Telling stories about work abuse

Lots of folks have shared their workplace bullying stories with Massachusetts legislators

The #MeToo movement challenging sexual harassment and assault has been built on the stories of (mostly) women who have courageously shared their experiences in a public way. Some have gone into considerable detail, others have not. Some have named their harassers or abusers, others have not. Regardless of the choices they have made about what and how much to disclose, the stories themselves are driving this movement and empowering those who have faced identical or similar types of abuse.

Just as our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing has been informed by the dynamics of sexual harassment and other forms of mistreatment, we can learn from movements such as #MeToo about how to confront all types of abuse at work. The concept of storytelling is at the heart of this. Although facts and figures about workplace bullying are helpful in painting the picture, the human impacts and costs are more vividly illustrated by the growing body of individual stories.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog pieces about storytelling and workplace abuse. I’ve gathered links to five of them here because they continue to be relevant, and I’ve included snippets to give you an idea of what I was writing about. (There’s some overlap in points made, but that is the nature of blogging.) I hope you will find this collection helpful and enlightening. 

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017) — “Countless public speaking appearances about workplace bullying have taught me that covering the essential basics about work abuse is doable in about 15 minutes or so. . . . However, what I can’t do in the typical short presentation is adequately convey the twisted, sick, and utterly disturbing narratives of the worst individual bullying and mobbing experiences, where the abusive behavior has been ongoing, targeted, malicious, multidirectional, and often suggesting an absence of conscience on the part of the main perpetrator(s).”

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries (2016) — “But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.”

Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling (2016) — “Why is it that some targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing have difficulty telling or jotting down their stories in a straightforward, chronological manner? And why do they often launch into what sounds like a War and Peace version of their story, when all that’s needed (for now) is the quick elevator speech? It can make for a long, rambling account, laden with emotion. We should not blame this on the target. Work abuse situations are often complex and hard to summarize. Equally significant, the effects of psychological trauma may have a lot to do with the ‘word salad’ narrative.”

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016) — “Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment. But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.”

Storytelling for social change (2015) — “The best stories, including those intended to drive positive social change, are natural and authentic, not contrived and formulaic. That said, stories need planning, shaping, and editing in order to connect with others. After all, raw, scrambled recitations of events, experiences, impressions, and facts are much less likely to hold someone’s attention in any medium. That’s why I was pleased to stumble upon A Changemaker’s Eight-Step Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change (2013), published by Ashoka Changemakers. It’s freely accessible as a 14-page pdf booklet.”

Celebrating a community that affirms human dignity

Last week I participated in one of the highlights of the year for me, the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, sponsored by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies. HumanDHS is a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at our host organization, Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, and immerse ourselves in highly interactive exchanges amidst a spirit of fellowship.

The workshop is built around the general theme of “Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict,” joined by a major sub-theme, this year’s being “The Nature of Dignity and the Dignity of Nature.” Previous sub-themes have included “The Globalization of Dignity” (2016), “Honoring Alfred Nobel’s Message” (2015), and “Work that Dignifies the Lives of All People” (2014). Over the course of two days, upwards of 60-75 people participate in this workshop, including a fair number who travel from outside the U.S.

A defining characteristic of these events is a series of interactive “dignilogues” using these two formats: (1) groupings of short presentations on a wide range of topics by individuals invited to discuss their work, followed by questions and discussion; and, (2) break-out sessions on topics chosen by participants, followed by short presentations to the full conference from each break-out group. Addresses, talks, music, artistic work, awards, and an open public event are also blended into the workshop.

I’ve been sharing my participation in this workshop every year since starting this blog. This gathering is a source of hope, fellowship, insight, and refueling for me. My role with HumanDHS has grown substantially since my original contact with this remarkable group of people. In addition to sitting on the HumanDHS board of directors, I help to facilitate workshop sessions and participate in the dignilogues. And during the last few years, I’ve added my singing pipes to the mix, helping to lead the group in a closing rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” doing my best to channel my inner Louis Armstrong!

To learn more about HumanDHS, check out its fulsome website. It is very heavy in content and not much for graphics — more of an archive than a fancy showpiece! You can also read this piece that I wrote in 2014, “Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity,” which describes the core activities of the network.

A few revised posts for your consideration

Dear readers, during the past year I’ve revised, tweaked, and updated several popular earlier posts to this blog. I hope you’ll find them interesting and/or useful!

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (original: July 2013 ; revised: January 2017) — “Intellectuals should help to lead, not merely react and respond. In both of my talks at this conference, I suggested that scholars should be “responsibly bold” about investigating reality and fashioning solutions to our problems. I also urged us to be “restlessly patient,” understanding that positive change can take time, while continually seeking opportunities to effect that change sooner than later.”

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (original: December 2012; revised: March 2017) — “Gaslighting often is discussed in the context of spousal and family relationships. It makes sense, then, that we see so many parallels between domestic abuse and workplace bullying. Perhaps the leap from Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer to The Office isn’t much of one after all.”

When the bullying comes from a board member (original: August 2011; revised: November 2017) — “‘Board bullying,’ as I call it, is one of the largely unexplored aspects of workplace bullying. I do not know how frequent it is, and I have not yet found any research literature on the topic. . . . And yet I know it is real. I suspect it is more prevalent in the non-profit sector than in the business sector, but that impression may be unduly influenced by the fact that I’ve spent much of my career and volunteer service in non-profit organizations.”

What is academic tenure? (original: August 2011; revised: December 2016) — “Tenure is under attack. Some claim that tenured professors are too coddled and privileged. Others say that in the face of rising tuition and a difficult economy, tenured and tenure-track professors are too expensive. In some cases, political and university leaders are going after tenure to diminish academic freedom in higher education.”

When “heart, will, and mind are on the same page” (original: July 2010; revised: July 2017) — “For many years, University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been urging us to seek those elusive states of flow in our lives, those experiences when ‘heart, will, and mind are on the same page.’  They may involve ‘singing in a choir, programming a computer, dancing, playing bridge, [or] reading a good book.’  In these moments, ‘what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony.'”

On building midlife resilience

For many people who have found this blog because of very bad work experiences or career setbacks, the topic of resilience often enters into discussions of recovery and healing. Of course, there’s no shortage of books and long articles about building resilience, and they are certainly worth checking out. But sometimes less is more. Toward that end, I strongly recommend an excellent short piece that appeared over the summer, “How to Build Resilience in Midlife,” by New York Times health columnist Tara Parker-Pope.

Drawing upon the work of resilience experts, she compactly pulls together seven main points of advice:

  • “Practice Optimism”
  • “Rewrite Your Story”
  • “Don’t Personalize It”
  • “Remember Your Comebacks”
  • “Support Others”
  • “Take Stress Breaks”
  • “Go Out of Your Comfort Zone”

If this topic is important to you, then I strongly recommend reading the full article. If you give it 10 minutes of your time, then there’s a good chance you’ll want to save it or print it out. It invites deeper contemplation. Especially for those of us who have been around the block a few times, it’s a great starting place for understanding the keys to building resilience later in life.

For more

For those who would like to dive deeper into this topic, these sources may be helpful:

Also, do a search on “building resilience after trauma.” You’ll find a wealth of informational resources.

Infusing good core values into a new organization

With a beta version of the TJ Society’s forthcoming website, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, Prague, in July

Readers of recent entries are likely aware that I’ve been hip deep in helping to create a new, non-profit organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (“TJ Society”). From the most recent draft of our by-laws, here is what the group is about:

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. TJ values psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions, without claiming exclusivity in terms of policy objectives. The TJ Society shall advance these overall purposes by supporting legal and interdisciplinary scholarship; identifying and promoting best professional and judicial practices; sponsoring conferences, workshops, and seminars; engaging in continuing professional education and public education activities; and hosting and participating in print, electronic, social media platforms.

As I wrote earlier this month, I’m part of an all-volunteer board that is forming this organization, and I’m serving as its first chairperson. It’s a lot of work, but the broader purpose and the fellowship of a truly exceptional group of colleagues make it all worth it.

This also is an opportunity to put into practice many of the values that I have been advocating for via this blog. It means practicing inclusive, servant leadership dedicated to a cause greater than individual ambitions. It means treating others with respect and dignity. It means actually exhibiting transparency rather than simply touting it. It means avoiding unnecessary hierarchies. Above all, it means building a welcoming and difference making community. Fortunately, our board consists of individuals who walk this talk as a natural way of going about things. This is good: An organization devoted to psychologically healthy laws and legal systems should strive to operate in a psychologically healthy manner.

The TJ Society is a global organization, with a board and advisory council comprised of folks from around the world. This creates obvious communications challenges. It can mean maddening pile-ups of e-mails (many inflicted by yours truly) in attempting to work through topics that require group input, and very understandably patiences can grow weary among a group of very busy people. Additionally, available online meeting technologies such as Skype and Google hangout can’t change the scheduling realities of holding a board meeting with participants’ time zone differences ranging from six to fourteen hours! As I said, we’re fortunate to have such wonderful board members who can roll with the digital waves.

In terms of shaping my contributions to this fledgling learned society, I am fortunate to have other organizations and initiatives as role models. Over the years I have learned so much from the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, especially the leadership of co-leaders Evelin Lindner and Linda Hartling. I’ve also been inspired by the inclusive culture of the biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. I’m further grateful for the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health sponsored by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, which, among many other good things, allows therapeutic jurisprudence scholars and practitioners to gather and learn from each other. I hope that the TJ Society will draw from the best characteristics exhibited by these entities.

It’s too early to say whether the TJ Society will build into its culture the values that make for healthy, inclusive organizations, but I’m betting that it will happen. Embracing and practicing these values at the beginning is an important start. Yup, as we grow we’ll make some mistakes, juggle differences of opinion, and probably deal with conflicts here and there. But if the foundation is strong, we’ll do things in the right way much more often than not.

A dignity salon

Group shot from December 2016 HumanDHS workshop in NYC

My association with Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to advancing human dignity and ending humiliating practices, has been a gratifying source of renewal, fellowship, and friendship. Until recently, however, my only opportunity to engage in face-to-face interactions with members of this remarkable community has been through HumanDHS’s annual December workshop in New York City. This wonderful event has always left me wanting for more.

Now, however, a smaller group of HumanDHS community members has started meeting on a regular basis in New York for open-ended conversations about ideas and projects on broad themes of shared interest.  I hopped on a Boston-to-NYC train to participate in the latest get-together on Saturday, and I’m very glad that I did. The planned three-hour gathering, with a dozen or so people meeting in a typically snug Manhattan apartment living room, spilled over our allotted time.

Our loose format starts with brief self-introductions that may include mentions of recent activities and life events. Sometimes the introductions themselves prompt deeper conversations. On other occasions the discussion will be gently guided by our unofficial convener. The topics vary widely, ranging from the personal to the global. For example, during an earlier meet-up, I was grateful for the opportunity to share the challenges that a dear friend of mine is facing in connection with severe interpersonal and work abuse. Saturday’s meeting, by contrast, included more talk about broader economic and political contexts and how we can promote human dignity as a chief framing concept for our society.

I realized after our latest meeting that we are creating our own version of a salon, a term commonly associated with small gatherings held at someone’s home, featuring conversations over food and drink. Salons were very much in fashion in New York City a century ago, organized by (mostly) left-leaning women who hosted discussions for intellectuals and artists, with libations offered to fuel smart and witty repartee. More recently, right before online discussion forums became so popular, the Utne Reader magazine promoted salons as a way of building community through conversation. (For more on that, see Jaida N’ha Sandra & Jon Spayde, Salons: The Joy of Conversation (2001).)

Our salon (if I may now call it that) is likely more serious in content than others, with tea and coffee supplanting alcohol as beverages of choice. It also reflects a conscious effort to grow the supportive community fostered by HumanDHS’s December workshop and social media outreach. As one participant characterized it yesterday, we are building an intentional tribe. In a world that cries out for more strong, caring connections with others, this is something to celebrate.

***

On a personal note, this was the latest in a lengthy stretch of out-of-town trips for both personal and work-related reasons. I looked back at my calendar book (yes, I still use the printed variety) and saw that I’ve been out of town during parts of almost every week since late April, and this will continue through the summer. My travel schedule and a ton of personal and work-related commitments are the main reasons why I’ve been blogging less frequently, but it’s all good. Every trip has been mainly about being with wonderful people.

Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it?

(Image courtesy of Clipartpanda.com)

As I wrote earlier this year, workplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Countervailing power

On previous occasions here, I have invoked economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power. In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over the division of profits with the titans of business and investment. Today, some labor unions help to safeguard their members against bullying and mobbing; others get a failing grade in this regard. In any event, with less than 12 percent of the American workforce currently unionized, few workers can even theoretically turn to unions to protect them from mistreatment on the job.

Accordingly, most workers who face bullying at work today do so without any kind of protective system to stand up to the forces that are abusing them. Sure, they can retain a lawyer, seek counseling and health care, and otherwise attempt to create a “loose parts” network to help them, but the organized, countervailing power to which Galbraith referred isn’t present. If their employer doesn’t take work abuse seriously, they’re basically looking at a lonely fight.

I don’t have any easy answers at this point. Instead, I’ll simply say that we need to (1) revive the labor movement in the form of strong, pro-member unions that understand the harm wrought by work abuse; and (2) create other entities that can help bullied workers in a more powerful, assertive way. We also need plenty more public education about workplace bullying and mobbing in order to build widespread objection to these forms of interpersonal abuse. 

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