In praise of the liberal arts: Leadership training is fine, but more importantly, we need more educated leaders

(graphic courtesy of publicdomainvectors.org)

Lots of management degree programs, professional seminars, and personal coaching services offer instruction and guidance in leadership training and development. That’s all fine and good, but what we really need is the nurturing of better, wiser, more ethical leaders.

One way is to invite study, dialogue, and reflection grounded in the liberal arts: Yup, stuff like history, philosophy, psychology, theology (even for non-believers), sociology, art, political science, literature, anthropology, you name it. These academic disciplines are in decline in our colleges and universities, as higher ed institutions rush to market themselves as career builders whose graduates can “hit the ground running” in today’s fast-paced, tech-friendly workplaces.

Let’s first dispense with the silly imagery of hitting the ground running, which is advisable only if you’re a trained paratrooper in the military. Instead, let’s take a deeper dive into what kind of learning helps us to become more effective, thoughtful, and moral individuals participating in a complex society. The liberal arts equip us with knowledge, concepts, and modes of thinking helpful toward that end. They may also help to make us wiser and more empathetic.

Doubt my words? Just search “liberal arts and leadership,” and you’ll get plenty of endorsements.

Am I suggesting that we ignore teaching folks how to run an organization, invent software, or create something? Absolutely not. However, technical and management skills helpful towards being successful in a profession or vocation should be informed by core values and ethics, along with an understanding of our historical, societal, and individual development.

Nor does this mean that everyone should go or return to college and major in philosophy or political science, though I can think of worse things to do. There are plenty of ways to learn about the liberal arts. And, in fact, such a course of study may be more meaningful as one gets older. Life experience can deeply inform our appreciation of the liberal arts, and vice versa.

If, like me, you’re an adult who prefers to learn independently, then here are some possible starting places, in no particular order. Longtime readers of this blog may recognize some of them:

  • Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, is an anthology of readings in the liberal arts tradition, designed for undergraduates, and with a special emphasis on the question of vocation. I guarantee that many of the selections carry greater resonance with adults who have been around the block a few times than with the typical 19-year-old.
  • The works of Charles D. Hayes, a homegrown philosopher and former oilman, Texas police officer, and Marine, are a tribute to the power of liberal arts learning. You can discover his books by going to this link. For starters, I especially recommend two of his earlier books, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004) (non-fiction), and Portals in a Northern Sky (2003) (fiction).
  • Two of the leading online continuing education providers, Coursera (link here) and EdX (link here), offer numerous liberal arts courses taught by professors from around the world, either free or for a nominal course fee.
  • The Great Courses (link here) offers lectures on many topics by leading professors, in multiple formats, including a subscription streaming service that provides access to hundreds of courses for a fraction of what you’d pay to own them.
  • Open Culture (link here) is a great portal for discovering free learning resources, including plenty in the liberal arts.
  • Literary Hub (link here) is an excellent site for learning about books and culture, especially modern literature.
  • Especially if you’re on a tight budget (and even if you’re not), check out your public library. You’ll find books, periodicals, films, and other resources galore, all for free.

These resources just scratch the surface. If you want to enrich your worldview and become a better leader by studying the liberal arts, then a world of learning awaits you.

Applying Psychological First Aid to workplace bullying and mobbing

Is Psychological First Aid a useful tool for coaches, union representatives, employee assistance program specialists, lawyers and legal workers, peer group facilitators, and others who are providing support to those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing?

I recently completed an online, continuing education course in Psychological First Aid (PFA) (link here), offered by Johns Hopkins University via Coursera, one of the most popular providers of open enrollment, university-level online courses . The Johns Hopkins course is taught by psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor George Everly, a leading authority on PFA and co-author, with Jeffrey Lating, of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid (2017). The course itself takes about 8-10 hours to complete, ideally over a span of a few weeks. The course itself is free of charge, with an added fee for a certificate of completion.

Dr. Everly developed his PFA model to provide first responders who are not trained as counselors with knowledge and training to assist those who have experienced traumatic events, such as displacement due to wars, severe weather events, and other man-made and natural disasters. His model is called “RAPID PFA.” Here are the sequential steps covered in the course:

  • R — “Establishing Rapport and Reflective Listening”
  • A — “Assessment/Listening to the Story
  • P — “Psychological Triage/Prioritization
  • I — “Intervention Tactics to Stabilize and Mitigate Acute Distress”
  • D — “Disposition and Facilitating Access to Continued Care”

The final piece of the course relates to the importance of self-care for those providing PFA.

At no time does PFA call upon someone to render a clinical diagnosis. (That would be wrong on so many levels!) Rather, PFA is designed to help non-clinical individuals facilitate emotional and practical support for those who have experienced traumatic events. This may include, when necessary, referrals to professional mental health and medical care, as well as other tangible forms of assistance.

PFA for workplace bullying and mobbing?

I’ve given a lot of thought as to how Dr. Everly’s RAPID PFA model can be deployed to help those who have experienced severe work abuse. I think it’s a very helpful model for non-clinical folks who are providing support to targets of workplace bullying and mobbing. RAPID PFA not only offers a useful, simple framework for providing support and guidance, but also sets markers for when referrals to professional mental health care may be needed.

Research examining the RAPID PFA model has validated its effectiveness as an early intervention tool, especially when rendered soon after a precipitating event. Herein lies a challenge toward applying PFA to workplace abuse situations: All too often, the mistreatment builds over time, especially in the more covert or indirect forms. In such cases, there may be no single, major traumatic event that prompts someone to seek help. Accordingly, targets frequently wait to seek assistance, as work abuse can take an inordinately long time to process and comprehend. In such instances, a lot of emotional damage may have taken place before someone seeks help.

Finally, the RAPID PFA model is designed to help care providers make fairly quick assessments under scenarios where large numbers of people may suddenly need help. By contrast, we know that many targets of work abuse feel the need to share their stories in significant detail. It is a natural and understandable dynamic, but it can make the process of identifying next steps anything but, well, rapid.

Nevertheless, the RAPID PFA model holds a lot of promise as an early intervention protocol for helping people deal with workplace bullying and mobbing situations. For those who want to provide initial support and guidance to targeted individuals, it provides a straightforward, evidence-based approach for doing so, while helping us to understand appropriate boundaries between lay assistance and professional mental health care.

MTW Revisions: September 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (orig. 2012; rev. 2019) (link here)  — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine. You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; (3) disproportionally come from privileged backgrounds; and (4) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured, competitive educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of analytical thinking. . . . You then unleash them into the world of work.”

Are calls for more resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming? (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Bottom line? Resilience and grit are good. Targeted bullying, mobbing, and abuse are bad. Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.”

After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races (orig. 2017; rev. 2019) (link here) — “When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically can be divided into two races: ‘From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.'”

“Let’s run it more like a business” (The problem with many non-profit boards) (orig. 2014; rev. 2019) (link here) — “If running a non-profit group ‘more like a business’ means empowering effective, inclusive, and socially responsible leaders and holding them accountable, then I’m all for it. . . But all too often, the ‘more like a business’ mantra translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that at least some board members who are drawn from the private sector may embrace in their respective roles as executives and managers.”

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.

Understanding workplace bullying and mobbing: Creating your own personal learning network

Many people who read and subscribe to this blog do so because they have a specific interest in workplace bullying or mobbing. This includes workers who have been bullying or mobbing targets, as well as practitioners and advocates in various fields who are trying to address these forms of abuse. Over the years, I have been gratified by comments and e-mails from readers who report that they have found these writings helpful in building their understanding.

But obviously a single blog is insufficient to provide a proper grounding in this subject area. Thus, to guide readers who want to learn more, I have shared recommended reading and resource lists, with an eye toward enhancing depth and breadth of understanding. They’ve included (click on title to access):

Recently I also provided some suggestions and resources for peer support groups:

What about a personal learning network?

In addition, for those of you whose interests in workplace bullying and mobbing are more than casual, I would like to suggest the possibility of creating a personal learning network (PLN). As defined and explained in Wikipedia:

A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection.

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Specifically, the learner chooses whom to interact with in these media and how much to participate. Learners have certain goals, needs, interests, motivations and problems that are often presented to the people they include in their PLN. Moreover, the learner will collaborate and connect differently with various members. The learner will establish stronger relationships with some members and have a low level of connection with others. Not all nodes will be equal. Some of the member roles include searcher, assemblator, designer of data, innovator of subject matter, and researcher.

In other words, a PLN involves a pooling and sharing of knowledge and resources. In the context of workplace abuse, it is similar to a peer support group, but its focus is on building knowledge and understanding, rather than dealing directly with personal impacts and consequences. Of course, it’s quite possible to have these functions overlap in a single group, as well.

For those seeking to make these connections, I hope that my new Facebook page (link here), which has attracted some 750 followers since I created it earlier this spring, can help to serve that purpose.

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P.S. A note to subscribers: Oh, the curse of writing on a tablet instead of a real keyboard! Earlier today I inadvertently posted, rather than merely saved, a headline for this planned post, without the content. I apologize for cluttering your inbox!

On peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing

From the World Health Organization

Periodically I am asked about the value of peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying or mobbing. Although such groups exist, I have not participated in one. However, I have given this topic much thought over the years and read into a number of resources that shed some light on the potential benefits and downsides of peer support. Furthermore, during the past 20 years, I have had countless exchanges with targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and these discussions have yielded invaluable insights as well.

With all this in mind, I decided to gather together some resources and suggestions that may be useful to those who are participating in peer support groups for targets, especially those who are organizing and facilitating them.

Training/expertise in peer support group facilitation

Good intentions alone are not sufficient for creating a peer support group, especially given the deep and complicated emotions and consequences of bullying and mobbing at work. Rather, it’s extremely useful to get some expert guidance. A lot of that information is provided in the mental health context.

The best short, accessible, and free(!) guide for mental health peer support groups that I’ve found is Michelle Funk & Natalie Drew, Creating peer support groups in mental health and related areas (2017) (pdf link here), published by the World Health Organization. In only 28 pages, this excellent guide provides a wealth of helpful advice and guidance on creating, facilitating, and participating in peer support groups. It also contains a rich reference list for those who want to learn more.

Mental Health America provides a Center for Peer Support (link here) with an array of valuable resources. For those who seek more formal training in peer support, MHA offers a national certification program (link here).

Training/expertise in workplace bullying/mobbing/abuse

Especially for group facilitators, but really for any participant, gaining expertise in dynamics and impacts of workplace bullying and mobbing is very important towards understanding how to support one another and finding ways to move forward.

The gold standard is the Workplace Bullying Institute’s “Workplace Bullying University” program, a three-day, intensive, graduate-level seminar facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie (link here). I have attended this program and can attest to its comprehensive, immersive, and interactive learning approach.

For those who want a less expensive alternative, Dr. Namie offers a 2.5 hour video seminar, “Workplace Bullying Action Plan & Tutorial,” for targets of workplace bullying (link here). The Workplace Bullying Institute’s main website (link here) is a freely accessible treasure trove of information as well. Furthermore, although mainly for employers, I worked with the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a deep webpage of resources on workplace bullying (link here).

For those seeking an encyclopedic, authoritative, but concededly pricey, resource on workplace bullying and mobbing here in the U.S., I’m happy to recommend Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, editors, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018), a two-volume treatise with some two dozen chapter contributors (link here).

Finally, several weeks ago I recommended a “go-to” list of four affordable books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here): 

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009);
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014);
  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014); and,
  • William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004).

Training/expertise in psychological/mental health first aid

Training in psychological first aid will help peer support group participants understand trauma and recognize the boundaries of when people should be referred to counseling or medical assistance.

Johns Hopkins University offers an online course in Psychological First Aid via Coursera (link here). The course is free, with a modest charge to receive certification:

Learn to provide psychological first aid to people in an emergency by employing the RAPID model: Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition.

Utilizing the RAPID model (Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition), this specialized course provides perspectives on injuries and trauma that are beyond those physical in nature.

The course is taught by Dr. George S. Everly, who is the co-author, with Dr. Jeffrey M. Lating, of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid (2017).

Training/expertise in coaching

Training and experience in personal coaching may come in useful here. Many basic coaching skills are useful for peer support interactions as well. In contrast to common belief, coaching is not about being prescriptive or directive. Rather, it is mostly about asking the right questions, listening, and helping individuals discover insights, answers, and solutions. 

Coaching training programs abound, and the one I heartily recommend is the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC, link here). Some six years ago, I did the year-long IPEC core energy coaching program, and I’m very grateful for it. Although I eventually decided not to set up my own coaching practice, the personal growth I experienced and the communications skills that I developed continue to provide welcomed benefits today. Having undergone that training, I’m confident that a good coaching program can enable one’s growth as a peer support group facilitator.

Legal, liability, and ethical issues

I would be remiss if I didn’t put on my legal hat with this topic. Although the risk of a peer support group facilitator or participant being sued may be remote, I’ve seen a few pages for peer support groups that suggest requiring all participants to sign liability waivers.

I’m not going to start rendering legal opinions on that possibility here, especially given the global readership of this blog and the varied legal jurisdictions represented. However, suffice it to say that legal, liability, and ethical issues should not be ignored, especially the importance of avoiding what could be interpreted as providing psychological counseling or legal advice.

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I hope this information has been helpful for people involved in peer support groups for bullying and mobbing targets. Readers who have identified other useful resources are invited to mention them in the comments section.

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A simple question to ponder

I’m reading The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (2016) by historian Michael Puett (Harvard) and journalist Christine Gross-Loh. The book is an outgrowth of Dr. Puett’s wildly popular undergraduate course on Chinese philosophy, which Gross-Loh wrote about for The Atlantic in 2013 (link here). In touting his course, Puett promises that “This course will change your life,” and apparently the students are buying into the claim.

The book starts us with Confucius. In contrast to philosophers who “jump right in with big questions” such as “Do we have free will? and “What is the meaning of life?,” Confucius “asked this fundamental and deceptively profound question”:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

It’s a question that can take you very, very deep. I’ve been pondering it since reading the passage over the weekend, and I’m far from done.

Puett and Gross-Loh go on to suggest that this inquiry can lead us to change how we live and act, built on the assumption that we are not destined to be stuck in place. 

The Path is one of those short (200 pp.), profound-sounding, easy-to-read books that makes for a popular graduation gift. However, I think it resonates even more strongly with those of us who have been around the block a few times.

Of course, positive individual change is not always so simple as wishing or allowing for it to occur. If, for example, someone has been subjected to severe abuse, the trauma from that experience can have serious impacts on mental and physical health and personal behavior. Nevertheless, I submit that this simple inquiry can be a pathway towards positive change in our lives. In fact, it may be especially enlightening for those who are dealing with significant challenges and who want to make positive transitions in their lives.

So, once again, ask yourself:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

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