Workplace abusers: A few “bad apples” or part of a terribly bad harvest?

Image from todayifoundout.com

In recent weeks, I’ve encountered multiple variations on the “just a few bad apples” excuse/explanation/dodge, meant to assure others that corruption, violence, sexual harassment or assault, or bullying of employees or customers are the acts of a mere handful of miscreants within an organization, or perhaps even a sole rotten one. There’s always going to be a bad apple or two. He was just a bad apple. It’s hard to screen out every bad apple. It’s unfair to define us by a few bad apples. And blah blah blah.

True, the bad apples analogy may sometimes fit the situation. Maybe an organization that tries to do everything right in terms of hiring, supervision, and review finds itself dealing with that rare bad employee who has mistreated others, and somehow the situation got out of hand.

I’ll concede that possibility.

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples.

Where the bad apples analogy actually fits, frequently it is used to reduce the need for organizational and leadership accountability, as if to say that this unusual occurrence somehow makes the underlying misconduct less serious. Instead, a full-throated apology and promise to make things right would be the stand up thing to do.

 

When it comes to workplace abuse, evil still trumps stupid

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman offers a provocative, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek thesis about bad leaders: We should fear the stupid ones more than the evil ones. In support of his point, Burkeman cites a humorous 1976 essay by economist Carlo Cipolla:

Cipolla has a technical definition of a stupid person: someone “who causes losses to another person [or group] while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses” – as opposed to a “bandit”, who pursues selfish gain at cost to others. “Day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments,” he writes.

…What makes stupid people so dangerous is that you can’t refer to their own self-interest to predict or explain their actions. “An intelligent person may understand the logic of a bandit,” Cipolla writes. “The bandit’s actions follow a pattern of rationality: nasty rationality, if you like, but still rationality.” Not so with the stupid.

True, anyone who has worked under not-so-bright leaders knows the havoc that they can wreak. These leaders may also suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias where incompetent individuals vastly overrate their abilities. A lot of dumb, absurd, crazy-making stuff can happen when such people are in charge, leading to massive frustrations and squanderings of time, effort, and money.

But when I apply the Burkeman/Cipolla thesis to workplace abuse, I find it grinding to a halt. When it comes to workplace bullying and mobbing, it’s the evil leaders we should fear the most — the ones who maliciously abuse others, encourage a culture of such behaviors, and/or look the other way when they occur.

True, work abuse may have no seeming rationality, in that it is bad for everyone (exempting perhaps abusers and their enablers), thus technically qualifying for the label of stupid. But make no mistake about it, genuine bullying and mobbing behaviors are motivated by a desire to instill fear or distress. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great American jurist, wrote that “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked” (The Common Law, 1881). Most of those who have been savagely mistreated at work know the difference as well.

Of course, on occasion we encounter those folks who are both evil and stupid, while possessing the power to impose themselves on others. If they are aware of their lack of competence (the opposite of Dunning-Kruger Effect), it may fuel insecurities that can drive bullying. When combined with their capacity for malevolence, abusive behaviors may well follow. And if they are in leadership positions, then really bad things can happen to subordinates who challenge them.

Can institutions be caring servants for a greater good?

In the opening to his monograph The Institution as Servant (1972; rev. ed. 2009), the late Robert K. Greenleaf stated:

THIS IS MY THESIS: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions — often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

Greenleaf devoted much of his life to advancing the philosophy and practice of servant leadership. I was introduced to this concept by educator Steven James Lawrence, who tied it into the quest for greater dignity in our workplaces. This led me to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, which describes servant leadership this way:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Linking institutions and individuals in a servant leadership mode

You can see the challenge, drawing heavily upon Greenleaf’s thinking:

  1. Organizations have become the conduits through which society does much of its “caring work.”
  2. Organizations are only as good as their citizens, especially their leaders.
  3. Thus, to foster better, more caring institutions, we have to create and empower more caring leaders eager and willing to serve in a servant leadership capacity.

Uh oh, this isn’t going to be easy, right? It runs smack dab into commonly-held notions of self-interested ambition and advancement that are drilled into the heads of high achievers early on. Think family expectations for success. Think the cultures of business schools, law schools, and elite colleges and universities. Many of us (myself included) are where we are because we bought into that achievement ethic, at least in part, and perhaps at times at the cost of conducting ourselves in a servant leadership mode.

Furthermore, changing existing institutions is hard work. Organizational cultures set in good and bad ways. Greenleaf wrote The Institution as Servant especially for trustees in businesses, universities, and religious institutions. However, stakeholders at all levels must be invited to play a role in positive transformation. Also, it may be easier to imbue new organizations with a spirit of servant leadership rather than trying to move existing ones that seem stuck in place.

Finally, as some protested when I first wrote about servant leadership over a year ago, some leaders claim to be operating in servant leadership mode when, in reality, they’re doing quite the opposite. Thus, servant leadership has been hijacked in some instances by individuals who tout themselves as being something they’re not. (I’ve seen folks like this in academic workplaces. They’re also fond of using terms such as “transparency” and “shared governance,” and the more they invoke them, the less they practice them.)

Still, this is all worth pursuing. To a large degree, our society is the product of the institutions that shape it. Better organizations and better leaders can only help us.

How do social and economic class differences impact workplace bullying?

Do social and economic class differences impact workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors? If so, how?

America continues to think itself as a classless society, despite deep and worsening wealth divisions. Now, however, it appears that a combination of the ongoing effects of the Great Recession and the tumult associated with the election of Donald Trump has prompted some closer looks at class distinctions. For example, The Guardian newspaper has launched an ongoing investigative study of class and inequality in the U.S.:

We’re calling it On the Ground: reporting from all corners of America. The series is funded in part by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to support the Guardian’s reporting on wealth inequality in America. The Rockefeller grant will fund a broader Guardian project called Inequality and Opportunity in America, focused on economic disparities due to work, class and inequality.

Also, Annie Lowrey, writing for The Atlantic, spotlights a new book by Richard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders (2017), that points a finger at America’s upper middle class as a major culprit in reinforcing inequality. While recognizing the extreme wealth concentrations enjoyed by the top one percent, Reeves argues that the top twenty percent have also enjoyed considerable success in recent decades, leaving the others in their wake. He further posits that these advantages are being passed on to their children in ways that will only harden social and economic class inequalities.

I’d like to take a closer look at these commentaries in a future post, but for now let’s return to bullying and class distinctions. I did a quick search for studies examining potential relationships between workplace bullying and social/economic class and didn’t come up with much. But the more I ponder the question, the more I’m convinced that class can play out significantly in this realm. It may manifest itself in a well compensated manager or highly degreed professional who looks down at less educated, lower paid co-workers and treats them accordingly. It may involve a group of co-workers who see a peer as not being from their side of the tracks (whichever side that may be) and bully, harass, and ostracize that individual because of it.

In any event, this topic is ripe for more research and understanding. Workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse may occur due to many reasons. Class distinctions definitely belong on the list.

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse

Dear readers, I’ve been on the road a lot lately and not able to write as often as usual, but this evening I finished re-watching “Spotlight,” the superb 2015 movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the widespread sexual abuse of children committed by priests in the Catholic Church. The title refers to the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team, which spent months pursuing leads and interviewing individuals before going public with its findings in January 2002. Although the Globe was not the only journalistic player in this saga, it took the dedicated resources of the Spotlight team to document the abuse and a cover-up going all the way up to the Archdiocese and Cardinal Bernard Law.

The individual performances in “Spotlight” are outstanding. Michael Keaton (editor “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (reporter Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (reporter Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (editor-in-chief Marty Baron), and Stanley Tucci (lawyer Mitch Garabedian) are among those who deliver serious, believable, and understated performances. The movie doesn’t pull punches about the gruesomeness of what occurred here. Nevertheless, it avoids lapsing into overly prurient detail or Catholic-bashing. It lets the story speak for itself, ranging from the impact of sexual abuse on the victims, to the enabling culture of a city, to the powerful institutional role played by the Church in the long-term cover up.

The movie also provides some important food for thought about how to combat systematic abuse, including bullying and abuse in the workplace and other settings. (If you haven’t seen the movie, there are some spoilers ahead.)

First, as I wrote last week, abuse tends to be fueled, enabled, empowered, and protected by corrupt systems. There’s a brilliant scene in the movie where Mitch Garabedian, a lawyer for the child victims of priest abuse, tells Globe reporter Mike Rezendes that “…if it takes village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one.”

Second, muckraking investigative journalism and dedicated, smart legal advocacy still make for a powerful combination. The Globe‘s reporters benefited greatly from the legal advocacy and investigations of lawyers who had taken cases on behalf of the victims.

Third, it may take multiple documented, credible victim stories in order to take on powerful, abuse-sponsoring institutions. The Spotlight team’s investigation didn’t really take off until it became clear that the victim count ran into the many dozens.

Fourth, it’s important to follow the abuse and its cover-up to the highest possible organizational levels in order to have the strongest potential impact. Globe editor Marty Baron made clear to the Spotlight reporters that accountability should be traced, if possible, up to the Archdiocese and Cardinal Law.

“Spotlight” can currently be streamed via Netflix. For the collected Globe Spotlight Team coverage of the priest scandal, go here.

Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition

Image of German Stuka dive bombers from MilitaryHistoryNow.com

Like all types of interpersonal mistreatment, workplace bullying and mobbing come in varying degrees of frequency and intensity. All are bad, but some are worse than others, and in some cases, much worse. For a long time I’ve been thinking about the right term to describe a particularly virulent form of all-out, coordinated or semi-coordinated, multi-directional work abuse, and I think I’ve found it: Blitzkrieg bullying or mobbing.

Blitzkrieg is a German term meaning “lightning war.” As defined by historian Raymond Limbach for Encyclopedia Britannica, blitzkrieg is a “military tactic calculated to create psychological shock and resultant disorganization in enemy forces through the employment of surprise, speed, and superiority in matériel or firepower.” He continues:

Germany’s success with the tactic at the beginning of World War II hinged largely on the fact that it was the only country that had effectively linked its combined forces with radio communications. The use of mobility, shock, and locally concentrated firepower in a skillfully coordinated attack paralyzed an adversary’s capacity to organize defenses, rather than attempting to physically overcome them, and then exploited that paralysis by penetrating to the adversary’s rear areas and disrupting its whole system of communications and administration.

I think it is wholly fitting to borrow a concept honed in practice by the Nazi regime to tag this form of intensive, targeted bullying or mobbing. After all, those who engage in this form of work abuse operate at a comparable level of morality: They are out to eliminate someone through aggressive, heartless, disorienting actions.

True, blitzkrieg tactics are historically associated with strategies to achieve fast, decisive victories, with a minimal expenditure of personnel and arms. In that sense, some might understandably respond that by comparison, bullying and mobbing campaigns may endure for months or years. I take the point, but blitzkrieg tactics also can be part of military campaigns that go on for some time.

In thinking about bullying and mobbing situations that merit the blitzkrieg label, I find that various combinations of following actions are often used:

  • Gaslighting behaviors meant to confuse and disorient
  • Eliminationist tactics such as blackballing
  • Electronic surveillance and hacking of electronic accounts
  • Using the legal system to abuse the target
  • Button pushing to trigger or provoke the target into making mistakes
  • Defamation and misrepresentation, often extending into the broader workforce or even community
  • Breaking and entering into a target’s premises
  • Vandalism, theft, and property destruction
  • Anonymous messaging and threats
  • Abusers claiming victim status

Bullying and mobbing motivated by retaliatory instincts can yield especially vicious forms of the above.

By using these tactics, abusers aim to disorient, confuse, frighting, weaken, and ultimately disable the target. As one can guess, it is very, very hard to fight this level of abuse. Sometimes it can be done, but it takes calculation, knowledge, and strategic smarts — qualities often in low supply when someone is being overwhelmed and their cognitive skills are frequently impaired. This is where friends, family members, and allies come in to provide support and assistance, but only if they understand that this form of blitzkrieg abuse is very, very real, even if the story at first sounds “crazy.”

As I see it, we need to understand more about blitzkrieg abuse and how perpetrators get away with it, for it surely captures the worst forms of bullying and mobbing. It also underscores the need for workplace anti-bullying laws that give targets a legal weapon to use in response. Such a law may well open the door to procedural discovery (document requests, depositions, interrogatories, etc.) that will help a target build an evidence trail, which, in turn, traces back to the main ringleaders.

Related posts

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (2016)

Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct (2015)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014)

Understanding the Holocaust (And why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014)

When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012; rev.2017)

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012)

Workplace bullying: Acknowledging grief

Catching my attention this week was an essay by religion professor Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College, Minnesota) on the experience of grief. Titled “On Becoming Grief Outlaws” and published in The Cresset (the journal of Valparaiso University in Indiana, my undergraduate school), the piece questions how our popular culture urges us to internalize our grief rather than to express it openly. Bussie herself did this when her mother suffered with Alzheimer’s:

For a long time, I extradited my grief underground. I didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer. I didn’t want to live in the jail of other people’s judgment (especially the colleagues, acquaintances, and church folks who thought I should “move on,” “get over it already,” accept “God’s plan,” and “not grieve as one without hope”).

But the life of lies and fake Barbie smiles wore me out. Eventually, I let grief back into its home country—my heart—and let my heart back on to my sleeve.

Now, Bussie is calling upon us to bring grief out of the closet:

As a theologian, teacher, and person of faith, I want us to talk about the hard stuff. I want us to air all the dirty laundry we’re taught never to air—questions without answers, anger at God, scars that cause us shame, doubt that wrestles us to the ground, sorrow we just can’t shake. All of it.

Work abuse and grief

Research studies and seemingly endless numbers of terrible stories have taught us that those who experience workplace bullying and mobbing can lose a lot, especially:

  • Jobs, careers, and livelihoods;
  • Health and well being;
  • Family and friendship ties;
  • Financial stability; and,
  • Reputations and standing in a community.

It is not unusual for someone to lose all of these things as the culmination of an extended campaign of bullying or mobbing.

We typically don’t associate grieving with losses that might blithely be tagged as “work-related,” but in this context (among others), it’s important that we do so. Work abuse exacts a significant toll on its targets. The sense of loss can be deeply palpable. Grief is an understandable response.

Healing, recovery, and renewal

We need to acknowledge grief, but we also cannot let it win. Yes, I know that’s a competitive sounding statement about an emotion that has nothing to do with conventional notions of victory and defeat.

It’s just that I want us to find ways to help people heal, recover, and renew after such terrible losses. There is no singular path toward this better place, but we need to recognize that many must overcome (or at least negotiate with) their grief in order to reach it.

For some, this time of year marks a holiday celebrating rebirth; for others, it’s about a holiday commemorating liberation. My own faith is non-denominational, but I’m happy if we borrow from these faith traditions to count rebirth and liberation from grief as worthy objectives for helping those who have been savaged at their workplaces.

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