Ten popular MTW posts from 2019

Dear Readers, I’ve collected ten of the most popular MTW posts written during 2019. If you missed them before, I hope they will prove interesting and enlightening to you this time around. Here goes:

Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival and gave him a toe tag (link here) — When Charlie Bowlby faced heart surgery, his co-workers placed bets on the likelihood that he would survive and gave him a mock toe tag before he went off to the hospital.

Speaking truth to power: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing (link here) — Bullying and mobbing are forms of abuse, not bad manners, and we should treat them accordingly.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (link here) — Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s conceptualization of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — applies to many workplace bullying and mobbing situations.

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down? (link here) — One study suggests a link between kissing up to one’s superiors and picking down one’s subordinates.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige (link here) — The burgeoning college admissions scandal has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no) (link here) — A workplace aggressor should not be given a free pass simply because they happen to be creative.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here) — I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I repeatedly recommend to others.

A short speech in Rome (link here) — The text of my acceptance speech after receiving the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, at the International Congress for Law and Mental Health.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying (link here) — Discussing two feature articles, one a piece on a former corrections officer who faced savage bullying and sexual harassment, the other a piece on bullying of resident physicians.

On following evil orders at work (link here) — What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker?

Recovering from workplace bullying and other traumatic experiences: “Can’t” or “won’t”?

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

When it comes to folks who are dealing with severe workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, or other forms of targeted interpersonal mistreatment, we sometimes see people who seem to be stuck in a place of rumination and obsession:

He just won’t move forward. I think he prefers to suffer and be a victim.

She just can’t move forward. She’s suffering and feels very victimized.

On the surface, these two characterizations may not sound all that different. But dig even a little deeper, and the contrasts illuminate.

“Won’t” suggests that a traumatized individual has affirmatively chosen, for the time being, to stay in this bad place and not move forward. True, on a more hopeful note, it also assumes a power and ability to choose to get better. That said, there’s a judgmental ring to “won’t” as well, sounding a bit like victim blaming for a present “refusal” to proceed with recovery and healing.

“Can’t” suggests factors, internal and external, that limit a traumatized individual’s ability to recover, heal, and move forward. It implicitly suggests medical and external reasons for why someone is stuck in place. But it also connotes, at least in this context, that maybe someone is stuck there for the long haul.

I admit that in moments of frustration, I sometimes have used “won’t.” But in the process of learning more about psychological trauma, I now understand that “can’t” is the more appropriate term. Trauma is bear of a thing to wrestle with, and oftentimes those who are dealing with PTSD, depression, and related conditions due to abuse can easily get stuck in place.

However, if we are going to use the more appropriate “can’t,” then we should add an important addendum: …at least for now. You see, the good news is that a lot of progress is being made when it comes to understanding and treating trauma.

In connection with a new course I’m teaching called the Law and Psychology Lab (described here), I’ve returned to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking, accessible book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). In re-reading its chapters, I’m once again reminded of the complexities of trauma and the emergence of multiple treatment modalities for helping those who are experiencing it.

In essence, currently various trauma treatment approaches await those who are ready to seek and participate in them. Furthermore, I sense that we are still in the early stages of developing effective treatments. Thus, there is real hope for recovery and healing right now, and additional hope for even better treatments down the road.

Highly recommended

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

In her excellent book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro), Dr. Robin Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

From this apt definition, we can tease out two major elements of gaslighting:

First, it is intentional and targeted toward a specific individual or group. It is not accidental or inadvertent. (After all, I cannot imagine a sincere apology along the lines of oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to gaslight you.)

Second, it is emotionally manipulative, designed to disorient and even frighten those on the receiving end. It’s about messing with someone’s perceptions of reality.

In short, gaslighting is a tool for taking, preserving, or abusing power. At work, it may be a component of workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, anti-union campaigns, or seemingly bizarre management pronouncements. I am glad that we have a term that captures such targeted, disorienting behaviors.

That said, there’s always the risk that the term can be overused.

In earlier posts, I predicted that now that gaslighting is becoming a more mainstream entry in our vocabulary of interpersonal abuse, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors at times. I believe this is now coming true. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed gaslighting being invoked in situations where the apparent factual circumstances did not justify its use.

Borrowing from an earlier post, gaslighting is sometimes confused with:

  • an honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • an argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • someone being obstinate or stubborn;
  • erroneous, even confusing, directives and instructions;
  • one side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “white lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • instances of incivility; or,
  • an incoherent explanation.

Indeed, I recently found myself characterizing a description of someone’s behavior as gaslighting, until I had to acknowledge that their actions didn’t reach that level. I believe that using the term gaslighting has become a, well, cool way of demonstrating that we’re in the know about the lingo of emotional manipulation. It then can be used as a sharp, negative, blanket label to characterize someone else’s objectionable statements or actions, even when they don’t quite fit the definition.

Especially in situations where negative emotions escalate, it can be tempting to slap a tag of gaslighting on communications (in person, on paper, or online) that become heated. However, if we are to save the use of this term for the specific, nasty tool of mistreatment that it is, then we should not hurl it across the room, so to speak, whenever angry disagreements occur. Unfortunately, there is enough real gaslighting going on to ensure many opportunities for its continued proper use.

Let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses

 

For those of us who are committed to making human dignity a framing characteristic of modern society, let’s make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed an unsurprising but nonetheless troubling trend about traffic to this blog. On balance, pieces that discuss the hurt, pain, and injustice of workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get higher readership stats than those that discuss systemic solutions, law reform, and possible paths toward individual healing & recovery.

This appears to be a twist on internet clickbait patterns generally, whereby online readers are drawn to negative topics that validate and fuel outrage. Let’s face it: Sometimes we’re more likely to curse the darkness than to light a candle. Especially if you’ve been a target of workplace abuse, it’s perfectly natural to react in such a manner.

But lighting that candle towards effective solutions and responses must be our primary objective. And therein lies the hard work before us. In terms of what that means, I can speak only for myself.

Of course, I remain steadfastly committed to enacting the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. As I wrote earlier this year (link here), we’re on a gradual but inevitable march toward enacting workplace anti-bullying laws in the U.S. It’s taking a long time to do this, particularly in the face of corporate opposition, but we are making genuine progress.

Overall, I’ll be continuing work on several fronts that encourages our legal systems, places of employment, and other political and civic institutions to embrace human dignity as a primary framing value. I will be emphasizing this theme as part of my service on three non-profit boards, in particular: The International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, and Americans for Democratic Education Fund.

I’m also excited about a new course I’m offering at my law school during the coming semester. It’s called the Law and Psychology Lab, and it will incorporate heavy doses of therapeutic jurisprudence, encouraging law students to examine how laws can support psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions. In addition to developing projects on topics of individual interest, the students will work on a larger, co-created group project with a specific theme, which for this initial offering will be bullying, abuse, and trauma along the lifespan. We will be making some of the results of our work publicly available.

Here’s to a 2020 full of positive change. Let’s all be a part of it.

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.

Lessons learned early: School responses to bullying and abuse accusations

For better and for worse, we often learn about organizational responses to bullying and abuse accusations early in life, by witnessing how school systems deal with them. As Kerry Justich reports for Yahoo (link here), a high school senior in Vancouver, Washington, is learning what that response may entail:

A high school senior in Vancouver, Wash. will no longer be walking in his graduation on Saturday, after accusing the administration of ignoring bullying and sexual assault allegedly taking place at school.

Charles Chandler was giving a speech in front of students and families of Heritage High School during a ceremony on Wednesday when he went off script and made some controversial comments against the administration.

“And to you, underclassmen,” Chandler is heard saying toward the end of his speech, “who have to endure all the things the school throw at you for two to three more years. A school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school. Their school. The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts. And they do nothing to fix it.”

Through surprised reactions heard throughout the crowd, Chandler continued to say that if the school does take notice of these incidents, “they take the side of the accused and not the victim,” before the audience ultimately erupted in cheers.

Although Chandler’s peers appeared to agree with him, principal Derek Garrison did not, claiming his comments were not truthful:

“His comments were full of inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and hurtful accusations,” the principal’s letter, obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle, reads. “Administrators called the student in to explain why spreading rumors and inaccurate information was extremely problematic.”

The story has attracted a lot of local attention, and several dozen Heritage students protested the school’s treatment of Chandler by staging a walkout.

One of many

Of course, this is only one of many accounts of how school systems have pushed back against accusations of bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse and misconduct. Typically this takes place in one or more of these forms:

  • Outright denial that any wrongful behavior occurred;
  • Dismissal of the seriousness of the allegations, suggesting an overreaction;
  • Active coverups of abuse; and/or,
  • Retaliation against the accusers.

Hmm, this sounds like what happens in way too many bullying, harassment, and whistleblower situations at work, yes?

Indeed, school responses to student allegations of wrongdoing sometimes resemble responses of bad employers to employee allegations of mistreatment or misconduct. When both student complainants and bystanders witness how such allegations are swept under the rug or otherwise mishandled by their schools, they learn an unfortunate lesson about getting along, going along, and keeping their mouths shut in the face of wrongful behavior.

Back to Heritage High

We don’t know the full story behind Charles Chandler’s accusations about student life at Heritage High School. According to the Yahoo news article, the “principal’s letter offered Chandler the opportunity to participate in a ‘restorative solution,’ or face disciplinary action that included not walking at graduation,” and that Chandler opted for the latter. Reading between the lines, it appears that he didn’t trust the process offered to him, and that many of his fellow students — as evidenced by their support for him — share his concerns. 

In fact, Katie Gillespie reports for The Columbian that other students have reported mistreatment at the school (link here):

Some students at the school praised Chandler for standing up for what they see as continued tolerance of bullying and harassment at the Evergreen Public Schools campus.

Frost Honrath, 17, said she twice reported being physically assaulted by another student, but felt the district’s response was insufficient.

“I really want to see action in our school,” Honrath said. “They’re pushing it aside.”

Ethan Wheeler, 17, said a student once wrapped a noose, a prop from a play, around his neck and told him to kill himself. When he tried to get help, “it seemed like nothing was really done.”

This may turn out to be one of those more unusual situations of a story going viral, and thus prompting a public defense of the individual issuing the accusations. It could lead to a more comprehensive examination of student life at this high school. Maybe the students will learn a different lesson about the value of raising their voices.

Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

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