Is a “personality crisis” fueling abuse and cruelty?

Psychologist John Schumaker, in a thought provoking piece for the New Internationalist, posits that a fundamental crisis of human personality is undermining our ability to grapple with serious societal challenges in humane and responsible ways:

For a culture to avoid self-destruction as it progresses, writes Henry George in his classic 1883 work Social Problems, it must develop ‘a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit’, while ensuring responsible and visionary leaders who embrace ‘the mental and moral universe’. By stark contrast, modern consumer culture barrels in the opposite direction, breeding an increasingly trivialized and disengaged strain of personhood, devoid of the ‘loftier’ qualities needed to sustain a viable society and healthy life supports.

…While the ever-deepening mental-health crisis is common knowledge, less understood is the even more serious ‘personality crisis’ that has rendered the consuming public largely unfit for democracy and nigh useless in the face of the multiple emergencies that beg for responsible and conscientious citizenship.

Schumaker aptly cites global climate change as the most alarming crisis being fueled by a lack of collective responsibility, but his observations apply to other core problems as well:

Guilt has lost much of its former powers of persuasion and deterrence. Character building as a socialization pathway to ethical resolve and civic commitment is virtually extinct. The trait of narcissism, as well as diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, have risen so much in recent decades that many now regard the narcissistic personality as a normal outcome of current social-cultural conditions. The same is true of the sociopathic personality.

Researchers, such as those at Essex University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity, have chronicled a deepening crisis in which people are increasingly willing to condone behaviour, both in themselves and others, as well as their leaders and institutions, that once would have been deemed dishonest, immoral, unjust and anti-social.

The full article is well worth your attention.

Interpersonal abuse at work

Obviously Schumaker’s observations and insights resonate with many topics discussed on this blog, especially how they inform our understanding of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. This includes comprehending the actions of both individual aggressors and the organizational cultures that enable them. All too often, qualities of narcissism and sociopathy are found not only in those who abuse others, but also in the organizational responses to the abusive behaviors. Indeed, how many times have targets of workplace bullying reported the behaviors to management, only to have their complaints dismissed or even used against them? In such circumstances, the cruelties are multiplied.

Schumaker’s opinion piece reminds us that toxic organizational cultures are, in part, a reflection of the larger society. And if his thesis is true — namely, that a deeper and broader personality crisis has beset us — then we have a lot of work to do. Personally, I fear that he is onto something with this worldview. While there certainly are many people who have developed “a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit” (to borrow from Schumaker’s invocation of Henry George), these qualities are in shorter supply than circumstances require. 

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Hat tip to Charles D. Hayes for the Schumaker piece.

Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small group: a Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The 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.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

Does “Mindhunter” yields insights for the workplace anti-bullying movement?

Between enjoying some holiday downtime and catching a mild cold, I devoted myself to some quality binge viewing during the past couple of weeks. Among the programs I galloped through was Season 1 of “Mindhunter.” This Netflix drama, set in the late 1970s, and features two FBI agents (Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff; Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany) and a forensic psychology professor (Wendy Carr, played by Ann Torv) who commit themselves to understanding the psychology of mass murderers and serial killers. It’s based loosely on the real-life pioneering work of FBI agents John Douglas and William Ressler and Boston College professor Ann Wolbert Burgess.

Although “Mindhunter” does not re-create in detail the gruesome crimes of the perpetrators being studied and interviewed, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s dark, profane, and at times R-rated. The deep conversations with convicted killers are particularly intense.

“Mindhunter” is also a fascinating narrative of early efforts to understand the minds and behaviors of those who have committed horrific crimes, as well as the social contexts that helped to make them what they are. It has a very intellectual side. For example, the work of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman enter the discussions between the main characters. The series also depicts the skepticism of “old boy” law enforcement officers who are deeply skeptical of the value of researching and interviewing these criminals. 

At various points during the 10-episode first season, I found myself asking whether this series yields any insights for those who are involved in the workplace anti-bullying movement. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • In both contexts, research matters. It gives us a base of understanding that enables us to talk about prevention and response. However, unlike the FBI agents who visit prisons to talk to convicted murderers, we don’t have a lot of interview access to workplace abusers. If alleged abusers are managers or executives, then we have virtually no access to them. This is why so much of the research on bullying and mobbing at work is based on the experiences and perceptions of targeted workers.
  • Like the early work to understand serial killers, initial efforts to study and understand workplace bullying and mobbing were greeted with some skepticism and even ridicule. I can recall many quizzical looks and responses from 15-20 years ago, when I first started investigating, researching, and writing about workplace bullying.
  • Of course, even the worst workplace abuse rarely rises to the level of direct, violent aggression displayed by convicted killers. However, the conscience-free, eliminationist mindset that I’ve discussed in past blog pieces (e.g., here and here) is definitely present in both settings. Psychopathy, sociopathy, and severe narcissism are found in many repeat murderers and severe workplace abusers alike. The same goes for systemic influences on individual abusive behavior.
  • Just as the “Mindhunter” researchers sometimes have to think like the murderers they’re studying in order to gain understanding, so do workplace bullying and mobbing researchers have to get into the heads of workplace abusers. Also, at times I find myself telling those who are trying to understand the actions of their workplace tormenters to “think like a sociopath.” Sadly, it can be a very clarifying exercise.

 

Can abused workers turn out to be great bosses? (Some good news here)

Let’s start the New Year with some good news. A study led by University of Central Florida researchers suggests that workers who have been subjected to workplace bullying and abuse are more likely to treat subordinates with decency when they are elevated to managerial positions. Science Daily reports:

A new University of Central Florida study suggests abuse and mistreatment by those at the top of an organization do not necessarily lead to abusive behavior by lower-level leaders. When offered leadership opportunities, prior victims of workplace abuse are more likely to treat their own subordinates better by learning from the bad behavior of their bosses.

UCF College of Business professors Shannon Taylor and Robert Folger, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” Taylor said. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn’t reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders.”

This study is welcomed news. Those who research and analyze interpersonal abuse in any context are familiar with the unfortunate and sometimes tragic dynamic of the abused becoming the abusers. We see it in workplace, spousal and intimate partner, and parental relationships. Abuse can beget abuse; it can create a vicious cycle.

But we’ve all seen instances where, for example, people who suffered abuse as children became very good parents and partners. The UCF study suggests that this positive dynamic can occur in the workplace as well. Abused workers can channel their empathy and understanding of their own experiences into a desire to be different when they get a chance to serve in a leadership or managerial capacity. In all such instances, the cycle of abuse is stopped cold.

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Hat tip: Society for Occupational Health Psychology

In the news 2018

Periodically I’m contacted by reporters about topics discussed on this blog. Here’s a fairly complete list of 2018 news stories in which I’ve been interviewed or where my work has been discussed:

BBC reports: Do-nothing self-promoters still get ahead at work

A study by researchers at the Hult International Business School in the U.K. has identified a certain type of self-promoter at work who doesn’t do much but manages to get ahead while dragging down the morale of others. The BBC’s Sean Coughlan reports:

You might have seen their strategically self-regarding emails or watched their self-inflating egos in work meetings.

But business school researchers have identified a type of employee who manages to look busy and successful, without actually doing anything useful.

The productivity study examined 28 UK workplaces and found staff who appeared to be “highly engaged”.

But on closer inspection they were found to be “self-promoters” whose lack of effort pushed down overall output.

The research, from the Ashridge at Hult International Business School, examined the engagement levels of teams of workers, across seven different employment sectors, such as health, government, transport and not-for-profits.

It found some very motivated workers – and some who were plainly disgruntled and disaffected.

I’m shocked, simply shocked.

No, just kidding. I’ve seen these folks in many professional workplaces. They are masters of their craft, that is, if we define “craft” as relentless self-touting, bloviating, credit-grabbing, and exaggerating — and not doing a lot of work to go with it.

Self-promoters in academe

This brand of self-promoter is especially prevalent in academic circles. Said individuals manage to devote the lion’s share of their energies to networking in and out of the building. In meetings they bray, posture, and pontificate ceaselessly (or so it seems to those of us who must listen to them). If scholarly output is part of their expected workload, then they do the minimal amount, while presenting themselves as learned intellectuals.

They often manage to talk and kiss their way up to promotions (with accompanying raises), and they’re very good at aggrandizing power within the institution. Some will bully those who are critical of them, and the more telling the criticism, the more virulent the bullying. They manage to be evaluated by a different, seemingly tailor-made set of rules, rather than being held accountable for the work they should be doing. In the meantime, others are watching and resentful toward what’s going on.

Management, values, and culture

In that sense, it once again comes down to management practices, institutional values, and organizational culture. This brand of self-promoter is enabled by the organization itself. By contrast, in workplaces that expect quality work and reward those who do it, there is no room for such an individual to flourish.

Forgiveness in the aftermath of workplace bullying and mobbing

People who have been subjected to workplace bullying or mobbing may be urged by well-meaning family or friends to forgive, forget, and move on. But given what work abuse can do to lives and livelihoods, the idea of forgiveness  — at least in its conventional meaning — may seem downright impossible and even wrong to those who have experienced it.

Among all of the human responses to abuse and mistreatment, forgiveness may be the most challenging and perhaps misunderstood. I’d like to take a closer look at a more nuanced conceptualization of forgiveness and its application to bullying and mobbing at work.

The story of Lyndon Harris

At the recent annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, I had the privilege of spending some time with Lyndon Harris, a forgiveness coach and workshop leader who, by his own admission, “came kicking and screaming to the work of forgiveness.” Here’s a bit of his story from his website:

His journey to forgiveness began at Ground Zero on the morning of 9/11/01.

Serving as the priest in charge of St. Paul’s Chapel, he initiated a volunteer force that rose to over 15,000: serving meals, offering supplies and giving encouragement to the rescue workers 24/7 until the site was closed eight and a half months later. ​ His work has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and featured in the award winning documentary, The Power of Forgiveness

After 9/11/01, Harris partnered with forgiveness researcher, Dr. Frederic Luskin (Stanford) and several other activists and forgiveness luminaries to founded the educational non-profit Gardens of Forgiveness. 

Lyndon’s story is not one of a linear, hearts-and-flowers path to enlightenment. Rather, his journey from Ground Zero to today was painful and hard:

With over 240+ days exposure at the site, Harris was diagnosed with severe PTSD, depression, and compromised lung function. Becoming bitter and increasingly isolated, the combination of adverse circumstances and mistakes he made would cost him his marriage, his home, and his career. He would spend years in darkness.

Lyndon would go on to work with leading forgiveness researcher Dr. Fred Luskin (Stanford U.), author of Forgive for Good (2002) to develop approaches for education and coaching about forgiveness. He is currently the co-director of Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center in Zirconia, North Carolina.

Understanding forgiveness

Immediately upon listening to Lyndon’s workshop remarks, I saw with much greater clarity the potential application of forgiveness for targets of work abuse.

Lyndon emphasizes that forgiveness is not about excusing wrongful behavior, compelling reconciliation with an offender, denying or minimizing one’s pain, or foregoing attempts to obtain justice.

Rather, forgiveness is about taking back one’s power, healing, recovering mental and physical health, letting go of unresolved grievances, and “becoming a hero instead of a victim.”

Lyndon’s website goes into more detail, drawing upon Dr. Luskin’s research to share “The Nine Steps to Forgiveness” and “What Forgiveness is and is Not.”

Applying forgiveness to workplace bullying and mobbing situations

Okay, I understand the reluctance to go here. I know what it’s like to carry anger and grudges due to injustices at work, and my awareness of so many instances of horrific workplace bullying and mobbing has sometimes fueled those emotions. I won’t claim to be completely free from all that.

But I’ve also learned that to carry it with me all the time is personally toxic and debilitating. Ironically, perhaps, it makes me less effective at advocating for positive change in our workplaces and society in general. And it feels a heckuva lot lighter not to be carrying around grievances and resentments.

A decade or so ago, I would not have been so receptive to these insights about forgiveness, but now I do get it. It’s not about excusing abuse or letting an offender avoid accountability. It’s about healing, self-empowerment, and our own well being. In that sense, the idea of forgiveness as articulated by Lyndon Harris and Fred Luskin is a response to many challenges that I’ve discussed here before, such as:

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Rumination, obsession, and the challenge of getting “unstuck” (2018)

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

I understand that this is not easy stuff for those who have been through terrible experiences of injustice and mistreatment. But ultimately, it is about reclaiming one’s life from abuse and abusers. To borrow from Lyndon’s summary of Luskin’s work:

Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.

 

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