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.

Kindness and compassion at work and elsewhere

Dear readers, I’ve collected six previous pieces on kindness and compassion at work and elsewhere. Consider it food for thought as we enter the holiday season!

Valuing kindness over emotional intelligence in today’s workplace (2016) — “For years I’ve exhorted the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace. But Bariso’s piece reminds us that a high EQ isn’t enough. By contrast, Rex Huppke, writing for the Chicago Tribune, suggests that kindness and being ‘a decent human being’ will contribute to better, more successful workplaces . . .”

Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us (2015) — “Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down. . . . “

Cultivating heart quality in professional practices (2015) — “Carolyn Thomas, a heart attack survivor and women’s health advocate, writes about the importance of kindness in health care practice in her popular Heart Sisters blog, starting with a story about her visit to the emergency room and subsequent placement in the cardiac care unit . . . .”

Does “mainstream indifference” undermine compassion and dignity at work? (2015) — “In The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004), home-brewed philosopher Charles D. Hayes (and one of my favorite authors) writes about how “mainstream indifference” fuels a lack of compassion and kindness in our society. . . .”

Imagining the “compassionate mind” at work (2013) — “In a thoughtful, compelling piece on the ‘compassionate mind,’ Dr. Emma Seppala draws together a wealth of research and analysis on the role on compassion — defined ‘as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help’ — in advancing the human condition.”

A 12-step program for compassion (2010) — “Karen Armstrong is a noted author on religious affairs. Her latest book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010), a mix of faith, philosophy, and self-help. In it, she offers a 12-step program to help make the world a more compassionate place . . . .”

Dignity work

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’ve been toying with a simple phrase lately: Dignity work. What does it mean? How might we define it? What if we made the nurturing of dignity our primary purpose as human beings? What kind of world would we see?

I see at least two angles on this:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

In considering these two possibilities, I suggest that we define dignity broadly, as a quality that embraces the better angels of our nature, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln. Providing attentive and loving caregiving to another is an obvious example of both strands of dignity work. But so is, say, starting a business that serves a community’s needs and treats its employees well, or creating an inclusive network or group devoted to a creative endeavor.

We live in a world where dignity is too often neglected in favor of raw exercises of power and the quest for profits, at times to the points of abuse and exploitation. In the meantime, opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

The Trump effect on productivity (including mine)

I read the news today, oh boy

My confession: I am so appalled and alarmed by Donald Trump that he has had a negative impact on my productivity. It positively galls me to admit that this man has had that kind of influence on me for over two years.

Yesterday was a prime example. The momentous story that Trump chose to credit Russian president Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, while largely dismissing the opposite findings of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, left me stunned. It also meant that a chunk of my day was lost to reading news analyses online.

When it comes to Trump and my productivity, perhaps it doesn’t help that for nearly 20 years, I’ve steeped myself in research and commentary about bullying, dishonesty, bigotry, and abuses of power, especially in work settings. Some readers disagree with my assessment of Trump — every time I post negatively about him, I lose a few subscribers — but during the 30-plus years that I’ve been aware of him, I have yet to see any real evidence of empathy or kindness from the man. He is the consummate workplace bully and dishonest boss, and he is a master of gaslighting behaviors.

However, it’s not only a reaction to a certain personality type that pushes my buttons. I am alarmed by what I see transpiring on the national and international stages in terms of public policy. And I am deeply concerned that Trump is displaying a form of so-called leadership that others are emulating. He has been president for less than two years, yet I believe it will take at least a decade for us to recover from this.

Direct hit

Sometimes the Trump effect on my productivity has been about as direct as it gets, namely, on the very work I do concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

Two summers ago, when Maureen Duffy and I were working on our co-edited book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States, the unfolding presidential campaign was so distressing and distracting that I sometimes had trouble staying focused on the project. (How ironic is that!?)

In January 2017, I was still so dazed and reeling from the November election that it took me by surprise that it was time to reintroduce the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the new session of the Massachusetts legislature. I did manage to pull myself out of my numbed state, but I was shaken that the election had such a profound impact on my psyche. (That won’t happen again.)

What to do?

Trump does what other deeply narcissistic, abusive types do so well. He sucks up our energy and attention in disproportionate amounts.

For those of us so affected, what are we to do? For starters, we need to be consciously aware of this impact. It means repeatedly reminding ourselves that many other important matters deserve our attention.

It can also mean taking the events of these times and turning them into lessons on how to change things for the better. For example, I’ll soon be sharing a draft of a law journal article that discusses how the Trump Administration’s policies and practices on immigration and health care have had especially traumatic effects on those directly affected by them. My longer range solution is that therapeutic jurisprudence — a school of philosophy and practice that embraces human dignity and psychologically healthy outcomes in the law — should be a framing perspective for making public policy.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and publish this post. Then it’s back to other tasks, hopefully with fewer newsworthy distractions than yesterday. After all, bullies like it when others merely keep reacting to them. To advance human dignity in the face of contrary forces, we need to create our own agendas and pursue them.

What do a fossil, a model ship, and a Spitfire have in common?

As someone steeped in the world of work, I find it interesting to talk to people about their jobs. I was at a UPS Store recently and had a chance to chat with the customer service person who was helping us. After spotting a UPS poster ad saying they could ship pianos and oddly-shaped pieces of furniture, I asked the young man what were the most unusual things that he has prepared for shipping.

Three of his examples jumped out at me. The first was a genuine fossil containing imprints of ancient sea animals. Long and thin, it had to be painstakingly wrapped and double-packaged to ensure that it would arrive safely. Requiring similar care was a collectible model ship with 100 tiny oars. (After all, if one oar breaks, then that’s it for the model, right?)

But what caused me to do a double take was when he casually mentioned “a Spitfire.” I’m thinking, he can’t mean a British Spitfire, the legendary type of fighter plane of World War II fame, can he??? But yep, that’s what he meant!

As a history geek, I was enthralled. The Spitfire, you see, is an historic symbol of Britain’s stiff upper lip, the plane primarily responsible for defending their cities against relentless Nazi bombing raids in 1940. The Spitfire and the Battle of Britain practically go hand-in-hand in the annals of British and World War II history.

Umm, how do you actually ship a Spitfire?, I had to ask. It’s easy, said the young man. You simply detach the wings and crate it all up.

Consider yourself briefed on how to send a famous WWII airplane to any friend or family member. I’d be happy to take one off of your hands if I could think of where to park it in Boston.

You could always just ship it (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Ruminating, problem solving, and coping in the midst of work abuse

In an article recently published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (abstract here), researchers Abbas Firoozabadi, Sjir Uitdewilligen, and Fred R. H. Zijlstra pose their key question in the title: “Should you switch off or stay engaged? The consequences of thinking about work on the trajectory of psychological well-being over time.”

Basically, they wanted to explore how taking our jobs home with us affects psychological well-being, especially when it comes to how we deal with work-related problems. Their focus was the distinction between ruminating (in this context, repeatedly thinking about the negative emotional aspects of a work experience) vs. problem-solving (analyzing potential responses and solutions). As some readers can already see, this study has significant implications for those experiencing forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work.

Study details and findings

As explained in the article abstract, the study was conducted with “123 participants with full-time and primarily mentally demanding jobs,” using the following methodology:

We conducted a 3-wave longitudinal study with a time lag of 6 months between each wave. At the first measurement moment, participants filled out a survey over 5 consecutive working days assessing work-related affective rumination and problem-solving pondering during evenings. Exhaustion and health complaints were assessed at the first measurement moment as well as after 6 and 12 months.

The researchers found:

The results showed that affective rumination is a significant predictor of increase in exhaustion over time. Problem-solving pondering was not found to be a significant predictor of change in psychological well-being over time. These findings demonstrate that work-related rumination during evenings may lead to health problems over time depending on the type of rumination. It suggests that unlike affective rumination, problem-solving pondering during evenings has no influence on psychological well-being over time.

Bottom line, slightly boiled down: Ruminating about work challenges will likely have negative health effects, while thinking about work challenges in problem-solving mode is a typically a break-even proposition in terms of health.

Applied to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Over the past 20 years, I’ve heard or read hundreds of stories about severe work abuse. I’ve concluded that for targeted individuals, ruminating over these terrible experiences is one of the most common and debilitating thought patterns. It is a form of ongoing re-traumatization.

Researchers Firoozabadi, Uitdewilligen, and Zijlstra were not specifically studying the psychological health effects of bullying-related behaviors, but their research has significant implications for those who are experiencing work abuse. Their study results dovetail with what many have observed or experienced: Ruminating about workplace mistreatment can create and exacerbate health problems, while operating in problem-solving mode is less likely to have such impacts. In fact, the latter may even improve psychological well-being by injecting needed doses of hope and empowerment.

If one could easily flip the switch from rumination to problem-solving, well then, a lot of problems would be solved, right?! However, in many cases of work abuse, it’s more complicated than that, especially when psychological trauma enters the picture. All too often, trauma and rumination go hand-in-hand. Targets of work abuse often ruminate about what happened and how it has affected them. It’s harder for them to shift the focus toward potential responses and solutions.

This may very well be a neurological effect, not necessarily a personality trait. As research has found, traumatic experiences can cause the side of the brain governing emotions (the so-called right side) to go into hyper-active mode, while the side of the brain governing logic, communication, and decision making (the so-called left side) shuts down. As I’ve written before, this understanding helps to explain why many targets of work abuse ruminate about the experience of that abuse and its effects on their emotions, while finding it difficult to develop an ordered narrative of relevant events and engage in problem-solving.

(As a side note, I’ll offer some unscientific, indirect evidence of this dynamic, drawn from writing this blog since 2008: Blog posts on workplace bullying that validate the experiences of being abused at work tend to attract a lot more search engine hits and Facebook “likes” than those that are problem-solving or solution-oriented in nature.)

The ruins of rumination — and potential coping responses

In a 2010 Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Edward Selby provides a useful primer on rumination and its effects:

Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Basically, rumination means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting.

***

What’s so bad about rumination though, it’s all about problem solving right? While it’s true that problem solving and planning are essential to overcoming a difficult problem, people who ruminate tend to take these activities too far and for too long. . . . Sometimes people will ruminate about the problem so much so that they never even develop a solution to the problem.

***

The research is extremely consistent. People who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety, and those problems are hard to overcome for someone who fails to change ruminative thought patterns.

Fortunately Dr. Selby suggests how people break out of their cycles of rumination. He strongly recommends pursuing a genuinely enjoyable, distracting activity:

So how do you overcome rumination? Well have you ever heard the phrase, “get your mind off of the problem?” The answer is simple, to overcome rumination you need to engage in some kind of activity that fully occupies your mind and prevents your thoughts from drifting back to the problem.

***

There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, and the best one to use is one that is personal for you. For example, some good activities include reading a book, playing a game, exercising, talking to a friend (but not about the problem!), or watching a movie. Of course you are only limited by your creativity and access to different activities. Importantly, you have to enjoy the behavior for it to work.

Losing one’s self in something good

Selby’s advice is congruent with pieces that I’ve written in this blog about the importance of immersive hobbies and pastimes, especially for those who are dealing with toxic work situations. In a 2015 blog post, “Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job,” I wrote:

For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business.

. . . Therapy or counseling, and mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation, may be helpful for coping with bullying at work. In addition, consider the possibility of a meaningful, life-affirming endeavor in which you can lose yourself in a good way.

I emphasize words such as meaningful and immersive. I am well aware that this is not as simple as picking out a hobby or pastime from some random list. (In this context, “Why don’t you try collecting coins?” is about as helpful as “You need to get over it.”) Rather, it’s about connecting to a positive activity decoupled from work. It will not address the bullying itself, but it may well provide a safe and enjoyable space away from it.

In that post, I told a story about Dr. Shelley Lane, who was experiencing workplace bullying at a college where she had previously worked:

When Dr. Shelley Lane was experiencing severe bullying at the community college where she worked and recovering from foot surgery that limited her mobility, she retrieved the personal journals she wrote during a formative year spent studying abroad as a young undergraduate and turned them into a book project.

In the Preface to her eventually published study abroad memoir, A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-Of-Age (2010), she wrote:

Soon thereafter fate provided me with two reasons why I should read them [her personal journals] again: a new president at the community college where I worked who made Attila the Hun appear weak and timid, and foot surgery that had me in crutches for four months. I finally returned to the journals to keep my mind away from the workplace bully and to forget that I wasn’t easily mobile.

In Dr. Lane’s case, there were good outcomes on multiple levels. First, she left that college for a better job at a better school. Second, as I wrote last year, she would later author a book, “Understanding Incivility: Why Are They So Rude?,” for which I was privileged to write the Foreword.

Not the last word, but hopefully of help

Dear readers, this obviously isn’t the last word on rumination and how to deal with it, but I hope it is of assistance to those who are experiencing it. Moving from rumination to problem-solving can be an important step toward healing and recovery. May it be so for you if you are in this difficult place.

***

Additional relevant posts

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016)

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

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

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