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.

On the dynamics of “puppet master” bullying at work

image courtesy of free.clipartof.com

In 2012 I proposed a type of work abuse that fits somewhere between workplace bullying and workplace mobbing. I called it “puppet master” bullying and described it as a form of “multiple-aggressor abuse at work that may stand at the fault lines between common conceptions of bullying and mobbing.” Here’s more:

In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. For example, if the aggressor is a mid-level manager, he may recruit HR to help out with the dirty work and encourage the target’s peers to shun or bully her.

Even in cases of peer bullying, one aggressor can use intimidation and persuasion to turn others against a peer-level target.

One of the key indicators of puppet master bullying, all too infrequently realized, is what happens when the master is removed from the scene. Typically, much of the malicious energy that fueled the puppets fades away, and so with it much of the bullying behavior.

To be honest, my learned colleagues who are researching and theorizing about work abuse haven’t exactly jumped on board with this concept, so perhaps I should heed the silence. However, I see the puppet master dynamic playing out in so many situations — including organizations and communities — that I’m still using the term. As I often do with this blog, I’d like to take a few minutes to share how my thinking about it has evolved, drawing on ideas and authors that I’ve discussed in previous posts.

Who are the players?

As I suggested in a post last year, it’s important to think about workplace bullying and mobbing in the context of human and organizational systems, whereby the following players play their roles:

Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

This certainly applies to puppet master bullying. So let’s take a closer look at these players.

Chief abusers

Puppet master bullies are often pretty evil. Not only are they prone to treating others abusively, but also they are willing and able to enlist others to help do the job. The latter uses fear and intimidation, promises and incentives, or some combination of all.

When I envision the classic puppet master bully, I think of the opening to Dr. Martha Stout’s invaluable The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

Imagine — if you can — not having conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.

OK, I understand that not every workplace abuser is a genuine, clinically diagnosable sociopath. However, the key message of that passage seems to apply to so many people who mistreat or exploit others at work: They don’t have a conscience, or at least not much of one. In fact, in discussing with others the challenges of anticipating and responding to the hurtful actions of nasty, abusive employers, I often suggest: Think like a sociopath. Then you’ll get it. And so it is with comprehending many puppet master bullies.

The puppets: Foot soldiers, defenders, followers, and bystanders

Puppet master bullying necessarily involves the willing/coerced/incentivized participation of many others. In talking to bullying and mobbing targets, one of their most common, anguished laments runs along these lines: How could they have gone along with this? Don’t they have any sense of decency? They had to know this was terrible and unfair, and yet they went along or turned the other way.

It is on this note that I draw insights from philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, whose writings on the nature of Nazi Germany help us to understand abuse in many other settings, including the workplace. Here’s what I wrote in 2014:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

In puppet master bullying situations, the enlisted individuals typically go well beyond HR and the legal department. They are recruited from virtually any setting in which the target works and interacts with others. They are the puppet master’s everyday foot soldiers in conducting the bullying.

In addition, successful (I hate using that word in this context) puppet master bullying campaigns require co-employee bystanders who look the other way when they witness or otherwise become aware of the mistreatment. It’s a variation on see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. They may not be actively partaking in the bullying, but they’re not going to do anything about it either,

Target perceptions

Some may believe I’m exaggerating, but to be on the receiving end of puppet master bullying (or genuine mobbing) is to experience terrorism on the job. And that exactly is what many of the chief abusers want to convey. In either form, it looks and feels like a mob on the receiving end. As I wrote in my 2012 post on puppet master bullying:

From the standpoint of the target, the distinctions often matter little in terms of the experience of being on the receiving end. Whether it’s someone surgically directing or controlling her minions to bully an individual, or a true mob descending upon a lone target, it sure as heck feels like a mobbing.

For those studying these behaviors and trying to develop measures to curb them, however, the distinctions do matter. With puppet master bullying, removing the instigator(s) may be enough to stop the abusive behavior. With genuine mobbing, however, the remedy is even more difficult, because the emotional impetus to act has now infected an entire group.

In other words, with puppet master bullying, cutting the strings may be sufficient for the “puppets” to stop their onslaught of abuse. With genuine mobbing, however, the puppets are sufficiently enlisted to continue the mistreatment on their own.

***

Obviously we have a lot more to learn about comprehending and responding to bullying and mobbing in the workplace. I hope this has been of some help to folks who are experiencing or trying to understand this particular sordid brand of psychological abuse at work.

Is incivility a just response to cruelty?

Is it right to disrupt a prominent public official’s otherwise quiet dinner at a restaurant, even if she is the co-architect of a governmental policy that many claim is cruel and immoral? It’s not a hypothetical question, as the recent experience of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen illustrates. Devra First writes for the Boston Globe:

On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she ate dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana in D.C. “Shame! Shame!” they shouted repeatedly. “End family separation! If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

What they were referring to, of course, was the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen, as a Globe editorial recently said, was the face of that policy. And here she was at a Mexican restaurant, albeit one run by Todd English (chef de cuisine Juan “JC” Pavlovich is a native of Mexico).

The protesters were political activists who oppose the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Here’s the video of their interruption of Secretary Nielsen’s dinner, posted to Facebook:

Widespread, bipartisan criticism and outrage, including an unusual and strong opinion piece by former First Lady Laura Bush in the Washington Post (calling the Trump policy “cruel” and “immoral”), have forced the Trump administration to call a halt to its child separation policy. However, this comes too late for a few thousand kids and their families already separated. To its great shame, the administration never bothered to put in place a logistical plan to reunite these families. So these poor people are still in limbo, and for now the kids will remain in various camps, cages, and buildings, most of which were never designed for child care.

Child psychology experts have likened the administration’s policy to child abuse and opined that many of the kids will live with the resulting psychological trauma for years.

And what of dinner interruptus?

Devra First (quoted above) is not a political writer; she’s the Globe‘s food and restaurant critic. However, she sees the significance of protest in places where we normally gather to enjoy food and drink:

Restaurants are where we set aside our differences and come together at the table. Yet — or perhaps thus — such venues are also ideal theaters for protest. It is easy to see that black men are the ones who get the cops called on them while waiting for friends at Starbucks. It is easy to see that same-sex couples are the ones to whom bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes.

Those who work in the food industry are uniquely positioned — and uniquely entitled — to advocate for immigrants. After all, their businesses depend on the people Trump says threaten to “infest” this country.

How one sees the administration’s immigration policies — as either a significant moral outrage or an instance of politics & policy on the edge — may well predict how one feels about protesters loudly interrupting Secretary Nielsen’s gourmet Mexican dinner.

In normal instances, I strongly prefer civility over incivility. But I don’t regard this as a normal disagreement over public policy; I see it as a cruel and willful disregard of basic human dignity that already constitutes a shameful chapter in American history. Nielsen’s burdens in searching out a peaceful dinner venue are minor compared to the trauma being inflicted on these children and their families by the policies she has spearheaded. Is it bad form to remind her of this while she carries on as if nothing was wrong?

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

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

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

Study details and findings

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

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

The researchers found:

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

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

Applied to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

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

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

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

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

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

The ruins of rumination — and potential coping responses

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Losing one’s self in something good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the last word, but hopefully of help

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

***

Additional relevant posts

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

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

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

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

Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Getting beyond the justice lottery of the #MeToo movement

When Fox News program host Gretchen Carlson agreed to a $20 million settlement of her claim accusing Fox News chairperson Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, it helped to spark a movement underscored by the harsh reality that behaviors prohibited under law still manage to flourish in too many workplaces and other settings.

However, for those who have been victimized by sexual harassment and assault, the #MeToo movement remains something of a justice lottery, with some folks more eligible to win than others. A small number of women — mostly in positions of prominence — obtain very large settlements or verdicts in civil claims, and/or pursue successful criminal prosecutions of their abusers. Meanwhile, many others are left to look at these highly publicized outcomes and wonder what it will take to get similar results in their situations.

Please don’t get me wrong. The #MeToo movement is overdue and vitally important. It’s just that there’s a lot more progress to be made before the results obtained in headline-making cases become the norm rather than the exception. This will require cooperative grassroots organizing and support, legal and policy advocacy in the trenches, and media outlets willing to give voice to the stories of all victimized individuals. It also would help if those who are influential within this realm commit to the proposition that the #MeToo movement is not done until it reaches all walks of life.

After all, the chances of obtaining justice should not rival the odds of buying a winning lottery ticket.

On organizations, evil, and the seeds of mobbing: Ray Russell’s “The Case Against Satan”

In Ray Russell’s 1962 novel The Case Against Satan, we have a normally sweet and well-behaved teenaged girl named Susan Garth now acting in frightening and bizarre ways. Catholic Bishop Conrad Crimmings concludes that she may be demonically possessed, and he recruits the local parish priest, Gregory Sargent, to help perform an exorcism. Russell tells this chilling tale in under 140 pages, with almost all of the activity occurring within the rectory and adjoining rooms of the church.

Of course, if you’re familiar with late 20th century American pop culture, then you may be thinking that The Case Against Satan is a mere warm-up to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which gained fame first as a bestselling book (1971) and later as a blockbuster motion picture (1973).

But believe me, The Case Against Satan has more substance. I won’t give too much away, but in addition to being a darn good horror story, it goes as deep as a short novel can get into matters such as the culture and history of the Catholic Church, the nature of evil, and how community-based mobbing campaigns start. I picked up it because I was looking for a good, scary read that wouldn’t exceed my currently all-too-short attention span. I got something much more, including storylines that spoke to my work with surprising resonance.

 

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