From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “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….”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “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?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies 2016 annual workshop: Building a community of caring

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I just finished participating in the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, immersing ourselves in highly interactive discussions and exchanges, amidst a genuine spirit of fellowship.

This card is one of the little gifts distributed at the workshop. “The Five Good Things” come from the late Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of relational psychology, not to mention a key mentor to HumanDHS director Linda Hartling.

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“The Five Good Things” were at play throughout this workshop. It was a supportive, enlightening, and even loving gathering at a time when a lot of folks in our group (including yours truly) really needed it. (Summaries of this annual workshop have become a staple on this blog for good reason!)

I have been involved with HumanDHS since 2007, and in recent years my connections to it and the remarkable people who are part of it have grown deeply. In addition to joining the board of directors, I have been increasingly involved in the New York City workshop. This year I presented a short paper on the importance of understanding psychological trauma and moderated two of the dialogue sessions. I also led our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong and an apt song for our event.

Group photo after our board meeting

Group photo after our board meeting

Being part of this extended global community is both a privilege and a blessing. Such a community is not, and should not be, our sole point of connection with the world. In fact, at the workshop we recognized the importance of sharing dignity-enhancing practices with those who are initially resistant to them. Nevertheless, at a time when raw exercises of interpersonal aggression and bigotry are too often rewarded by the dominant power structure, the need for people holding a different set of core values to come together in order to refuel and reenergize is significant.

I’ll be writing more about this year’s workshop and posting some photos from it, but for now I simply wanted to do this quick mention and express my gratitude to those who made it such a meaningful experience.

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Periodically I use this blog to champion the pursuit of hobbies and avocations as ways of enriching our lives, and I’m happy to do so again. For a lot of folks right now, the experience of work and the state of the world generally are brimming with stressors. And while I don’t advocate ignoring those situations, I do think we need healthy diversions that offer positive engagement.

On this topic, I try to practice what I preach. I’ve written before (here and on my personal blog here) about a weekly singing class that I take at the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE). Every Tuesday, our class meets for a 90-minute session, led by Jane (a Juilliard-trained vocalist and instructor) and Maria (a classically trained piano accompanist). The format is simple. After group warm-ups, each student performs a song of their choosing and is coached before the group. Yup, each of us does a solo number every week!

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

Recently I was reminded of the meaning of this class by Peter, a fellow student, who dutifully jots down coaching tips and reflections into a notebook during class. He often performs with his guitar, and he’s good enough to do coffee house gigs if he ever wants to go that route. For now, at least, we are his primary audience. It’s very cool to me that he cares so much about the class that he chronicles his experience on a weekly basis.

Everyone is here because they want to be, which can’t be said for many other life situations! The students find the class via the BCAE catalog (print and online) or through word of mouth. Jane and Maria teach this class in addition to holding down “day jobs,” so this is a labor of love for them, a true avocation. 

After one of our term-ending recitals, clockwise fr L: Maria (accompanist), Kerry, Adeline, Lorin, Xiomara, DY, Brian, and Jane (course instructor).

The singing class generally runs in six to eight week terms, depending on the BCAE’s calendar. We typically use the last session of a term as a little recital, during which each of us sings two songs of our choice, without the coaching. Students may invite guests, and some do. It’s a neat way of wrapping up each term. As you can see from the photo above, we sometimes go out for a bite to eat afterward.

Opened in 1933, BCAE is one of the city’s non-profit fixtures, offering a wide array of adult education classes. Earlier this year, a few of us attended a BCAE fundraiser, featuring morsels and drinks provided by area restaurants and food producers. It was a lot of fun and a nice opportunity to support an organization whose space and staff help to make these classes a reality.

Supporting a BCAE fundraiser, L to R: Bonita, Adeline, Jane, and Maria.

This is one of my primary sources of work-life balance, to the extent that I can claim to have any! I select mostly numbers from the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, etc. — but others perform contemporary pop, classic rock, folk, country, religious…you name it.

The class attracts a friendly, supportive, and smart group of people who, individually and collectively, comprise a sort of natural diversity across many categories. Among current students, I’ve been there the longest — over 20 years! — but we’ve also got a steady cohort of repeat takers. Some come into the class with remarkable voices. Many others, like me when I started, are neophytes. Novice singers, however, need not be afraid. Jane has this way of helping just about anyone become a proficient singer, even people who might be classified as tone deaf.

Sinatra’s legacy faces no threat when I’m singing.

On occasion we take our voices outside of the class to perform. Our group has gone to several local open mic cabaret nights, and we’ve done karaoke a few times as well. Some time ago, I was part of a small group of voice class singers that did free gigs at local senior facilities. One of our fellow students does the busker thing in nearby Harvard Square!

I am fortunate to have a career that engages my attention, but this class offers activity and community that provide needed contrasts from the world of work. I often remark that the class and the people in it have saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs. For me singing class is a form of mindfulness, an opportunity to be in the moment with music I enjoy, buoyed by terrific people who make it a supportive and fun experience. I count many of these folks as good friends. All things considered, it’s about as ideal a hobby as one could expect, and for that I am very grateful. 

Related posts

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

Jennie Bricker wrote about avocations in a 2015 piece for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, “Poets, Tramps and Lawyers,” citing pieces in this blog.

 

Workplace bullying and the experience of humiliation

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Humiliation is a word that can make us squirm uncomfortably. It is one of the least desirable of human emotions. Over the years, many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse have invoked the term to describe their experiences, especially when the mistreatment has played out publicly, ripped apart relationships, ended a career, or undermined an ability to earn a livelihood. In such cases, coping with and healing from humiliation are key parts of the road to recovery.

For those seeking insights on the mental health implications of humiliation, Drs. Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network have authored an important article, “Healing Humiliation: From Reaction to Creative Action,” published in the Journal of Counseling & Development. Recognizing the “confluence of global crises that threaten, inflict, and intensify feelings of humiliation in the lives of countless numbers of individuals, families, and communities at home and around the world,” they take this approach to their topic:

We will briefly explore the history of humiliation research and explain how this experience is moving to the forefront of concern. We will apply a relational perspective to examine how degrading and derisive interactions inflict traumatic stress and social pain. Finally, we will offer a case example to illustrate specific ways counselors can help victims of humiliation heal, leading them out of destructive reactions into creative action.

I have known Linda and Evelin for many years, and I cannot praise too fulsomely their pioneering work on humiliation and human dignity. This article is among their latest difference-making contributions. 

Publishing in a journal for counselors, their focus blends the social change framework with the need for skilled and sensitive clinical intervention. Here is part of their conclusion:

The study of humiliation is in its early stages. As the research develops, counselors need to apply their most sophisticated relational skills to read and repair the complex intrapersonal and interpersonal damage that can lead victims of humiliation to react with aggression or despair. . . . Victims of derision, degradation, and debasement need a safe relational space to begin the journey of transforming the pain of humiliation into constructive and creative action. By providing this healing space, counselors may find they are not only saving the life of a client but also healing society.

This piece is worth sharing with any counselor or therapist who might benefit from such wise and humane insights. It also may be a helpful read for those who are experiencing humiliation in connection with interpersonal abuse at work or in other contexts.

***

Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner are Director and Founding President, respectively, of the HumanDHS network. Last year it was my pleasure to join the HumanDHS board of directors. We will be holding our 2016 Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict in New York City on December 8-9, including a free public event on the evening of the 8th.

Renewing a commitment to bullying-free workplaces

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Here in America, it should come as no surprise that in survey data released by the American Psychological Association earlier this fall, “52 percent of American adults report[ed] that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress,” with the figures cutting fairly evenly across political lines. Many of these stressors and anxieties have continued in terms of the post-election aftermath and the evolving transition in Washington D.C.

Under such distracting (and, for some of us, distressing) circumstances, it can be hard to turn our attention back to the tasks at hand, which for many readers of this blog include preventing, stopping, and responding to bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. But that we must. As I see it, our basic agenda as we head into 2017 holds steady:

  • Engaging in public education about abusive work behaviors;
  • Educating and persuading employers and other employee relations stakeholders about the destructive effects of abusive work environments and the importance of effective prevention and response;
  • Expanding the pool of mental health providers who are competent and knowledgeable to assist targets of bullying and mobbing at work; and,
  • Enacting legal protections such as the Healthy Workplace Bill to provide targets with a legal claim for damages and to incentivize employers to take these behaviors seriously, as well as building a stronger safety net of public and private employee benefits to help those transitioning out of toxic workplaces.

And so the work goes on, fueled by a continuing recognition that building workplaces that value and practice dignity will benefit us all.

Revisiting Dr. Karin Huffer’s “Legal Abuse Syndrome”

Some seven years ago, I wrote about Dr. Karin Huffer’s work on “legal abuse syndrome,” her label for a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder “that develops in individuals assaulted by ethical violations, legal abuses, betrayals, and fraud,” generated by legal actors and systems. Since then, I’ve encountered many individuals who have become familiar with her work, either due to personal experience with the legal system or a professional interest in reforming our legal structures and the legal profession.

In the updated edition of her book, Legal Abuse Syndrome: 8 Steps for Avoiding the Traumatic Stress Caused by the Legal System (2013), Dr. Huffer — a therapist — offers a dedication to “lawyers, judges, and bureaucrats who do not abuse their positions,” but she quickly takes aim at “judges, attorneys, regulators, and others, who elect to be solely self-serving.” This includes lawyers who reportedly “knowingly exhaust their client’s resources and leave their clients vulnerable” and strike deals to preserve their professional status, as well as judges who “find for the more rich and powerful in spite of evidence.”

Huffer invokes the term “Institutionalized Abuse of Power” to characterize a legal system that may inflict a heavy price on those at the wrong end of the power spectrum. Powerfully adverse business interests buoyed by teams of attorneys can fuel lengthy, stressful, and expensive legal proceedings that sap one’s physical and emotional health, family relationships, career and employment status, and financial well being.

The road to recovery includes healing from the trauma of that experience, in addition to dealing with whatever events prompted legal process in the first place. Huffer also offers advice for those who have experienced legal abuse syndrome, her “Eight Steps to Recovery”:

  • “Debriefing”
  • “Grieving”
  • “Obsession”
  • “Blaming”
  • “Deshaming”
  • “Reframing”
  • “Empowerment”
  • “Recovery”

Uncomfortable read for lawyers and judges

A lot of lawyers and judges aren’t going to feel comfortable reading Legal Abuse Syndrome. It does not pull punches, and to some the book will come across as being overly polemical. Furthermore, those who treat clients and parties to lawsuits with respect and dignity may feel unfairly maligned by the harsh characterizations in the book.

But I would urge those folks not to take offense. Too many lawyers and judges are profoundly unaware of the emotional consequences of their actions and the system in which they work, especially the often aggressive world of litigation. Empathy for those ensnarled in legal matters can run low.

It’s also sadly the case that too many lawyers and judges don’t care that much about these emotional consequences, blithely justifying their actions on assumptions of how legal actors and systems are supposed to operate. The worst among our profession may even get a perverse satisfaction out of inflicting emotional injuries upon others.

Bullying in the legal profession

The culture of legal institutions comes into play as well. Just today, for example, the American Bar Association Journal summarized a new study finding that workplace bullying “is rampant at law firms, but many law firm leaders are reluctant to punish the offenders.” This piece by Deborah Cassens Weiss further reported that “Ninety-three percent of surveyed leaders at the nation’s top 100 law firms reported bullying at their firms” and that among “all of the surveyed firms…, the most common problem, cited by 89 percent, was bullying and lack of respect.”

Let’s consider the implications of this study. A significant share of the nation’s most prominent law firms harbor cultures of bullying and disrespect. These law firms are most likely to represent the wealthiest, most powerful business interests, and sometimes governmental interests as well. (Concededly, most also do pro bono work on behalf of impoverished individuals and underserved causes, but not in ways that directly conflict with the legal and business interests of paying clients.)

Bullying behaviors run downhill. If a culture of bullying and disrespect governs how attorneys treat one another within their own law firms, then how will their clients and opposing litigants fare when dealing with lawyers who have been schooled to think that interpersonal abuse is the norm for their profession?

Therapeutic jurisprudence to the rescue?

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal philosophy and practice that, in the words of co-founder David Wexler, “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being,” is part of the solution to this state of affairs. At our recent therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at the York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, concerns over the experiences of parties in litigation with legal systems came up in multiple discussions. I consistently sense that TJ adherents are much more likely to understand how being a party to a lawsuit or complicated legal matter is often an unpleasant, stressful experience, and sometimes may become abusive.

Currently we are a long way from being able to characterize TJ as the mainstream or dominant framework for looking at the law, legal systems, and legal actors. But if we want tackle legal abuse syndrome and similar consequences of being involved in lawsuits and legal matters, then embracing TJ is a big part of the solution.

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