When a workplace bully gets his comeuppance, should we be gleeful?

A month ago, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg took particular satisfaction over president Donald Trump humiliating his national security advisor, John Bolton, in the midst of diplomatic negotiations over nuclear arms (link here). She didn’t pull any punches:

Say this for Donald Trump. He may be transforming American politics into a kleptocratic fascist reality show and turning our once-great country into a global laughingstock, but at least he’s humiliating John Bolton in the process.

Why the glee over Bolton being savagely undermined by his boss? It may be the spectacle of witnessing one bully being outdone by another. You see, John Bolton is a longtime presence on the American diplomatic scene — with apologies for using the terms “Bolton” and “diplomatic” in the same sentence. I first heard about Bolton during George W. Bush’s administration, when he was appointed the U.N. Ambassador. His Senate confirmation hearings for the position were replete with stories about his raging temper and bullying tactics.

In fact, I referenced Bolton’s record of workplace bullying in an online piece published in 2005:

Allegations of intimidating and angry treatment of co-workers lodged against John Bolton, the Bush Administration’s newly-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations, have put a spotlight on the problem of workplace bullying. While Bolton has not quite done for bullying what Clarence Thomas and his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings did for raising awareness of sexual harassment, it is clear that this story struck a responsive chord with many workers who have experienced abusive treatment at the hands of bosses and co-workers.

…In recent months, many of these behaviors have been attributed to Bolton by current and former State Department co-workers and contractors. Ex-State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford, a Republican appointee, called Bolton a “serial abuser” of subordinates, adding that he showed a talent for stroking superiors while kicking down underlings.

The most publicized allegations came from Melody Townsel, a woman who worked with Bolton in Moscow under a government contract in 1994. Townsel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton chased her down the halls of a Moscow hotel, threw a tape dispenser at her, made disparaging remarks about her appearance, left threatening letters under her hotel door, and pounded on her door and yelled at her.

Bolton is said to have pursued the removal of two intelligence analysts simply for disagreeing with him. He sought to have them fired, claiming that their work had deteriorated. Internal agency reviews of the analysts’ work found no merit to the claims. Other reports indicate that Bolton has a talent for shouting down diplomats from other nations and throwing last-minute monkey wrenches into delicate treaty negotiations.

Should we celebrate a bully’s comeuppance?

I’m not about to wag a finger at someone who takes delight in a bully’s downfall, especially if said bully was a personal tormenter. In fact, in writing this piece, I recalled once sounding a war whoop of delight upon hearing that karma had come around to bite someone who was responsible for bad things happening to people at work. I’m neither proud of, nor apologetic for, that emotional response.

I have no hard and fast rules for when the celebration becomes excessive. That said, I hope we can all summon our better natures in not letting such responses go too far. Public humiliation, in particular, has a way of becoming cyclical, leading to more of the same. This may include, among other things, unintended and negative consequences of bullying bullies.

France Télécom executives are on trial for workplace bullying associated with dozens of worker suicides

Former France Télécom executives are on trial for alleged violations of France’s “moral harassment” code, in a case alleging that systematic bullying tactics were employed to reduce the company’s workforce. During the time in question, 35 workers died by suicide, and many left notes explaining that working conditions had pushed them beyond their ability to endure. Angelique Crisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom could face prison over organised workplace harassment that led to a spate of staff suicides a decade ago, as a two-month trial that shocked France draws to a close this week.

French state prosecutors have urged judges to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and hand down the maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines, after details emerged in court of the turmoil felt by workers over systematic bullying tactics aimed at pushing staff to leave.

Workplace bullying: Does adversity nurture compassion?

 

Does experiencing bullying at work or another form of interpersonal mistreatment make us more compassionate towards those who going through similar situations?

Ideally, we’d like to think that experiencing such adversity would build our sense of empathy for others who are dealing with like challenges. However, a 2014 study (link here) by Rachel Ruttan (Northwestern U.), Mary-Hunter McDonnell (U. Penn.), and Loran Nordgren (Northwestern U.) advises us to check those assumptions. Here’s the article abstract:

For those who are struggling with a difficult experience and who seek the support of others, it is a common assumption that others who have been through the experience in the past will be more understanding. To the contrary, the current research found that participants who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment) more harshly evaluated another person’s failure to endure a similar distressing event compared to participants with no experience enduring the event. These effects emerged for three naturally occurring distressing events, as well as one experimentally-induced distressing event. The effect was driven by the tendency for those who previously endured the distressing event to view the event as less difficult to overcome. Taken together, the paper’s findings present a paradox such that, in the face of struggle or defeat, the people we are most apt to seek for advice or comfort may be the least likely to provide it.

Let’s understand that this study is not claiming any absolutes. It suggests that those who have “previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment)” may be less likely to support others who going through similar experiences. It’s not a blanket characterization of all people who have experienced mistreatment.

Personal observations

In fact, I know darn well that people who have experienced bullying and mobbing can be extraordinarily supportive of those who are enduring like abuse at work. The core of the workplace anti-bullying movement has been built on the shoulders of these folks. This includes countless numbers of people who, on a professional or volunteer basis, have helped and are helping targets of workplace mistreatment through counseling, coaching, and informal support.

Of course, as the study suggests, this is not always so. And I have witnessed this, too. For example, years ago, I took part in an extended online conversation in which a self-identified workplace mobbing target dismissed the experiences of self-identified targets of workplace bullying, claiming that her suffering was much greater than theirs. It was not an easy exchange.

In essence, the psychology of abuse is complicated and yields a variety of responses from those who have been subjected to it. Nevertheless, the large cadre of bullying and mobbing targets who have joined together to support each other and to advocate for change embodies our efforts to enhance the dignity of work and workers.

Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)

For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”;
  2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”;
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”;
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; and,
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.

I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.

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Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):

  1. “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
  2. “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
  3. “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
  4. “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
  5. “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”

Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.

Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.

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Cross-posted with my “Musings of a Gen Joneser” personal blog.

Decades of repeated sexual misconduct complaints finally lead to a resolution at Harvard

Here in Greater Boston, the local news is reporting that Harvard University has stripped retired professor Jorge Dominguez of his emeritus status, following a review of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct towards women at the university spanning decades. From the Harvard Crimson (link here):

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced in an email to FAS affiliates Thursday that she has stripped former Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez of his emeritus status and disinvite him from the FAS campus following the conclusion of a months-long investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under the sanctions Gay imposed, Dominguez will lose the rights and privileges afforded to emeritus faculty members. He will be unable to hold an office on campus, teach and advise students, or receive support from administrative or research assistants.

The Office for Dispute Resolution investigation into Dominguez found that he engaged in “unwelcome sexual conduct” toward several individuals multiple times over a decades-long period, according to Gay.

. . . In a February 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report, at least 10 women publicly accused Dominguez of repeated acts sexual misconduct. A follow-up Chronicle story revealed that Dominguez faced sexual misconduct allegations spanning four decades from 18 women.

“Emeritus” status is a courtesy title commonly given to retired professors who have provided long service to a university. While presumably the university’s actions do not affect his past compensation, they essentially render him persona non grata on the Harvard campus and serve as a very public rebuke of his career.

Four decades?

Okay, so it’s good that Harvard stepped up, did a real investigation, and acted upon its results.

But I think the lede is being buried here: The real story is that it took them four decades — with allegations from 18 women — to engage in real action on this professor.

Why so long?

I’m not privy to the inner workings at Harvard, but I’ve been studying and experiencing academic life for years. It’s safe to say that, on balance, colleges and universities are not the most courageous organizations around, especially if they are led by senior administrators and boards who are primarily focussed on preserving and advancing institutional reputations.

For example, as the horrible revelations of sexual abuse at Michigan State University (Nassar scandal concerning sexual abuse of women gymnasts) and Penn State University (football program and child sex abuse) have documented, academic administrators repeatedly swept concerns under the rug in order to save their schools from public scrutiny and accountability.

Through it all, there’s an ongoing belief system that holds sway, namely, that those who are subjected to abuse and mistreatment count for much less than the reputations of the institution and those who hold privileged positions. It’s about moral and ethical failure.

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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.

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.

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