January 6, 2021: Workplace violence of Constitutional proportions in Washington D.C.

Screenshot from the Washington Post

Quite understandably, the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol Building is being framed largely in the context of America’s divisive political dynamics and the final days of the administration of Donald Trump. This was, after all, an unprecedented event, a violent occupation of one of the nation’s most important houses of government, at a time when the Congress was meeting to approve electoral votes for the next President and Vice President. It was preceded by a lengthy rally led by Trump and his minions, spurring members of white supremacist groups and conspiracy cults to storm the building, in an attempt to stop the Constitutional transfer of power inherent in every national election.

This event will rightly prompt a long and deep investigation, and many questions about how this could happen and what parties were responsible remain unanswered for now. True, the loss of life was minimal compared to other signature events threatening national security, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However, this could’ve been much, much worse, with considerably higher fatality and casualty rates, hostage taking, and an extended occupation, had things transpired even a little differently.

I’d like to add another perspective on the Capitol attack, and that is to see it as a significant act of workplace violence, prompted by leaders who favor bullying and mobbing behaviors as ways of getting what they want. Anyone who is interested in preventing and responding to workplace violence should consider January 6 as a massive leadership, organizational, and systems failure and, quite possibly, corruption. I am confident that once we grasp the enormity of this event, it will become a case study of failed workplace violence prevention and response in public sector workplaces.

We also may eventually learn more about psychological trauma emerging from that day. It is likely that a good number of people who were lawfully in the building will experience post-traumatic symptoms. This includes elected officials, staff members, security personnel, media representatives, and others. Especially for them, working in that building may never again feel safe or secure.

It is no exaggeration that January 6, 2021 will be remembered as one of the most disturbing days in U.S. history. For those of us who study abuse, aggression, and violence in our workplaces, comprehending the events of that day will take on this added dimension.

MTW Newsstand: Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week edition

Hello dear readers, it’s Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, an annual observance launched by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Among other things, I’d like to share some relevant articles with you:

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, “Global Workplace Bullying Developments Continue during Covid-19,” SAI Global (2020) (link here) — “In this blog, I review new laws around the world that prohibit bullying in the workplace, as well as an international standard that will address violence and harassment at work that becomes effective soon.”

Mickey Butts, “How Narcissistic Leaders Make Organizations Less Ethical,” Greater Good Magazine (2020) (link here) — “A new paper by Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Jennifer Chatman and her colleagues shows not only the profound impact narcissistic leaders have on their organizations, but also the long-lasting damage they inflict.”

Manuela Priesemuth, “Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces,” Harvard Business Review (2020) (link here) — “While direct interactions with ‘bad bosses’ can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. Indeed, some of my own research has shown that abusive behavior, especially when displayed by leaders, can spread throughout the organization, creating entire climates of abuse.”

Brian Truitt, “New survey: Women in Hollywood are twice as likely as men to experience unchecked bullying at work,” USA Today (2020) (link here) — “A new survey from The Hollywood Commission confirms that abusive conduct is a pervasive problem in Hollywood made worse by the entertainment industry’s power imbalances – and the targets of the bullying are often young workers and assistants.”

Mike Krings, “KU law, journalism scholars sum up nonexistent state of workplace cyberbullying laws,” KU Today (2020) (link here) — “While technology has provided a way for many parts of life to carry on virtually, it has also provided space for negative elements of life such as cyberbullying to increase. Schools have made strides in combating the problem in recent years, but two University of Kansas scholars point out in a new book chapter that American law is woefully unprepared to handle workplace cyberbullying.”

Elizabeth Mulvahill, “When Teachers Bully One Another,” We Are Teachers (2020) (link here) — “Indeed, while there is news story after news story about student-on-student bullying, no one is talking about the problem of teacher-on-teacher bullying. But for teachers facing harassment from their colleagues every day, the proverbial struggle is real.”

Teaching as everyday leadership (pandemic edition)

The new “back to school” prep

This strange, anxious, and difficult period, marked by a pandemic that has changed our lives dramatically, has caused me to engage in no small amount of reflection on my role as an educator. I keep coming back to the notion of teaching as a form of everyday leadership.

By March, the coronavirus situation was well on its way toward becoming a global pandemic. In response, my university — like so many others — announced that we would be teaching the rest of the semester online. For a lot of faculty (including yours truly), that meant using the Zoom videoconferencing platform that now has become a staple in many millions of lives. This fall, it’s pretty much more of the same, except that we’re starting off the term online, rather than switching modalities in mid-semester.

I’m grateful that we have technologies that allow us to have live classes. Under normal circumstances, most of us would prefer to be in face-to-face classrooms. But these are not normal times, at least in a city that was one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots during the spring and early summer. We’re doing better now, but we cannot take this threat lightly.

This isn’t what our students signed up for in terms of an educational experience. I’m a law professor, and in normal times, both our full-time day and part-time evening students have the benefit of studying law right in the heart of Boston. They have the use of a beautiful building and a spacious law library, with a variety of on-site services ready to help them. They are within walking distance of legal employers, courthouses, and government offices.

For now, however, instead of having all that, most are logging in from their homes or workplaces to attend law classes online. The disruptions to their usual lives and to their degree programs have often been substantial.

Of course, I understand that the lives of educators, administrators, and staff in higher education have been upended as well. We will never forget the unsettling transition of suddenly going into lockdown mode, while wondering if the most momentary contacts with the outside world will cause us and people we care about to get very sick. Adapting our work lives around these new realities hasn’t been easy.

Nevertheless, practicing everyday leadership means rising above our own challenges to educate, support, and inspire our students. How we present ourselves and engage our students in this online mode will greatly impact how they perceive the experience of studying remotely. Some will also look to us for cues on how to get things done, while emotionally navigating the dramatic changes in our lives.

I’m fortunate to teach at a university where our students are generally not entitled or spoiled. Quite understandably, they’re not happy with this situation, but they are doing their best to adapt to it. If they see their instructors putting in the effort to make these courses useful and interesting, then they are likely to respond in kind.

Of course, teaching is like that generally. The ability, effort, and emotional intelligence of individual professors always make a difference. But under current circumstances, these qualities matter even more.

On recovering from adversity and loss to have his finest moment

Here in the U.S., Joseph Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, delivered an acceptance speech at his party’s nominating convention that has received widespread praise for its moral conviction and strength. A man not associated with powerful oratory (among other things, he had to overcome a childhood stuttering impediment) nonetheless delivered a speech full of passion and heart quality, urging America to reclaim the light that has been lost in the midst of the current presidential leadership and a global pandemic.

The speech also served as a testament to recovering from great adversity and personal loss. Biden stumbled early in his party’s presidential primaries, appearing lackluster at campaign appearances and doing poorly in televised debates. Once the state primaries began, he stumbled badly at the polls. The growing suspicion was that this 77-year-old former vice president was washed up.

However, when all appeared to be lost, Biden pulled off a dramatic win in South Carolina, and the momentum just steamrolled from there. His march to win the nomination will be remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of presidential politics.

Biden’s political comeback is only a part of his story, of course. He has overcome adversities much greater than that. Weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his wife and one-year-old daughter died in a horrible car crash. He would remarry and raise his family. But in 2015, his oldest son, Beau Biden, who served as Delaware’s attorney general and as an active duty Army officer in Iraq, died after a long battle with brain cancer. It was a devastating loss that strongly factored into Biden’s decision not to run for president.

So here we are, in the summer of 2020, with the Democratic nominating convention being conducted as a socially distanced event for television and the internet because of a pandemic that continues to ravage this nation. There were no cheering delegates waving signs and banners; applause was delivered via projecting Zoom images on a giant screen. It was a strange and challenging setting for such an important speech.

And yet Biden delivered. You can watch his speech here.

Biden highlighted his sharp differences with the White House incumbent, not only in policies, but also in character. He invoked the term dignity on several key occasions. I try to avoid being overtly political on this blog, despite the fact that I am a longtime political junkie. However, I believe that the 2020 election is America’s moment of truth. We either make a change at the top or say goodbye to our nation as a decent, caring democracy. The stakes are that vital.

That said, for many Americans, the best reason to vote for Biden has been that he is not his main opponent. That may have changed on Thursday night, when a guy who was written off as an aging has-been stepped up to deliver the speech of his life. It’s a speech that history may very well credit for helping to save this country from a terribly dark future and lasting moral and ethical decline.

We bailed out Wall Street during the Great Recession, so let’s bail out Main Street and everyday people during the coronavirus crisis

(image courtesy Clipart Panda)

When the stock market crashed in 2008 and the world of high finance took a tremendous hit, the U.S. federal government came along and gave huge bailouts to Wall Street and its siblings. Most experts agrees that these dramatic moves were necessary in order to save the nation’s financial infrastructure.

Today, small businesses, non-profits, and individual employees are among those taking the hardest hit, as the economy essentially goes into quarantine due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. A lot of folks are understandably fearful about what their companies, organizations, and personal finances will look like during the weeks and months to come.

I’m not a public health expert, but drawing upon the mountain of information and commentary available, it appears that we’re at least a year away from widespread availability of a vaccine. In the meantime, a lot of very smart people are trying out different treatment approaches, but there’s no magic bullet for now. As I see it, this uncertainty is very likely to continue into next year.

All of which suggests that our elected and appointed officials, and other leaders in the business and non-profit sectors, must lead with a commitment to create a stronger social safety net and support for rebuilding businesses and organizations — while our medical and scientific communities work on treatments and vaccines that I’m confident we’ll eventually have to blunt this virus. It would help a lot if those promises — however unsupported by details at this moment — were made now, in order to soothe some of the anxiety and sadness that we’re already seeing.

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.

Can abused workers turn out to be great bosses? (Some good news here)

Let’s start the New Year with some good news. A study led by University of Central Florida researchers suggests that workers who have been subjected to workplace bullying and abuse are more likely to treat subordinates with decency when they are elevated to managerial positions. Science Daily reports:

A new University of Central Florida study suggests abuse and mistreatment by those at the top of an organization do not necessarily lead to abusive behavior by lower-level leaders. When offered leadership opportunities, prior victims of workplace abuse are more likely to treat their own subordinates better by learning from the bad behavior of their bosses.

UCF College of Business professors Shannon Taylor and Robert Folger, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” Taylor said. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn’t reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders.”

This study is welcomed news. Those who research and analyze interpersonal abuse in any context are familiar with the unfortunate and sometimes tragic dynamic of the abused becoming the abusers. We see it in workplace, spousal and intimate partner, and parental relationships. Abuse can beget abuse; it can create a vicious cycle.

But we’ve all seen instances where, for example, people who suffered abuse as children became very good parents and partners. The UCF study suggests that this positive dynamic can occur in the workplace as well. Abused workers can channel their empathy and understanding of their own experiences into a desire to be different when they get a chance to serve in a leadership or managerial capacity. In all such instances, the cycle of abuse is stopped cold.

***

Hat tip: Society for Occupational Health Psychology

Learning Mind: Deep vs. shallow people

From the Learning Mind site comes this neat little piece about the traits that distinguish deep from shallow people:

We talk about deep people and shallow people all the time, but what does it really mean to be deep and how can we cultivate this depth?

The article cites five primary traits of deep people:

  • “Deep people see beyond appearances”
  • “Deep people don’t believe everything they hear or read”
  • “Deep people listen more than they speak”
  • “Deep people think through the consequences of their behavior”
  • “Deep people try to get past their egos”

The piece goes into greater detail on each of these five traits. It’s well worth a click and a quick read.

Applied to organizational leaders

Think about the leaders at workplaces that you’ve experienced. Take some close looks at our civic and political leaders. How do they stack up against these five traits?

I think it’s pretty obvious that quality leaders have these traits in abundance. The not-so-good leaders come up short.

Of course, these are great qualities for all of us to emulate, both at work and in our personal lives. Sometimes simple lists like this one offer some big lessons.

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Hat tip to Del Carmen for the Learning Mind piece.

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.

In praise of thoughtful dissenters

(image courtesy of quote fancy.com)

In a 1954 broadcast critical of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow urged upon his listeners that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” Given today’s often poisonous political and social atmosphere, buttressed by bad leaders fueling these dynamics, Murrow’s words continue to ring very true.

And if you’re looking for some contemporary commentary about the importance of dissent in our institutions, workplaces, and civic life, then I’m pleased to recommend a new title by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (UC-Berkeley), In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (2018). In her book, Dr. Nemeth poses a challenge to leaders and institutions that drive us toward consensus, without leaving room for thoughtful dissent and questioning. Here’s a description, drawn from her website:

Good decision making requires divergent thinking, an unbiased search for information on all sides of the issue, a consideration of multiple alternatives, the weighing of the cons as well as the pros of any given position etc. Regardless of good intentions or even education and training, we don’t do this. We are subject to biases and most social processes conspire to narrow the range of considerations. Consensus and the seeking of it are culprits, not because we follow the consensus right or wrong, but because we think about the issue from that perspective.

By contrast, dissent opens the mind and actually stimulates divergent thinking. It not only challenges and breaks the hold of the majority, it stimulates the information search and consideration of alternatives; it widens the strategies used in problem solving and increases the originality of thought. This is true even when the dissenter is wrong. It is true even when we vigorously dislike the dissenter and her ideas.

The take-home of this book is two-fold. There are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.

Okay, I hear you: Isn’t reaching consensus a good thing? Don’t we all want to “get to ‘yes'”?, to paraphrase the title of a popular conflict resolution book. Obviously decisions have to be made, for in their absence, things can grind to a halt. Nemeth is not advocating for such outcomes or calling for people to be knee-jerk naysayers. Instead, she’s saying that when decisions result from weighing differences of opinion, the outcomes are often better.

There are lessons in this book for everyone. For example, when I’m in leadership roles or in the classroom, I can be welcoming of differing points of view. However, when I feel very strongly that I’m right, I can get impatient, especially when I perceive that other comments are not well reasoned. Nemeth understands that dissenting opinions — even ultimately erroneous ones — can slow down the process, but she urges their importance nevertheless.

Believe me, I’ve been in academic workplaces long enough to see the damage wrought by marginalizing and even squelching dissenting voices. Organizations that do not encourage genuine input often pay for their insularity. Sadly, their leaders rarely comprehend or admit those costs, instead preferring to bumble along with a top-down approach. Inclusive leadership, bolstered by the confidence to encourage thoughtful dissent, is the better way to go.

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