MTW Newsstand: September 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

“Study shows workplace bullying rivals diabetes, drinking as heart disease risk factor,” Safety + Health (2019) (link here) — Employees who are bullied or experience violence at work may face an additional stressor – an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a recent study of Scandinavian workers suggests. . . . ‘The effect of bullying and violence on the incidence of cardiovascular disease in the general population is comparable to other risk factors such as diabetes and alcohol drinking,’ lead author Tianwei Xu, a doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said in a Nov. 19 press release.”

Jeffrey M. Jones, “As Labor Day Turns 125, Union Approval Near 50-Year High,” Gallup (2019) (link here) — “Sixty-four percent of Americans approve of labor unions, surpassing 60% for the third consecutive year and up 16 percentage points from its 2009 low point. . . . The current 64% reading is one of the highest union approval ratings Gallup has recorded over the past 50 years, topped only in March 1999 (66%), August 1999 (65%) and August 2003 (65%) surveys.”

Paul E. Spector, “Why Is Job Satisfaction Important?,” Professor Paul E. Spector, Ph.D. (2019) (link here) — “Job satisfaction is the extent to which people like or dislike their jobs. People vary in how much they like their jobs, even when the hold the same job with the same job conditions. This means that satisfaction is as much determined by the individual as by the job. But why should organizations care about it, in other words why is job satisfaction important?”

Patricia Cohen, “New Evidence of Age Bias in Hiring, and a Push to Fight It,” New York Times (2019) (link here) — “The shadow of age bias in hiring, though, is long. Tens of thousands of workers say that even with the right qualifications for a job, they are repeatedly turned away because they are over 50, or even 40, and considered too old. The problem is getting more scrutiny after revelations that hundreds of employers shut out middle-aged and older Americans in their recruiting on Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms. Those disclosures are supercharging a wave of litigation. But as cases make their way to court, the legal road for proving age discrimination, always difficult, has only roughened.”

Debate and Dialogue

The first piece listed below by Arthur C. Brooks has prompted a lot of discussion. I’ve included a sampling of responses.

Arthur C. Brooks, “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “In sum, if your profession requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities—the kind of profession most college graduates occupy—noticeable decline is probably going to set in earlier than you imagine.”

Elizabeth MacBride, “Successful Women Are Starting Businesses. Yes, Even After 50.,” Forbes.com (2019) (link here) — “While I was reading it, drawn by the fear-inspiring headline “Your Professional Decline Is Coming Sooner Than You Think,” I felt how little the bleak worldview and the sense of loss reflect the reality of women I know as they near and pass 50.”

Chris Farrell, “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think? Bunk!, Next Avenue (2019) (link here) — “But the tight link Brooks makes between aging and decline is a false one. Research by noted economists, sociologists, neuroscientists, scholars of creativity, students of innovation and other disciplines is inclined towards a very different narrative about the second half of life than Brooks’ declinist view.”

The Conversation, The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “Readers respond to our July 2019 feature on professional decline and more.”

On living an “undivided life”

Parker J. Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life may have been published originally back in 2004, but it seems to have a special significance for today’s world.

Palmer suggests that many folks are living a “divided life” that can manifest in several ways:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve”;
  • “We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it”;
  • “We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits”;
  • “We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people”;
  • “We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change”; and,
  • “We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked”

Palmer says that we’re living in a “wounded world,” and it sure feels that way at times. (U.S. readers who wake up each morning to news of the latest mass shootings may specially agree.) Much of his book examines how to do inner work in response to these outer realities.

If this sounds interesting to you, then I recommend the paperback edition that includes a very detailed reader’s guide and a DVD with interviews of Palmer.

Authenticity

The themes contained in A Hidden Wholeness also resonate with the notion of personal authenticity, which I have commented on in previous entries. The professions, especially, can foster an emphasis on posturing as opposed to authenticity. As I wrote back in 2014:

What do I mean by posturing? In the context of meetings and conferences, posturing is the practice of saying “learned” things or raising “clever” questions primarily to make an impression, rather than to enrich a discussion. The two fields I am most familiar with, academe and law, are positively rife with posturing.

I’ve also suggested that inauthenticity at work can plant the seeds for an early midlife crisis. From 2013:

As a law student, lawyer, and law professor, I’ve spent a lot of time around people whose career ambitions are largely defined by others. To some extent, I have internalized some of those messages myself.

But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success. It’s an easy recipe for a midlife crisis.

In sum, it’s hard to be true to one’s self by living an inauthentic and divided life. Here’s to more wholeness for all of us.

A morning field trip to the Boston Globe

I am a big fan of newspapers. They are necessary for healthy civic life. They are also laboring under challenging circumstances in a digital era where print edition advertising dollars have diminished and lots of online readers expect news reporting to be accessible free of charge.

Among the papers I’m rooting for is the Boston Globe. I have no personal stake in it, other than being a resident of Boston and a subscriber. But I grasp its central role in shaping and informing our understanding of current events, such as over the weekend when — as I wrote earlier this week — they published two excellent features highlighting the destructive impact of workplace bullying.

A visit to the Globe

That’s among the reasons why I was delighted to participate in an onsite visit to the Globe’s downtown Boston headquarters this morning, courtesy of its Facebook group for subscribers. The Globe’s audience engagement team is experimenting with ways to connect with subscribers, and this tour was part of those efforts. Call it a neat little morning field trip.

The highlight of the tour was sitting in on the editors’ morning planning session. If you’re a news junkie like me, it is very, very cool to listen to the editors going around the table, sharing what pieces will be published online later in the day and, eventually, in the print edition. I appreciated their willingness to allow a group of strangers to witness discussions of developing news stories and decisions about what to publish and when.

Heightened appreciation

The Globe is a preeminent regional newspaper with national influence. Like most newspapers, it has suffered cutbacks and budget challenges over the years, thanks to the changing environment for print journalism. But it continues to publish comprehensive news reporting and features on a daily basis, as well as to break major investigative stories.

My appreciation for the Globe and newspapers like it has increased markedly during recent years. A prime example is reporter Jenna Russell’s in-depth piece about the savage bullying and harassment endured by a female corrections officer in Massachusetts. In the work I’ve been doing about workplace mistreatment, I have become familiar with stories like this in other parts of the country, where there are no newspapers capable of reporting them — or at least no papers willing to do so. It takes both resources and commitment to do journalism like this.

It may sound corny, but good newspapers shine a light on what’s happening in the world. Electronic news and social media play important roles as well, but only newspapers can do the deep digging on a consistent basis. We need them now more than ever.

On “workism” and American attitudes toward work

A couple of days ago, I posted on Facebook that I had managed to crank out a 30-page draft of an article, citing roughly 75 sources, in four days. Although I was happy with the draft when I submitted it for possible publication, upon rereading it I quickly saw its rough edges. Nevertheless, some of my Facebook pals gave me kudos for having hunkered down and completed the job, and I have to say that I was giving myself a pat on the back for having pulled it off.

But today I read this piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “Workism Is Making America Miserable” (link here) and I had to wonder if it was speaking to me:

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.

…The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

OK, so some might understandably say that “workism” is merely a repackaged way of saying workaholic. But Thompson is taking the latter notion a step further. He’s basically giving social class and (male) gendered angles to this deep, sometimes obsessive quest to work. He confesses that he is a “workist” whose personal identity “is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity,” yet he also realizes that this isn’t good for him or for society. In fact, he makes suggestions for public policy reform that combat workism. (He shares plenty of details in the full article, which I heartily recommend.)

I am very grateful for the work I get to do. In terms of my work as a professor, with the exception of grading exams (a necessary evil) and faculty meetings (ditto, sometimes minus “necessary”), it’s a wonderful job. Teaching, scholarship, and service — the troika that make up a professor’s core job duties — are very rewarding activities. But geez, I saw a lot of myself in that article. It’s not unusual for me to work seven days a week.

However, I break with the workism theme here: While Thompson says that workism has replaced faith for some, I don’t necessarily look at it that way. Although my religious beliefs are a work-in-progress — I believe in a God whose truth is somewhere in the intersection of the great faith traditions and various notions of spirituality — that hodgepodge of values helps to infuse my work with meaning. There are many others with much more defined religious beliefs who see their work as a personal ministry. And for those who see their work as an opportunity to create positive change, it’s not about making more money. 

That said, all work and no play can be an unhealthy recipe. I’m trying to do better on that elusive work-life balance thing. One of my hobbies is singing. For years I’ve taken a weekly singing workshop at a local adult education center. I’ve also become a regular at a local karaoke studio. I love the Great American Songbook — Sinatra, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, and some of the classic singer-songwriters are among my favorites. In fact, I’ll be crooning a few tunes at karaoke this weekend.

Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm

Have you ever worked at a place where, well, it just seems that typical work-related pronouncements and conversations are big on lies and short on truth?

You’re certainly not alone in that experience, and now management consultant Ron Carucci is sharing a research study that identifies four institutional factors that contribute to lying becoming normal organizational behavior. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Carucci explains that his research team conducted a 15-year study, incorporating 3,200 interviews drawn from 210 organizational assessments, “to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company will be honest.”

With an emphasis on organizational measures, rather than individual personalities, their study identified four factors that contribute to a propensity to engage in frequent lies. From Carucci’s HBR piece:

  • A lack of strategic clarity. When there isn’t consistency between an organization’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace, we found it is 2.83 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information.”
  • Unjust accountability systems. When an organization’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair or unjust, we found it is 3.77 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Poor organizational governance. When there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues, truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors and gossip. . . . We found that when effective governance is missing, organizations are 3.03 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Weak cross-functional collaboration. . . . When cross-functional rivalry or unhealthy conflict is left unaddressed, an organization is 5.82 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. . . . Divisional loyalties paint those outside the team as an enemy to be feared, resented, or blamed.”

Taken together, these characteristics can be deadly for organizational integrity, but Carucci emphasizes that positive change is possible:

Because the factors are cumulative, an organization afflicted with all four is 15 times more likely to end up in an integrity catastrophe than those who have none. But that doesn’t have to be the case. By taking aim at these four issues, you can make it far more likely that your company will create the culture of honesty you, your employees, and your customers eagerly want.

Integrity catastrophe. I like that term. It says a lot.

Human impacts

As a consultant, Carucci’s focus is understandably on company performance, so his emphasis isn’t so much on how an organizational culture of dishonesty affects workers on the ground level. But we know that in its more toxic manifestations, that experience can be demoralizing, stressful, and head-spinning. It also promotes more of the same.

At the more extreme end, we have the practice of gaslighting, a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. In “Gaslighting at work” (revised 2018), I wrote this about managerial pronouncements:

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant), and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When the human resources office announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

Lose-lose

When I talk about workplace bullying, I often invoke the term “lose-lose.” In organizations rife with bullying behaviors, workers suffer, and the organizational performance suffers. The same goes for organizational cultures of dishonesty, which breed distrust, cynicism, fear, and anger. Cheers to Ron Carucci and his team for highlighting key institutional factors that fuel habitual lying, and for suggesting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Snow day? Try polar vortex day

As a bad weather geek and a one-time denizen of midwestern America, I’ve been paying close attention to the polar vortex that today is turning the nation’s heartland into a temporary imitation of Antarctica. During winter months, folks in the Midwest become accustomed to the occasional “snow day,” whereby heavy snowfalls compel the closure of schools, businesses, and some public services. But closing down for a polar vortex is quite another thing.

Reporting for the New York Times, Kate Taylor explains some of the major ramifications of this weather. Here are her takeaway points:

  • “The Midwest will be colder on Wednesday than parts of Antarctica and Alaska”
  • “More than 50 million people will be affected”
  • “You could get frostbite in five minutes”
  • “The last time Chicago faced temperatures this low was more than 30 years ago”
  • “Thousands of flights are being canceled”
  • “Hundreds of schools are being closed”
  • “Hundreds of thousands of college students will be hunkering down”

Of course, the world of work is profoundly affected by this onslaught of sub-zero weather. With schools closing, parents’ work schedules will be thrown into disarray — assuming that their respective workplaces aren’t closing as well. Many public employees are being instructed to stay home. Even mail delivery has been suspended in areas expecting the coldest temperatures. I’m sure a lot of private businesses are shutting down today as well. And for those who have work-related air travel planned, well, this could be a frustrating day to be flying.

If you are in America’s central states right now, I hope you’re reading this from a warm place. It’s a good day to attend to indoor tasks and chores, perhaps to work from home if you have a job with that kind of flexibility, or simply to get caught up on a favorite television show or movie (or two).

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.

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