your Financial Plan
– Should you Incorporate
– What Advisors do you need
– What other Resources are available to help you

The Afternoon Sessions are small roundtable discussions lead by SCORE counselors.

It’s a quick but wide-ranging “soup-to-nuts” introduction to creating a small business. The cost? Only $35 for those who pre-registered, $45 at the door. That’s what is known as a bargain.

At the end, participants are invited to schedule individual consultations with SCORE counselors who have some expertise in their general areas of interest. And SCORE’s continued assistance is free-of-charge!

Great discussions

There were about 15 people at the workshop. Many had well-developed business ideas. I don’t want to give away any secrets, but let me say it was inspirational to listen to the breadth and depth of initiatives in the making, covering various services, product development, and entertainment & leisure. By the end of the workshop, folks were exchanging cards and even seeing opportunities to work together.

The upbeat, constructive tone of the workshop was such a contrast to the dire economic news of the day. It brought together people from many different walks of life, personal backgrounds, and educational levels, sporting the kind of natural diversity that makes for a terrific sharing of ideas.

A blessed contradiction

During our small-group session in which people shared their business concepts and ideas, the counselor advised us not to undersell ourselves, suggesting that some businesses lose out because they do not charge enough for the products and services they deliver.

Well, it’s a blessed contradiction for us that SCORE counselors are giving away the kind of advice that one might pay thousands of dollars for in classes and one-to-one business consulting. In the process, they’re giving back to their communities by facilitating new businesses that generate jobs, opportunities, and hope.

Check it out

There are many sources of information and guidance about starting a business. Many cost money, ranging from adult education offerings to full-blown MBA programs. In the case of SCORE, almost everything they offer is free. If you have serious ideas about starting a small business, you owe it to yourself to check them out, as well as the Small Business Administration:

Go here for the national SCORE website.

Go here for the national SBA website.

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Hat-tip to Brian McCrane, former SCORE counselor, for initially alerting me to these opportunities.

Working Notes: A possible workplace bullying-related suicide in New Mexico, NYC fast-food workers call for decent pay, and NBC to pay student interns

Here are three news items worthy of attention:

1. Bullying-related suicide in New Mexico? — Staci Matlock reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican on the suicide of a 50-year-old woman whose family is claiming had to do with ongoing bullying at work (link here):

…The family members of Annette Prada say she told them she was a victim of workplace bullying at the Public Regulation Commission.

Prada, 50, was found by police Thursday, according to her family. Prada had worked for the corporations bureau at the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission for 23 years, according to her daughter Andre Prada. “She had been dealing with bullying and stress there for years,” Andre Prada said, claiming the abuse was verbal, through email and in demotions. “She was only two years away (from retirement). She tried to stay strong.”

Hat tip to Kathy Hermes, Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates, for the article.

2. NYC fast-food workers engaging in labor actions — Steven Greenhouse reports for the New York Times on labor actions calling for higher wages, staged by New York City fast-food workers (link here):

The biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry began at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, with several dozen protesters chanting: “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.”

That demonstration kicked off a day of walkouts and rallies at dozens of Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants in New York City, organizers said. They said 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work the morning shift at the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue did not — part of what they said were 200 fast-food workers who went on strike in the city.

Could this be the start of something big? Let’s hope so! I recall a talk by the late Beth Shulman, drawn from her book The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 50 Million Americans and their Families (2003), reminding us that all those “good jobs at good wages” in the manufacturing sector weren’t simply created that way; it took labor action and collective bargaining.

3. NBC to pay its student interns — The emerging movement against exploitative unpaid internships appears to have scored another victory. Richard Prince reports on the Maynard Institute blog that NBC is planning to institute a paid internship program (link here):

NBC News is planning to pay its interns starting in the spring of 2013, according to a well-placed source at the network, addressing a long-held contention that requiring interns to work only for the experience or for college credit amounts to favoring students with well-to-do parents.

The number of internships and the salary level have yet to be determined, the source said.

The arguments for and against unpaid internships have been made for years.

The post quotes news anchor Brian Williams’s concerns about declining diversity among “Nightly News” interns.

Hat tip to Eric Glatt for the blog piece.

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