A tale of two NPR stories: Bringing our best or worst selves to work

On Tuesday morning, two segments on WBUR-FM, Boston’s NPR news station, reminded me of how we can bring our best or worst selves to work. I’m going to start with the bad story so we can save the good one for last.

Federal regulators could’ve saved coal miners

The first story reports on an investigation of how federal mine safety regulators failed to take action on toxic levels of mine dust exposure facing coal miners in Appalachia. Consequently, thousands of them are suffering from advanced black lung disease. Many will die from it, and some at relatively young ages. From the NPR piece:

A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases of advanced black lung disease nationwide from 2011-2016. But NPR identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease in the same time frame, and in just five Appalachian states.

And now, an NPR/Frontline analysis of federal regulatory data — decades of information recorded by dust-collection monitors placed where coal miners work — has revealed a tragic failure to recognize and respond to clear signs of danger.

For decades, government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic mine dust exposures, the kind that can cause [black lung disease], as they were happening. They knew that miners . . . were likely to become sick and die. They were urged to take specific and direct action to stop it. But they didn’t.

One expert described black lung disease as “suffocating while alive”:

This advanced stage of black lung leaves lungs crusty and useless, says Dr. Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who has spent decades studying black lung and PMF disease.

“You have a much harder time breathing so that you can’t exercise,” Cohen noted. “Then you can’t do some simple activities. Then you can barely breathe just sitting still. And then you require oxygen. And then even the oxygen isn’t enough. And so … they’re essentially suffocating while alive.”

The NPR report shares individual stories of miners suffering from the disease and goes into detail about the federal bureaucratic failures to act upon mounting evidence of the deadly risks posed.

Helping the poor repair their cars

The second story is about Cathy Heying of Minnesota, who has devoted herself to helping poor and homeless individuals. In her work, she noticed that the people she helped often couldn’t afford the necessary upkeep and repairs on cars that helped them to survive:

“Often the story was, ‘I have this car. It desperately needs brakes. I have a job, but my job is 30 minutes away. And I work second shift, and there’s no bus when I get off at night,’ ” says Cathy. “This car was the linchpin holding everything together, and you pull that pin and everything falls apart.”

Ms. Heying decided to open her own auto shop to help these people. The only problem was that she didn’t know much about repairing cars. So she went to auto mechanic school. At age 38 she was the oldest person in her class and one of three women in a group of 40.

In 2013, Heying opened the Lift Garage, a non-profit auto repair shop for people who cannot afford to pay commercial rates to fix their cars:

It has one car lift, one repair bay and a small volunteer staff.

Cathy’s clients, who all live at or below the federal poverty level, pay for parts at-cost and about $15 per hour in labor costs. The average price for a mechanic in the Twin Cities area is around $100 per hour.

Heying laments that demand for their services far exceeds the available resources, resulting in a three-month waiting list. Still, she knows that they are making a difference to their customers.

Dignity work: A study in contrast

Last month, I posed the term “dignity work” and suggested two meanings for it:

First, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether the core qualities of our labors — paid, unpaid, and volunteer alike — affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

Second, we can look at dignity work through a lens of whether we, as individuals, conduct ourselves in ways that affirm, support, or advance human dignity.

The mine safety regulators and Cathy Heying were in positions to embody both definitions. The regulators failed on both counts, while Heying embodied the concept of dignity work.

In that November post, I observed that “opportunities to engage dignity work are all around us. We have choices.” Amen.

“Because you asked….”: How to support victims of interpersonal abuse

One of this blog’s recurring themes has been interpersonal abuse across the life spectrum, and with it the importance of understanding of trauma in different contexts. My dear friend Mary Louise Allen, a psychology professor and activist, has become an emerging voice for trauma victims, and I’d like to share a compelling piece that she just published.

Mary Louise has experienced abuse and assault, as well as repeated institutional stonewalling and legal irregularities in her efforts to obtain assistance and justice in her home state of Ohio. Recently, she was asked how someone could support abuse victims who are dealing with ongoing trauma. This prompted her to write “Because you asked….,” and post it to her Unapologetic Civil Rights Activist site. It’s a brave, heartfelt, and intelligent statement. I’m excerpting parts of it here, and if you want to learn more about her experiences and those of others, then please read the full entry.

1. VOICES
Listen to our voices.  The one thing that I can conclusively say is that silencing me and allowing a network of corruption to define my story with no ability to correct the fallacious version did me a grave disservice – ultimately causing my dire health conditions and current daily struggles. . . .

***

2. CRAZYMAKING
Don’t dismiss us as crazy. While our assertions appear, on face value, to be so outrageous that they must be fictitious, rest assured that most of us possess recordings and documentation that validate our allegations. . . .

***

3. VICTIM-BLAMING/SHAMING
Be cautious of victim-blaming/shaming questions. While I would like to think that the proverbial “why did you stay” interrogatory has dissipated in our society, it has not.

***

4. POLITICAL ACCOUNTABILITY
I implore you to consider your votes.  If these officials remain in office, your daughter, your sister, or your mother could be a future victim. . . .

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5. MEDIA ACCOUNTABILITY
Tag your local newspapers/news stations asking them if they have covered our stories, via links to our publications. . . .

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6. BOARD MEMBER ACCOUNTABILITY
Hold board members accountable.  As seen in the case of [Olympic gymnast doctor Larry] Nassar, how many children would have been protected had the board taken action? . . .

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7. ATTORNEY ACCOUNTABILITY
While I understand that everyone is entitled to representation and false reports exist (approximately 3%), I do take issue with law firms who are knowingly involved in harassing a victim, sustaining the chilling effect, and/or neglect their due diligence of representing the victim. . . .

***

8. NONPROFIT ACCOUNTABILITY
Do not contribute to nonprofits who cooperate with the system. . . . Every single nonprofit organization in the state of Ohio whose mission was to assist me and my situation configured asinine excuses as to why they could not help . . . .

***

9. HOSPITAL ACCOUNTABILITY
Ask hospitals of any statistics of mysteriously lost rape kits. . . . Often, the alleged assailant is a police officer, an attorney, a high-profile business official – but most assuredly, a well-connected man. . . .

***

10. ACCOMPANY VICTIMS
Don’t assume that justice prevails. Consider accompanying victims to court hearings. I was treated with an entirely different demeanor when I had supporters present – as opposed to attending by myself where I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening. . . .

***

11. STATE LAWS
Oppose mysteriously passed state statutes abusively used to oppress and silence victims/witnesses. These statutes are often masked in an apparent attempt of genuine propriety but often abused to silence victims, witnesses, and Whistleblowers. . . .

***

12. BASIC ENCOURAGEMENT
Sadly, an entire system has directly and indirectly informed me, and so many others, that we don’t matter. . . .  I came to terms that I could never contact the police for any safety assistance – no matter what the situation. . . . The only way for victims to interpret this inaction is that we don’t matter. Our last names and familial lineage are not prominent enough to be considered worthy. Our lives aren’t important enough to warrant therapeutic jurisprudence.

In addition to being instructive on a personal level, Mary Louise’s statement highlights the social responsibilities of institutions to respond to abuse and trauma. When public and non-profit agencies that are supposed to help abuse victims don’t step up, when victims cannot obtain needed legal representation despite a surfeit of available attorneys, when the justice system fails them, and when media sources ignore their stories, that community has failed as a moral organism.

When Mary Louise posted her piece on Facebook, Dr. Maureen Duffy, a leading expert on workplace mobbing behaviors and trauma, left this comment for her, which I share with Maureen’s permission:

Mary Louise, this is a profoundly thoughtful, moving, and practical response to the question of what others can do to help victims. I appreciate the clarity and depth of your responses and that you took the time to put them together and publish them. Since a lot of my work is in the area of workplace mobbing, your account reminds us all again of the power of professional, workplace, and other kinds of social networks, both formal and informal. These networks can have a very dark side that is often ignored. Thanks for calling this form of abuse of power to our attention.

I wholeheartedly concur. And I’m guessing that readers who have experienced workplace abuse, only to find their employers and the legal system looking the other way or even complicit in the mistreatment, will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of Mary Louise’s observations and insights.

Bernard Law: A defining legacy of enabling widespread abuse

Here in Boston, holiday celebrations and observations have been harshly interrupted by news of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose long-time leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston was defined by widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse of children committed by priests. As reported by Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

…The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

Not surprisingly, Law’s death has reopened wounds (if they were healed at all) of many of the victims and their families. Especially due to Boston’s large Catholic population, the priest sexual abuse scandal is one of the most tragic and painful events in the city’s history.

On Wednesday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen pulled no punches in describing Law’s true legacy:

Bernie Law — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was no more special than you or I — was one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.

…And that’s how Bernie Law should be remembered. If only because it will serve as a grievous warning to others who may try to shroud themselves in good works and think their legacy will survive their complicity with nothing short of evil.

…Bernie Law presided over one of the worst networks of sexual abusers ever assembled. Thousands of children were raped and molested on his watch. Some of them killed themselves. Some were dead, in their souls, from the moment they were inappropriately touched by a priest. He sent the priests who raped and molested on to other parishes to do more of what they did, rather than call scandal to his church.

Bernard Law’s critical role in covering up the abuse and protecting both the archdiocese and the child predators on its payroll continues to raise profound moral and ethical questions about the social responsibilities of institutional leaders. By enabling, supporting, and protecting dozens of sexual abusers, with full knowledge of their behaviors, I posit that he was even more culpable than the individual predators. As such, his enormous failings remind us that interpersonal abuse within institutions rarely occurs in a vacuum. It is often made possible by organizational cultures stoked by those at the top.

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Related post

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse (2017)

The awful necessity of the “business case” against workplace harassment and abuse

The ongoing and very public torrent of stories and accusations of sexual harassment and abuse directed at Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has prompted an endless stream of commentaries about sexual harassment in the workplace. For example, the Economist magazine weighed in on the bottom-line business impacts of unchecked sexual harassment:

The victims often suffer depression, anger and humiliation. Firms where harassment happens are eventually harmed, too. Mr Weinstein’s studio may be sued…. The company could even be destroyed by the scandal. Even if one leaves aside all moral arguments—which one should not—failing to deal with harassment is usually bad for business. Firms that tolerate it will lose female talent to rivals that do not, and the market will punish them. The costs of decency are trivial; the rewards to shareholders are large.

This is yet another version of the so-called “business case” against work abuse, in this instance sexual harassment. For those of us who have been addressing workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors, this rap sounds familiar. We are continually urged to make the business case against psychological abuse at work, including articulating its cost impacts and, whenever possible, assigning estimated monetary figures.

I understand that whenever abusive behaviors are prevalent in the workplace, it makes sense to point out the costs to the organization. However, I do so with an underlying slow burn. It means that it’s not enough to show that bullying, mobbing, and harassment can wreak havoc on an individual’s health, livelihood, and overall well being. It means that all too many CEOs, senior executives, and managers won’t take work abuse seriously until they understand the monetary costs to their organizations. 

I’m a pragmatist. If it takes the “business case” against work abuse to get organizational leaders to care, I say let’s make it. But this sure doesn’t say much about the morals, ethics, and empathy of the executives who look the other way unless it hits them in their wallets and profit-and-loss statements. Human suffering alone is not enough for them; money, not decency, is what motivates them to act.

Harvey brings out the best and worst in business practices

Hurricane Harvey is proving once again that large-scale disasters bring out the best and the worst in people, and that includes those who run local businesses.

A shining exemplar of the best side is Houston furniture store owner Jim McIngvale, known locally as “Mattress Mack.” As the seemingly endless sheets of rain started to flood Houston, Mattress Mack put out the word that those who needed shelter could come to one of his stores and have a warm, dry place to sleep. As Heidi Glenn and Daniella Cheslow reported for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition”:

Houstonian Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack,” has turned his two furniture stores into temporary shelters for Tropical Storm Harvey evacuees.

As the city started to flood, he posted a video online with a simple message: Come on over. He gave out his personal phone number. And hundreds of people streamed in.

“We sell home theater furniture that you watch TV in, they’re sleeping on that. They’re sleeping on recliners, sleeping on sofas and love seats. We have sleeper sofas, they pulled them out and slept on that,” McIngvale tells NPR’s Morning Edition. “They’re sleeping on hundreds of mattresses throughout the store. They’re sleeping on the couches — wherever they can find a place that’s comfortable, and God bless ’em.”

One station sold gas for a whopping $20 a gallon. A hotel reportedly charged guests more than twice the normal rate. One business sold bottles of  water for a staggering $99 per case — more than 10 times some of the prices seen online.

As people in southeastern Texas face the devastating floodwater left by Hurricane Harvey, they are also grappling with predatory businesses that are selling basic necessities at astronomical prices. As of Wednesday morning, the state attorney general’s office had received 684 consumer complaints, a majority of which involved price-gouging of bottled water, fuel, groceries and other necessities.

I’m betting that we’ll be hearing more stories of kindness, sharing, and courage during the days, weeks, and months to come. Hopefully those accounts will inspire the best in others and overcome some of the less wonderful practices that exploit people during the most trying of times.

Infusing good core values into a new organization

With a beta version of the TJ Society’s forthcoming website, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, Prague, in July

Readers of recent entries are likely aware that I’ve been hip deep in helping to create a new, non-profit organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (“TJ Society”). From the most recent draft of our by-laws, here is what the group is about:

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. TJ values psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions, without claiming exclusivity in terms of policy objectives. The TJ Society shall advance these overall purposes by supporting legal and interdisciplinary scholarship; identifying and promoting best professional and judicial practices; sponsoring conferences, workshops, and seminars; engaging in continuing professional education and public education activities; and hosting and participating in print, electronic, social media platforms.

As I wrote earlier this month, I’m part of an all-volunteer board that is forming this organization, and I’m serving as its first chairperson. It’s a lot of work, but the broader purpose and the fellowship of a truly exceptional group of colleagues make it all worth it.

This also is an opportunity to put into practice many of the values that I have been advocating for via this blog. It means practicing inclusive, servant leadership dedicated to a cause greater than individual ambitions. It means treating others with respect and dignity. It means actually exhibiting transparency rather than simply touting it. It means avoiding unnecessary hierarchies. Above all, it means building a welcoming and difference making community. Fortunately, our board consists of individuals who walk this talk as a natural way of going about things. This is good: An organization devoted to psychologically healthy laws and legal systems should strive to operate in a psychologically healthy manner.

The TJ Society is a global organization, with a board and advisory council comprised of folks from around the world. This creates obvious communications challenges. It can mean maddening pile-ups of e-mails (many inflicted by yours truly) in attempting to work through topics that require group input, and very understandably patiences can grow weary among a group of very busy people. Additionally, available online meeting technologies such as Skype and Google hangout can’t change the scheduling realities of holding a board meeting with participants’ time zone differences ranging from six to fourteen hours! As I said, we’re fortunate to have such wonderful board members who can roll with the digital waves.

In terms of shaping my contributions to this fledgling learned society, I am fortunate to have other organizations and initiatives as role models. Over the years I have learned so much from the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, especially the leadership of co-leaders Evelin Lindner and Linda Hartling. I’ve also been inspired by the inclusive culture of the biennial 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. I’m further grateful for the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health sponsored by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, which, among many other good things, allows therapeutic jurisprudence scholars and practitioners to gather and learn from each other. I hope that the TJ Society will draw from the best characteristics exhibited by these entities.

It’s too early to say whether the TJ Society will build into its culture the values that make for healthy, inclusive organizations, but I’m betting that it will happen. Embracing and practicing these values at the beginning is an important start. Yup, as we grow we’ll make some mistakes, juggle differences of opinion, and probably deal with conflicts here and there. But if the foundation is strong, we’ll do things in the right way much more often than not.

Can institutions be caring servants for a greater good?

In the opening to his monograph The Institution as Servant (1972; rev. ed. 2009), the late Robert K. Greenleaf stated:

THIS IS MY THESIS: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions — often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

Greenleaf devoted much of his life to advancing the philosophy and practice of servant leadership. I was introduced to this concept by educator Steven James Lawrence, who tied it into the quest for greater dignity in our workplaces. This led me to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, which describes servant leadership this way:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Linking institutions and individuals in a servant leadership mode

You can see the challenge, drawing heavily upon Greenleaf’s thinking:

  1. Organizations have become the conduits through which society does much of its “caring work.”
  2. Organizations are only as good as their citizens, especially their leaders.
  3. Thus, to foster better, more caring institutions, we have to create and empower more caring leaders eager and willing to serve in a servant leadership capacity.

Uh oh, this isn’t going to be easy, right? It runs smack dab into commonly-held notions of self-interested ambition and advancement that are drilled into the heads of high achievers early on. Think family expectations for success. Think the cultures of business schools, law schools, and elite colleges and universities. Many of us (myself included) are where we are because we bought into that achievement ethic, at least in part, and perhaps at times at the cost of conducting ourselves in a servant leadership mode.

Furthermore, changing existing institutions is hard work. Organizational cultures set in good and bad ways. Greenleaf wrote The Institution as Servant especially for trustees in businesses, universities, and religious institutions. However, stakeholders at all levels must be invited to play a role in positive transformation. Also, it may be easier to imbue new organizations with a spirit of servant leadership rather than trying to move existing ones that seem stuck in place.

Finally, as some protested when I first wrote about servant leadership over a year ago, some leaders claim to be operating in servant leadership mode when, in reality, they’re doing quite the opposite. Thus, servant leadership has been hijacked in some instances by individuals who tout themselves as being something they’re not. (I’ve seen folks like this in academic workplaces. They’re also fond of using terms such as “transparency” and “shared governance,” and the more they invoke them, the less they practice them.)

Still, this is all worth pursuing. To a large degree, our society is the product of the institutions that shape it. Better organizations and better leaders can only help us.

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