Non-conformists as change agents

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ProPublica, the non-profit public interest news organization, recently did a neat little feature on Dr. Adam Grant’s (U.Penn/Wharton) new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016). Here’s the lede by Cynthia Gordy:

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report.

The feature includes a podcast with Dr. Grant interviewed by ProPublica reporter David Epstein. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On lower-level workers facing backlash for making suggestions: “People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. . . . You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven’t yet earned respect.”
  • On whistleblowers using internal channels: “We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong.”
  • On advocating for change internally vs. externally: “This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. . . . On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it.”

Impossible

Okay folks, it’s impossible for me to be objective on this topic. I naturally identify with the role of non-conformist and have done so for as long as I can remember. In years past, this role was all too often accompanied by attitudinal rebelliousness. I am not completely free from such instincts, but I think I am much more constructive and mature about it than I was before.

Grant’s characterization of the “tightrope walk” specially resonates with me. It overlaps with the idea of what author and coach Judi Neal calls the “edgewalker,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.

Of course, it’s not all about starry-eyed idealism. As Grant’s work suggests, non-conformists can pay a price for being out front, with ridicule, pushback, and retaliation being among the costs. For this reason and others, I’m looking forward to spending some time with his book. I hope it will yield some lessons on how to be an “Original” as smartly, safely, and effectively as possible.

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Fear of retaliation: A prime indicator of organizational integrity and decency

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There are plenty of factors that go into what makes a good workplace, but I’d like to zero in on one measure: Do employees have reason to fear retaliation if they report alleged wrongdoings, such as discrimination and sexual harassment, bullying, unsafe working conditions, or ethical transgressions, or if they engage in legally protected activities such as union organizing?

The answer to this question speaks volumes about an organization’s integrity and decency. It all boils down pretty clearly: The good organizations don’t retaliate against individuals for engaging in legally protected conduct or for reporting potentially illegal or wrongful behaviors. The bad ones do.

Retaliation can take many forms, including:

  • Active, targeted, threatening, and prompt retaliation via overt and covert means;
  • Milder, usually indirect retaliation that makes it more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship;
  • Taking a wait-and-see approach by watching the employee for the slightest mistake or transgression, and then blowing it up into a major performance weakness or act of misconduct;
  • Icing out the employee from various opportunities, while building elaborate, pretextual justifications for doing so; and,
  • Retaliating against the employee’s compatriots or friends.

Most protective employment statutes, such as discrimination laws, collective bargaining laws, and health & safety laws, have anti-retaliation provisions designed to protect those who report alleged violations and who cooperate with related investigations and legal proceedings. But prevailing on such claims is not easy, and the nastier the employer, the more likely it is to have raised hiding its motives to an art form.

A lot of retaliation takes the form of workplace bullying. However, establishing motive and causation under anti-retaliation provisions of various laws can be a challenge. It’s among the reasons why we need standalone legal protections against workplace bullying.

Freedom from fear is an important element of dignity at work. Praise be to organizations that truly practice this value.

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The article in the screenshot above is just one of an endless number of pieces online about fear of retaliation for whistleblowing and asserting one’s legal rights.

Disgruntled, tenured, and silent in the academic workplace

As some readers are quite aware, these are trying times at many universities, private and public alike. Finances are precarious, budgets are tight, and cutbacks are often the norm. At some schools, board members and senior administrators have turned into micro-managers. Highly paid senior administrators are proliferating at many universities, even as full-time faculty and staff are being laid off. Many will hire pricey consultants to help them do the work that they are not competent to do themselves, despite their hefty paychecks.

Instead of best practices winning the day, some of the worst excesses of private, non-profit, and public sector management seem to be festering in all too many institutions of higher learning.

In response, the voices of accountability, or at least those of the devil’s advocate, should be the tenured faculty. As I wrote in one of this blog’s most popular posts, tenured faculty typically have gone through a rigorous review process spanning many years, resulting in job protections much greater than those of the average worker. This includes the right and privilege of academic freedom, which is among the qualities that make colleges and universities different from many other workplaces.

In fact, the term “faculty governance,” a supposed bulwark of higher education culture and practice, relates directly to the exercise of academic freedom. It anticipates an active role for faculty in determining the future of an institution, and this may include questioning, probing, and criticizing proposed and adopted policies within the university.

But there’s a kind of hush…

All too often, however, certain tenured faculty remain silent. They may deeply object to what is transpiring around them, out of principle and/or self-interest. They also may enjoy additional institutional privileges, sometimes by dint of accomplishments, other times because of connections, and on occasion due to demographic status. If they would only speak up, they could make a difference.

But rather than jeopardize their privileges, they have nothing to say.

While others are questioning unwise and/or unfair practices and policies, they are nowhere to be heard. Oh, they may grouse in private, perhaps vehemently so. Maybe they’ll send a (private) e-mail of support to one of the “dissenters,” “rabble-rousers,” or “bomb throwers,” but when it comes to publicly aligning themselves with those who are sticking out their necks (sometimes on their behalf!), they stay mute.

If letters of protest are circulated, they may consider signing, but not until confirming that many others have signed on ahead of them. If a resolution criticizing a bad administrative move is being considered at a faculty meeting, they’ll wait a half second to see how others vote before raising their hand. If a close colleague or co-worker faces retaliation or termination and approaches them for help, they may express sympathy, while adding it’s a shame that there’s nothing they can say or do.

They obviously had the intellectual chops to get tenure, but in the aftermath of obtaining that brass ring, they’ve decided that it’s wiser to conduct themselves on a risk-free basis. If there are battles to be fought, let others step up to the challenge.

Over the years I have talked to faculty at many different universities about this dynamic. It is not uncommon, especially at more dysfunctional institutions.

The perks of silence

The disgruntled, tenured, and silent will stay in their offices, with fingers crossed that no one comes for them, while continuing to collect and enjoy the perks of silence.

The least admirable of these folks will kiss up to the very people whose actions they so (privately) criticize.

This is, of course, their right. Tenure does not oblige one to exercise the freedom of expression bestowed by that status. Nor does it prohibit anyone from stroking the egos of those they silently oppose. After all, why risk retaliation and sacrifice one’s privileges — earned or not — when others are willing to do so?

“Askhole” behavior in non-profits: An insightful and entertaining Vu

In a marvelously insightful and entertaining piece published on his Nonprofit With Balls blog, executive director Vu Le calls out non-profit leaders and organizations who are constantly asking their employees and other stakeholders for feedback and ideas, only to reject or ignore their suggestions over and again. He uses the term “askhole” to capture this behavior, and many who have experienced work life in this sector will find themselves chuckling in agreement.

Le begins by illustrating askhole behavior in an everyday social context. It’s hilarious:

Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.

Although Le is especially critical of the askhole dynamic confronting communities of color, it may apply in virtually any non-profit context. In essence, askhole behavior in the non-profit world promotes false hopes and leads to jaded attitudes, especially when it occurs repeatedly. In a line that jumped out at me, Le says, “We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever.”

Le does not merely curse the darkness. In his article, he offers good advice on how non-profits can avoid askhole behavior, such as “before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done,” and “if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it.”

So here’s the question for you non-profit dwellers: How many town meetings, “open door policies,” online surveys (helloooo, Survey Monkey!), strategic planning discussions, and coffee hours have you been invited to by senior administrators and perhaps board members? Of these, how many times have your concerns or suggestions been seriously considered, much less acted upon in an inclusive way?

Your answers will go a long way toward determining whether you have a healthy or dysfunctional organizational culture. They also will correlate strongly to the overall morale of rank-and-file stakeholders within your organization.

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Hat tip to Kayhan Irani for the Vu Le article!

Related posts

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012)

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

Recycling: Five years of February

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

February 2014: “I want to help stop workplace bullying” — “Periodically I get e-mails and voice mails from people who would like to get involved in addressing bullying at work. More often than not, they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand, and now they’d like to do something on a broader scale to prevent bullying and help others who have been targeted. Here are my thoughts on this topic . . .”

February 2013: On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations? What if notions such as supportive work environments, fair compensation structures, and organizational justice don’t cross their radar screens? What if all that matters to them are profits/revenues, avoiding liability, pleasing their boards & superiors, and getting ahead?”

February 2012: Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse — “Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws. Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better . . .”

February 2011: School bullying and workplace bullying: More alike than different? — “Beyond our families, our first encounters with others in a structured setting come via school. Is it not surprising that bullying behaviors modeled and validated in school settings reappear and evolve devolve in the workplace? More stuff to ponder here.”

February 2010: The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace — “I usually hesitate to use this blog to provide instantaneous analyses of developing news stories, but already it is clear that Friday’s terrible shootings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville will carry broader implications for academic workplaces. Three professors were killed, and two other professors and one staff member were injured during an incident that took place at a faculty meeting. In custody is Amy Bishop, an assistant professor in UAH’s biology department. Earlier that day, Bishop learned she had lost an appeal of her tenure denial. As soon as that piece of information was reported, the story behind this tragedy started to sharpen quickly.”

How to clamp down on worker dissent

If you’re a senior executive or manager and want to make sure that your workers don’t get too uppity, you might achieve your goal by being a tyrant and by encouraging your lieutenants to be the same way. Surely management-by-intimidation works, right?

Well, maybe, for a short while. At the same time, it surely will give rise to claims that you’re a jerk and maybe even a bully. And given a chance, your employees will leave for (hopefully) greener pastures.

A “better” approach

Fortunately, there’s another, more effective way to clamp down on worker dissent and possibly not have to answer for it. The trick is to do it with a smile, albeit an insincere one, and then take some action steps such as these:

  • Create a workplace culture that values superficial politeness over honest work relationships. Make sure that superficial atmosphere — what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call a “pseudo-relational” organizational culture — sweeps employee concerns or differences of opinion under the rug. 
  • Insert a civility rule into your employee handbook that ensures, say, when a young staff assistant complains angrily about management inaction on her sexual harassment allegation, you can nail her for acting inappropriately, “in violation of our employee policies.” By turning targets of mistreatment into transgressors, you can get rid of pesky complainers.
  • Keep using the word “transparency” over and again, even as you become less transparent.
  • Favor and reward a group of loyalists who will act as surrogate defenders to slap down any criticism on your behalf. 
  • Bully and expel a dissenter or two to send a message to everyone else that they’d better not question the organizational line.

But hold on! At some point, this approach doesn’t work either. Once your employees figure out the passive-aggressive culture of your workplace, they’ll take a hike when other options open up.

Instead, try this…

Of course, the best way to reduce worker dissent is to keep an open door and an open mind to employee concerns. An energetically healthy workplace is not necessarily free of disagreement or conflict, but rather one that handles such matters honestly, transparently, and respectfully, whenever possible.

By creating an organizational culture of genuine openness, mutual accountability, fair expectations, dignified treatment, and maybe even some kindness and humor to go with it, you’ll reap the benefits and feel good about what you’re doing.

If more employers understood these basic “soft skills” of good management, then (1) our workplaces would be more productive; (2) workers at every level would be happier and healthier; and (3) the number of work-related grievances and lawsuits would shrink markedly.

It seems so easy, right?

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As long-time readers may recognize, I’ve been using this blog as sort of a work-in-progress to sift through, relate, mix, and match assorted information, research, and insights. I’ve drawn upon a good dozen or so previous posts to crystallize ideas for this one. Thank you for your continued readership!

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Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying

Especially in the work context, the definition of gossip can be hard to corral. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gossip as “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.” In the workplace, however, these shared tidbits can also include details and rumors about salaries, working relationships, and working conditions.

In many instances, this is the stuff of everyday conversations at work. However, the presence of frequent and intense workplace gossip may signal deeper dysfunctions about an organization’s culture. It may manifest itself in offsite social media exchanges. In more severe instances, what might appear to be casual gossip is really part of a targeted campaign of defamation or bullying.

Earlier this month, Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal wrote about dealing with gossip at work:

Office gossip can be a welcome distraction. It just can be hard to know what to do when you become the focal point. Overreacting or saying the wrong thing may fan the flames, but ignoring some kinds of gossip can damage your reputation or even career.

The full article (subscription necessary from this link) contains advice on what to do if you are the subject of workplace gossip and includes video and radio clips. (Editor’s note: To access the article online, I Googled “Shellenbarger” and “gossip” and got a clean link.)

Healthier gossip

Shellenbarger aptly notes that gossip can have its beneficial qualities:

Not all gossip is bad. Some workplace talk can help ease stress or frustration over perceived injustices, research shows. . . . Knowing and sharing gossip are ways for employees who lack power to gain informal influence among their peers.

American workplaces, especially, are more likely to be built around a top-down, command-and-control organizational and communications structure. When employers do not provide healthy avenues for exchange and feedback, informal conversations may be the only way to share important information. Sometimes there’s a fine line between gossip and useful intelligence gathering.

In addition, what some employers might label as gossip may actually be, under certain circumstances, forms of legally protected speech, such as sharing concerns about discrimination or sexual harassment, or engaging in discussions about working conditions. Employment discrimination laws, occupational safety and health laws, labor and collective bargaining laws, and assorted whistle blower provisions may be sources of protection for certain types of worker speech.

Gossip as a bullying or mobbing tactic

A graphic accompanying Shellenbarger’s article recommends that when a “rumor is false and threatening your reputation,” confronting the source(s) of the gossip is the appropriate response. On this point, I strongly urge caution and remind us that universal recommended responses may fail to account for critical nuances and can have bad consequences. On balance: Confronting a subordinate is less risky; confronting a peer (or peers) is somewhat riskier; and confronting a supervisor or superior is a very different situation and can be fraught with risk.

If gossip is for the purpose of maliciously trashing someone’s reputation and pushing them out of the workplace, then the situation may be part of a bullying or mobbing campaign. This is a far cry from casual or even reckless rumor mongering. We’re now talking about orchestrated, deliberate behaviors.

Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….

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