When meetings are used to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns

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Let’s start with a positive: Well-run, focused meetings can be extraordinarily valuable, productive, and participatory. They can enhance a genuine sense of community, inclusion, and buy-in. They can build positive relationships and help to ensure that different viewpoints are aired.

That said, way too many meetings are used for less-than-ideal purposes. In a more benign mode, they are simply time wasters, consuming precious minutes and hours of our lives that we can never get back. But it can get much worse than that. In fact, in my 27 years in academe, I’ve come to understand that the most morale-killing misuse of meetings is to reinforce pre-existing hierarchies and exclusionary patterns. I’m sure some of you have your own examples of how this is done. Here are my leading candidates:

Ratifying Pre-Manipulated Results — Especially if a decision requires a vote or consensus agreement, the Powers That Be have already lined up their supporters and accomplice sheep. It’s a done deal before anyone enters the room. Perhaps this is “smart” organizing, but those left out of the pre-meeting dialogue won’t feel that way.

Intimidation and Bullying — The meeting serves as a reminder to not make waves, sometimes with implicit and explicit threats to back it up. It’s a form of in-your-face thuggery, sometimes done with a velvet glove, on other occasions of the bare-knuckled variety. 

Mansplaining — How many times do we have to listen to some guy drone on and on, over and again? He weighs in frequently, interrupts often, and self-promotes whenever possible. Some of these offenders have no idea what they’re talking about. Of course, given the fact that some women strive to emulate their bloviating male colleagues, it’s also possible to be subjected to (wo)mansplaining as well. While this may advance the cause of inclusion in some perverse way, it doesn’t exactly contribute to the greater good.

PowerPoint Gazing — Staring at a screen as someone drones on in the dark. Slides with potentially important info are swapped out before you can grasp their significance. This is a great way for the Powers That Be to claim they were being transparent, when in reality they gave out just enough information to make the assertion a cynically plausible one.

Obligatory Filler — Instead of genuine discussion and dialogue, fill up the meeting with stuff that should be in a memo or e-mail. In the meantime, important matters are never brought to the table.

In the news

It has been a year of prominent news stories related to the workplace, especially the avalanche of accounts concerning sexual harassment. Here are many of the 2017 news stories in which I’ve been quoted or where my work has been discussed:

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.'”

Westhues: Major clues signaling social elimination & mobbing at work

For anyone who wants to learn about the nitty-gritty dynamics of workplace mobbing, especially in academic institutions, sociologist Kenneth Westhues’s (U. Waterloo, Canada) invaluable, thought-provoking body of work is worthy of close study. One of Ken’s most important books is among his earliest, The Envy of Excellence (2004), a thorough case study of the mobbing and eventual dismissal of University of Toronto professor Herbert Richardson, a respected theologian and scholar. Clocking in at over 350 pages, with a 130 pp. appendix of responsive essays by other scholars, it is a bizarre, fascinating, and disturbing tale, and Ken uses it to theorize about and comment upon mobbing processes overall.

Among other things, Ken sets out basic clues for when “social elimination” is likely to occur where a targeted worker has given others a supposed reason to push them out. The first and primary clue is “the eliminators’ focus on the targeted person, rather than on the allegedly offensive act,” manifesting in “personally derisive and humiliating statements” about the target. At this juncture, “the eliminative impulse has been unleashed.”

Westhues adds ten additional clues suggesting that the eliminative process is underway:

  • “A popular, high-achieving target.”
  • “Lack of due process.”
  • “Odd timing.”
  • “Resistance to external review.”
  • “Secrecy.”
  • “Unanimity.” (on the part of the eliminators)
  • “Fuzzy charges.”
  • “Prior marginalization.”
  • “Impassioned rhetoric.”
  • “Back-biting.”

I bet that a lot of folks who have experienced or observed severe mobbing or bullying at work would nod their heads in agreement on many of these factors.

***

Note: Those wishing to obtain a copy of Westhues’s book may be able to find comparatively inexpensive pre-formal publication paperback copies under the title Administrative Mobbing at the University of Toronto.

Related posts

How bad organizations create outsiders

For many years I’ve used the term institutional construction of outsider status to describe how bad organizations turn internal critics into outsiders, even if they remain on the payroll. The critics are generally competent — perhaps even excellent — at their jobs, but to the dismay of their employers, they will say what’s on their minds, offer suggestions for improvement, and when necessary raise ethical or legal concerns.

For whatever reasons (legal, practical, etc.), the respective organizations do not rid themselves of these individuals, at least not immediately. However, at best the organizations sort of tolerate them, while finding ways to subtly and not-so-subtly marginalize them. Such responses may fall short of outright ostracism, hostility, or retaliation, but suffice it to say that targets of such marginalization will never be in the inner circle and will never be seriously considered for certain types of promotions. They may also begin to feel isolated, as the organization’s responses (or non-responses) to their criticisms can send cues to co-workers to stay away from them. The targets may well perceive what’s happening, but they often find that it’s not easy to challenge practices, behaviors, and decisions that are cloaked in foggy subjectivity. At times, targets will internalize their perceived isolation and further withdraw from certain types of organizational engagement.

I see this a lot in academic institutions, where protections of tenure and academic freedom are designed in part to safeguard faculty speech, thus making it harder to discipline or terminate professors for expressing themselves on matters related to institutional governance and scholarly work. Lacking the right to simply get rid of a critical tenured faculty member who is performing satisfactorily, the schools will find ways to tolerate and marginalize the individual. Of course, tenured professors should never assume that they are bulletproof from wrongful retaliation for their exercise of free speech, even though tenure does add a strong layer of protection.

Unions and collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can also provide employees with greater free speech protections than those enjoyed by the average American worker. The typical CBA stipulates that a covered employee may be terminated only for just cause, which is usually defined as failure to perform competently, material misconduct, or financial necessity. Labor laws also afford these workers with the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

As welcomed as these protections may be for workers fortunate to have them, they can only do so much. As I suggested above, no one is truly bulletproof in today’s workplace. If one is employed at a not-so-great organization and decides to become a critic, at the very least they can expect to be marginalized and to face an opaque ceiling when it comes to advancement.

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.

Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching

At the just-concluded International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, I presented a short paper, “Addressing Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Higher Education: The Roles of Law, Cultures, Codes, and Coaching,” as part of a panel discussion on legal issues in higher education. In assembling this talk, I drew heavily upon sources discussed in past blog entries, as I have long been interested in bullying behaviors in academe. Here’s a slightly edited version of my outline for the talk:

I. Introduction

  1. Short definitions
  • Workplace bullying – Intentional, often repeated, and health harming mistreatment of an employee by one of more other employees, using verbal and non-verbal means.
  • Workplace mobbing – An intentional “ganging up” on an employee by multiple employees, using bullying-type behaviors.
  • Workplace incivility – Behavior that violates conventional norms of workplace conduct.

2. Impacts

  • Reduced employee productivity, attentiveness, and employee morale, increased attrition and absenteeism;
  • Increased employee benefit costs and liability exposure;
  • For workplace bullying and mobbing, significant mental and physical health effects, including clinical depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation.

II. Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Academe

  1. Are they problems in academic institutions?

Yes, books and studies have documented this. See my blog post, “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in Academe: The Hell of Heaven?” (rev. 2014).

In the United States, political controversies in the aftermath of the 2016 election have fueled bullying, mobbing, and incivility on campuses.

2. Bullying, Mobbing, Incivility: Common Status Combinations

  • Board > administrator(s)/faculty
  • Administrator(s) > administrator(s)/faculty/staff
  • Tenured faculty > non-tenured faculty
  • Tenured faculty > tenured faculty
  • Faculty > mid-level administrator(s)/staff/graduate students
  • Staff > staff

3. My Pet Theory: “Dilbert in Tweed”

Academicians are adept at intellectual analysis, manipulation, and argumentation.  When applied to the tasks of teaching, scholarship, and service, these skills reinforce the most socially useful aspects of the academy.  But many of us who have worked in academe have seen what happens when they are applied in hurtful or even malicious ways.

Of course, exquisitely rationalized actions and explanations occur in many organizations, but in dysfunctional academic settings, they often rise to an art form.  After repeated such bludgeonings, we may become accustomed to, and sometimes all too indifferent towards, intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical “mal-manipulation.”  Call it Dilbert in Tweed.

Because this kind of mental facility often is at the heart of both perpetrating and defending bullying, academe becomes a natural petri dish for such behaviors, especially the covert varieties.  After all, so many decisions in the academy are based upon very subjective judgments.  This can create a particularly attractive setting for the passive-aggressive bully and the quiet-but-deadly mob.

(Passage adapted from David C. Yamada “The Role of the Law in Combating Workplace Mobbing and Bullying,” which appears in Kenneth Westhues’s edited volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004).)

III.       Relational vs. Non-Relational Organizational Cultures

Drs. Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, “Relational-Cultural Practice: Working in a Nonrelational World” (2002), paper published by the Wellesley Centers for Women:

A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, the authors identify three types of “non-relational cultures” that hurt morale and productivity:

  • “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
  • “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
  • brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

IV. A Suggested Therapeutic Jurisprudence-Informed Approach

  1. Build a relational work culture
  • Nurture civility and responsible speech, i.e., the Golden Rule
  • Manage incivility with non/less-punitive interventions (coaching, counseling)
  • Avoid civility codes

2. Prohibit Abuse

  • Anti-bullying provisions in employee policies
  • Progressive discipline
  • Avoid long, drawn-out, multi-layered disciplinary procedures
  • Incorporate legal liabilities and obligations: Especially discrimination & harassment laws (most nations); whistleblower & anti-retaliation protections (most nations); anti-bullying & mobbing laws (some nations).
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