Woe is me (but maybe not you): How powerful people experience injustice

Powerful people may well be sensitive to injustice and unfairness, but a recent study shows that they are much more likely to feel this way if they are the alleged victims.

Tom Jacobs, writing for Pacific Standard magazine, reports on research suggesting that “people who perceive themselves as powerful are faster to detect injustice — but only in situations where they are the apparent victims.” Psychologist Takuya Sawaoka (Stanford) led the study (published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin), which included an online survey and several controlled experiments.

Dr. Sawaoka told Pacific Standard that because “powerful people more strongly expect to receive fair outcomes, they are faster to perceive unfair situations that violate those expectations.” Accordingly, they may “react more quickly against unfair treatment, and maintain their hold on power.”

The Stanford study fits comfortably with other observations and findings on the effects of power and hierarchy. Executives and senior managers are more likely to demonstrate higher levels of narcissism and lower levels of empathy. In other words, they’re very attuned to themselves, but they care much less about the experiences of others.

Granted, these studies reveal statistical likelihoods that do not apply to every CEO or boss. There are plenty of good ones out there. That said, growing evidence suggests that people with certain personality traits are more likely to successfully climb up the greasy pole and that less-than-wonderful outlooks on the world may harden once they make it up there.

All of which helps to explain the current state of many workplaces, the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else, and a political and economic system rigged to preserve these inequities.

Sustainable employability and workplace bullying


What do sustainable employability and workplace bullying have to do with one another? Not a lot, I concluded, after moderating a stimulating panel on organizational justice and sustainability at this year’s Work, Stress, and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Presenters Bram Fleuren (Ph.D. student, Maastricht University, Netherlands), Karolus Kraan (researcher, Institute for Applied Sciences, Netherlands), and Dr. Peter Schnall (clinical professor of medicine, UC-Irvine, and expert in work stress and heart disease) presented papers on sustainable work, globalization, and worker health.

Among the topics discussed was the meaning of sustainable employability, which Bram Fleuren defined as one’s employability not being negatively affected by work experiences over time. Peter Schnall added that we should aspire to make people healthier and more employable over time, not the other way around.

That little nugget of conversation resonated strongly with me. During our Q&A, I observed that workplace bullying can have destructive impacts on the sustainable employability of so many targets. This ranges from the challenges of explaining the circumstances behind job departures to prospective employers, to dealing with the health consequences and anxieties spurred by the abusive behaviors themselves.

A century ago in the U.S., manufacturing work and hard labor constituted primary ways of making a living wage, and it led to considerable physical wear and tear. In today’s America, wear and tear on the job is more likely to be associated with stress, and severe behaviors such as bullying are at the tip of that iceberg. As I suggested in a recent post, by the time people reach their 50s, many are being chewed up and spit out by a harsh economic system that no longer has much use for them.

When I introduced the presenters, I noted the small symbolism of their countries of origin. Europe, on balance, has been much more receptive to ideas such as sustainable employment, and so it is fitting that both Bram Fleuren’s and Karolus Kraan’s papers centered on this concept. The U.S. isn’t as enlightened in this way, and so it also was fitting that the American presenter, Peter Schnall, discussed how work contributes to heart disease.

And so, both ideals and realities dovetailed in one neat little 75-minute program.

Healthy vs. dysfunctional organizations

With some 800+ articles posted to this blog since late 2008, I’ve been periodically collecting pieces on related topics for your reading pleasure. Here are eight posts from 2011 and 2010 that address various aspects of organizational behavior:

1. What workplace bullying teaches us about the integrity of American employers (2011) — An employer’s response to psychological abuse of its workers says a lot about its core ethics.

2. Confidential settlements in employment cases: Poof, as if nothing happened (2011) — Gag clauses in settlements of employment cases often shield the worst employers from closer scrutiny.

3. How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — Not all organizations treat their past alike.

4. “Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011) — In bad organizations, a drawn-out strategic planning process helps to justify and promote more dysfunction.

5. When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers (2011) — The worst employers often hire the least-wonderful employment attorneys.

6. How well does your organization respond to employee feedback and criticism? (2011) — The question says it all.

7. Do organizations suppress our empathy? (2010) — On organizational “heart quality.”

8. Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy? (2010) — A great list of questions that yield insights into the culture of your workplace.

Can workplaces be joyful?

Another big global law firm — in this case New York-based Dewey & LeBoeuf, with 1,300 lawyers around the world — is facing extinction, a victim of its own ambitions and, perhaps, some of the very avarice that has fueled the economic meltdown. Google the firm’s name and you’ll come up with plenty of articles offering anticipatory obits.

A brief passage in one piece especially caught my eye. Peter Lattman, writing for the New York Times, quoted a Dewey employee about what it’s like to be there right now:

“Law firms aren’t very joyful places even when things are going well,” said the Dewey employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “How would I describe the atmosphere now? The first word that comes to mind is funereal.”

How interesting: Even when the money is rolling in, these law firms “aren’t very joyful places.” To anyone familiar with the world of what prestige-obsessed lawyers and law students love to call “BigLaw,” this isn’t a surprising characterization.

Hard work

Think what you will of lawyers and the legal profession, but practicing law is hard work, and doing it well requires plenty of time, intellect, and attention to detail. Important rights and obligations often are at stake. So I understand if the typical BigLaw office lacks the atmosphere of a Broadway musical or a World Series champion ticker tape parade.

Nevertheless, something is wrong when smart, talented people who have so many occupational choices find themselves coalesced in such joyless places to earn a living. The sad story of Dewey and, quite likely, other corporate law firms on the brink, is that they haven’t learned any of the deeper, quality-of-work-life lessons coming out of what we’ve been through during the past four years.

The NWI Eightfold Path

Dear Reader, I ask your indulgence. Let’s steer away from the joyless world of the typical corporate law firm and imagine what workplaces could be like. Three years ago, I offered what I call the New Workplace Institute’s “Eightfold Path” to a psychologically healthy workplace. Here it is, once again, for your consideration.

Drawing on relational-cultural theory, organizational justice, and therapeutic jurisprudence, I suggest asking these eight questions to determine whether or not a workplace is psychologically healthy, productive, and socially responsible toward its own workers:

  1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?
  6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?
  7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

Auld Lang Syne: The importance of organizational history and memory

Memory was a key theme appearing on this blog several times during the year. In other words, what events and persons do organizations and institutions choose to remember, and which ones do they opt to forget?

I’m a big believer in continually re-examining history for the lessons it keeps yielding. When memories are sharp and true, we all can benefit, sometimes because they allow us to celebrate and commemorate, on other occasions so we can learn from mistakes or failings.

Here are three posts from this year that examined the implications of institutional amnesia:

How lousy organizations treat institutional history — Excerpt: “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise? . . . Bad organizations avoid accountability by labeling any unjust, unethical, illegal, or simply inept behavior as part of the past. Those who seek discussions of, or explanations for, such actions or behaviors are criticized for dwelling upon the past . . ..”

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory — Excerpt: “Bad organizations choose to ‘forget’ less flattering events of their institutional history, especially those that conflict with their self-generated mythologies. Sometimes that process requires them to create new unpersons out of individuals associated with those events.”

Harass and eliminate: Anti-labor forces go after professors and art — Excerpt: “Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, recently ordered the removal of an 11-panel mural depicting various chapters in the history of the state’s workers from the offices of the Department of Labor. . . . There is an Orwellian quality to this action, a desire to create a category of unpersons . . ..”

Does your organization nurture growth-fostering relationships?

Last week’s annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network in New York City featured the presentation of an award (posthumously) to Jean Baker Miller, M.D., a visionary psychiatrist, social activist, and co-founder of relational-cultural theory (RCT).

RCT (link here) holds that:

Growth-fostering relationships are a central human necessity. Chronic disconnection, whether on an interpersonal or societal scale, is a primary source of human suffering.

The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women is devoted to transformational personal growth and social justice, building its programs around an RCT model.

Five Good Things

Dr. Miller boiled her core ideas down to a set of “Five Good Things” that empower people in growth-fostering relationships:

1. A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person or other persons.

2. The ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as other situations.

3. Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person(s).

4. An increased sense of worth.

5. A desire for more connections beyond the particular one.

So here’s the question: Does your organization nurture these qualities? To further explore this subject, you might take a look at these posts:


For a short report on last week’s HumanDHS workshop:

Building a society that embraces human dignity

What does ABC’s “Revenge” teach us about workplace injustice?

I’ve never been a fan of soap operas, but a very soapy new primetime drama, ABC’s “Revenge,” has been a lock on my DVR this fall.

About “Revenge”

“Revenge” is the title, philosophy, and practice of this weekly guilty pleasure. The story features a young woman, Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp), who mysteriously appears in the Hamptons, New York’s refuge for the ultra wealthy.

Emily is not who she says she is. She’s really Amanda Clarke, and years ago, when Amanda was still a girl, her rich, cutthroat neighbors framed her father for a horrific act of terrorism and essentially destroyed their lives. Emily/Amanda now has returned home to exact revenge on them, in brutally cool and calculated ways. (“Revenge” is said to be loosely patterned after Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but believe me, you don’t have to be familiar with the book to get into the show!)

Each new episode features intrigue, manipulation, and carefully planned acts of payback. It also highlights an ongoing cat fight, nay, death battle of the tigresses, between Emily and leading Hamptons socialite Victoria Grayson (played by Madeleine Stowe), a key operative in her father’s disgrace and demise.

This could be a giant recipe for an early series cancellation but for the pitch perfect performances by the lead actresses. VanCamp is the ideal cold-blooded avenger masquerading as the sharp, pretty, sweetheart-next-door. Stowe pulls off her Ice Queen of the Hamptons role — one that easily could become a caricature in the hands of a less-gifted performer — with just the right touch. And when Emily and Victoria are in the same room, well, if looks could kill…

Revenge vs. schadenfreude

Are fans of “Revenge” frustrated avengers pining for a chance to inflict payback on those who have hurt them? If so, then there are millions of us waiting in the wings.

Fortunately, I don’t think this is the case. It boils down to the difference between exacting revenge — i.e., taking an active part in the retribution — and experiencing schadenfreude, the German loanword defined as deriving joy or satisfaction from another’s misfortune. The former involves planning and participation, while the latter represents an emotional response.

For some, a successful act of revenge can result in schadenfreude. For others, schadenfreude is more comfortably experienced as the result of a misfortune visited upon someone by another party or initiative.

I believe that most viewers enjoy “Revenge” because it allows us to revel in a fictional version of the latter variety. After all, cutting through the soap, “Revenge” reminds us that plotting real-life payback easily becomes an all-consuming and blackhearted passion. It often requires the same overheated emotion as the act that inspired it, not to mention a heckuva lot of care and attention to detail if one does not want to get caught.

Furthermore, the vast majority recognize that carrying an unyielding need for vengeance can be a dark, heavy, and unhealthy burden. Even if we struggle to forgive our trespassers, we nevertheless understand the personal costs of devoting ourselves to visiting retribution upon them.

And yet, “Revenge” may satisfy some inner craving for schadenfreude, which allows us to eat our cake but not have to answer for the calories. When one of Emily’s brilliantly designed acts of payback succeeds, it’s hard not to say, hah hah, gotcha!

Workplace revenge fantasies

No doubt that when some viewers are relishing Emily’s latest success, they’re thinking about specific bosses or co-workers who treated them poorly or unfairly.

Indeed, some of the “bad boss” books that I’ve paged through over the years are full of revenge fantasies, imagined and realized. People construct, and occasionally act out, these fantasies because they lack the power to use organizational resources to make things right. And when institutions do not embrace fairness and accountability, those on the receiving end of perceived injustices are left to their own devices and coping skills.

These are no trifling concerns, as I hope this blog has demonstrated. Perceptions of organizational justice impact productivity and individual well-being. Careers, livelihoods, and paychecks are at stake, not to mention personal health and dignity.

“Revenge” doesn’t get into the institutional ripple effects; it’s all personal, either in-your-face or behind-your-back. Ultimately, it isn’t psychologically deep enough to teach us anything more profound than the costs of being obsessed with retribution. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, and it’s delivered in marvelously entertaining fashion to boot.


Go here to watch full episodes of “Revenge.”

Is closure possible for targets of workplace bullying and injustice?


Does “closure,” a favorite term in pop psychology (and one I have used), really exist?

Drake University sociology professor Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us (2011), questions the very concept of closure as an accepted fact. In a Q&A with the Boston Globe (link here), she states:

The idea of closure [is seen] as a new emotional state for explaining what we need and how we’re supposed to respond to trauma and loss. But closure is a rhetorical concept, a made-up term . . . .Closure is not something that we can simply find or something we need. It’s a frame used to explain how we should respond to loss.

She is especially concerned when people impose the idea of closure upon others who are grappling with grief or trauma:

…(I)f the concept of closure helps them in sharing or thinking about their own story, that’s fine, that might help them. But a concern is that they try and turn around and tell other people “you need closure,” or when people assume that everyone understands closure the same way they do and that everyone experiences it the same way.

Application to abusive work situations

Dr. Berns is coming at the topic largely from the perspective of dealing with personal grief. Nevertheless, her words may resonate with those who are processing the experiences of bullying and other serious injustices at work.

Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance. After all, the more we learn about trauma, depression, and other conditions that can be prompted or exacerbated by severe work abuse, the more we know that “getting over it” can be a very challenging process.

True, some bullying targets manage to achieve a sense of closure relatively quickly. I’ve seen this happen when there has been a fair and decisive organizational response, or when the individual has managed to move on to a better situation.

For others — many others, I believe — “getting over it” comes in stages, often with emotional relapses. When the relapses become less frequent and less intense, we see progress. Rarely does one reach a point where they declare from some virtual mountain top, “I have achieved closure. I am over it.” Rather, it’s a quieter realization that they have been able to move on.

Some may continue to struggle. This is most likely when the acute conditions — such as ongoing mistreatment or a bad career setback — have not been sufficiently addressed, or when someone is otherwise consumed by their situation. For these folks, progress definitely remains possible, but they may be in a difficult place for the time being.


This post was revised in June 2016.

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory


(image copyright Aaron Maeda)

Last week I referenced the Orwellian concept of unpersons, those (in the words of Wikipedia) “whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practiced by modern repressive governments.” Though Orwell saw the making of unpersons through the lens of totalitarian governments, many of us can comprehend how the practice applies equally to private and non-profit organizations.

In fact, it was an online exchange with a friend regarding the creation of unpersons in the non-profit sector that led us to consider the role of institutional memory, defined as (and thanks again to Wikipedia for this):

a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations and by extension in entire cultures.

The two ideas are closely related. Bad organizations choose to “forget” less flattering events of their institutional history, especially those that conflict with their self-generated mythologies. Sometimes that process requires them to create new unpersons out of individuals associated with those events.

Those who try to remind organizations of these transgressions are criticized for talking about “the past,” even if the events in question occurred very recently. If they bring up that past too frequently, they risk being turned out and rendered unpersons themselves.

Rinse and repeat

Of course, any discussion of institutional memory should recall the Santayana chestnut that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Bad organizations often fail to heed that advice. In fact, when less-than-wonderful events do repeat, the purging of institutional memory often guarantees that no one will remember the original disaster.

Easy as 1-2-3

Today, with websites often serving as the public face of an organization, the creation of unpersons and the emptying of institutional memory is as easy as editing a web page. Entire biographies and histories can be deleted in a few keystrokes. One day, all links lead to your page; the next, you don’t even exist (at least virtually)!

From abstract to concrete

Okay, this discussion has been rather abstract. But I’m guessing that many readers familiar with workplace bullying, sexual harassment, whistleblowing retaliation, and other forms of mistreatment can identify readily with the ideas here. Hopefully I’ve provided a modest backdrop for understanding the accompanying institutional responses.

Keys to happiness at work?

In 2009, Australian psychologist Timothy Sharp conducted an informal survey that asked a simple question, What do you consider to be the top three keys to happiness at work? The responses he received “were remarkably consistent.”

His study led to a short piece for Greater Good magazine, in which he shares “five key steps to workplace happiness” (link here):

“One: Provide leadership and values”

“Two: Communicate clearly and effectively”

“Three: Give thanks”

“Four: Focus on strengths”

“Five: Have fun”

Is that all there is to it?

This list is a good start — and the full article supplies more of the deeper meaning for each item — but I think there’s more. Sharp casts his lot with the school of positive psychology. In fact, according to the article he is known in Australia as “Dr. Happy.” As such, I think his general orientation may gloss over the darker sides of work and how organizations handle issues that implicate fairness, inclusion, and ethics.

Organizational justice is a term used to capture employee perceptions of fair treatment. A difficult situation at work can be a test of organizational justice. Workers who believe their employer acts with fairness and integrity are more likely to be satisfied and loyal and to feel safe, and those who do not are prone to think the opposite.

Signs of growing worker discontent

In any event, employers are advised to take worker happiness and satisfaction seriously, for it appears that pent up worker frustrations are emerging. Tim Gould, in a piece for HR Morning (link here), reports that “(m)ore than eight in 10 (84%) of the employees polled said they plan to look for a new job in 2011, according to staffing consultant Right Management.” The reasons include:

  • the prolonged recession and layoffs
  • increased workloads, small or no raises
  • companies’ reticence to add staff, even as business conditions have improved, and
  • a lack of trust in company leaders.
Hat tip to the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program for the HR Morning article.


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