“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

The pleasure of supporting a local, socially conscious business

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Just days into their campaign, they’re close to their funding goal!

One January evening many years ago, I left my downtown Boston apartment and hopped on the subway to visit friends in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, on the city’s southwest edge. My assignment as a dinner guest was simple, to bring ice cream for our gathering. As I walked from the subway stop to my friends’ home, I stopped by a tiny little food store, the City Feed and Supply, to pick up the ice cream. Filled with organic products and local goods, the store so charmed me that I thought, hey, if the neighborhood can support a store like this, then maybe I should move here.

A possible move to Jamaica Plain turned out to be the main topic of dinner conversation with my friends. I would eventually contact a real estate broker and begin looking at places, with an eye toward buying a condo — my first-ever foray into home ownership. As luck would have it, later that year I would buy a place practically across the street from the very City Feed store that originally inspired my decision!

From the time I moved to Jamaica Plain until last fall, visits to the City Feed were practically a daily occurrence for me, with frequent runs for their delicious sandwiches (award winning, in fact), pastry, and coffee, as well as other sundries. The friendliness of the young group of store workers, many of whom are students and/or deeply engaged in artistic and creative work when not doing their shifts, was always part of the pleasure of going there. I also was delighted to support a locally owned, socially conscious business that thoroughly invested itself in the neighborhood.

In the meantime, co-owners and founders David Warner and Kristine Cortese would open a much larger store in the main drag of my neighborhood, replete with cafe space and an enhanced food menu. I would visit there on occasion and enjoyed the greater variety, but thank goodness my favorite “Little Feed” continued to thrive even after the arrival of “Big Feed.”

Alas, the Little Feed had to close down last fall, thanks to a need for significant, overdue repairs and renovations to its building. The City Feed owners expressed their hopes of re-opening, but not until very recently were they able to share plans to reopen the Little Feed and purchase the building that houses it. In order to raise money for the endeavor, they announced a neighborhood-based crowdfunding campaign, inviting loyal customers to buy stored value cards and house spending accounts, which in turn would give them a reserve of cash for a down payment and to restock the store.

Just days into this crowdfunding campaign, they already are closing in on their target amount, a huge testament to David and Kristine and the goodwill they and their employees have engendered in the neighborhood. As for me, I was only too happy to sign up for one of the big house accounts, knowing that I will once again be a regular visitor to the Little Feed. (Let’s just say that I’ll be covered for several hundred sandwiches and coffees and leave it at that!)

Without the Little Feed open and busy across the street, my part of the ‘hood has felt a little bereft. Such has been the place of that tiny storefront in my everyday life. But now it is about to rise again, and I’m happy to be a customer truly invested in its success.

Report: Abuse victims and whistleblowers at New England private schools faced retaliation

 

You've got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be carefully taught

To see how kids may learn their first lessons about unethical organizational behavior, look no further than how some schools respond to instances of bullying and abuse. To illustrate, consider the Boston Globe‘s investigation into how certain private schools in New England have handled reports and allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior:

The Globe Spotlight Team, in its ongoing investigation of abuses at New England private schools, found at least 15 instances of apparent retaliation against students who were sexually exploited by staffers or against employees who raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse and harassment. Some cases date back decades, while others are quite recent. But all of them are still raw for the people who felt the backlash.

The article begins with a story from the early 1980s about a female student who was asked to leave the tony Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts, after school administrators learned of her relationship with a teacher there. The school did the right thing, in part, by dismissing the teacher. But it also asked the student to basically disappear, reasoning that her presence would be uncomfortable to others, including “the teacher’s girlfriend, who worked there”! The school included the student’s photo in the annual yearbook only because her classmates insisted on it.

As it turns out, this was among the gentler instances of exclusion or payback described by victims and others interviewed for the Globe story about student abuse in private schools:

The retribution, they say, came in various forms, including abusers lashing out at their accusers or enlisting other students to ostracize them, and administrators punishing or expelling students who complained of being victimized.

Readers interested in the Globe‘s investigation may check the articles on the newspaper’s website, but my point here is that when schools respond to allegations of abuse by retaliating against or marginalizing victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers, they also send messages to their students (victims and bystanders alike) that both the abusive behaviors and the inadequate organizational responses are cultural and societal norms, to be tolerated and swept under the rug if necessary.

Of course, private schools that depend on hefty tuition dollars and alumni/ae donations don’t want news about abusive behaviors becoming public, so the morally challenged ones will resort to intimidating and retaliating against victims, witnesses, and others to keep the lid on. One can only wonder if some of their graduates, having learned these “lessons” taught to them by such institutions, will act in the same manner when they assume leadership roles later on in life.

Amazon as creepy Big Brother

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After all the negative attention it received last year from a New York Times exposé of its work practices, you’d think that Amazon would strive to improve working conditions for its employees. Alas, if Josh Eidelson’s recent piece for Bloomberg Businessweek about Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers is any indication, apparently this is not the case:

In an effort to discourage stealing, Amazon has put up flatscreen TVs that display examples of alleged on-the-job theft, say 11 of the company’s current and former warehouse workers and antitheft staff. The alleged offenders aren’t identified by name. Each is represented by a black silhouette stamped with the word “terminated” and accompanied by details such as when they stole, what they stole, how much it was worth, and how they got caught—changing an outbound package’s address, for example, or stuffing merchandise in their socks. Some of the silhouettes are marked “arrested.”

Theft is a persistent concern for Amazon, with warehouses full of small but valuable items and a workforce with high turnover and low pay. Workers interviewed for this story say the range of thefts posted on the screens is as varied as the company’s sprawling catalog: DVDs, an iPad, jewelry, a lighter, makeup, a microwave, phone cases, Pop Rocks, video games. Several recall a post about an employee fired for stealing a co-worker’s lunch.

The plight of Amazon’s warehouse workers has long been an ongoing focus for labor advocates and anyone else interested in dignity at work. But this kind of thuggish, Big Brother behavior takes things to an Orwellian level.

Of course, there are more effective and humane management practices that serve as alternatives to Amazon’s. Costco is a prime example of a more positive approach. It offers some of the highest wages and best benefit packages in the retail sector, which, in turn, have contributed to low rates of employee theft and turnover.

Amazon has been a pioneering retailer in many ways, and I have done a lot of business with them. However, in response to their working conditions, I’ve cut down my ordering from them considerably and expressed my concerns via customer service. I don’t think that innovation and poor treatment of workers must go hand in hand. Amazon values its customers and shareholders, but it often regards its workers as disposable commodities.

It’s really not rocket science, is it? If you treat your workers with dignity, you’ll be rewarded in kind and contribute to the greater good. It sure beats shame and intimidation as standard operating procedures. Amazon, you can do better.

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Related posts

Six points on the New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices (2015)

Why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account (2014)

Servant leadership in the contemporary workplace

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Imagine a world where most leaders see their roles as serving their constituencies, imbued with a sense of the broader good, rather than simply adding bullet points to their resumes in preparation for the next climb up the greasy pole. Imagine professional cultures where ambition and the desire to advance in our careers are balanced with values of care and responsibility.

How can we grow leaders who hold themselves to these higher standards?

Massachusetts educator and organizational consultant Steven Lawrence is an emerging voice on the virtues of servant leadership, a topic that deserves much greater attention. In an essay posted to his Ground Experience site, Steve introduces servant leadership by citing the seminal work of the late Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics:

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

…Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second. Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large. They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

My connection with Steve has been through our common interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying. He discussed servant leadership in this context at the Workplace Bullying Workshop that I hosted last fall in Boston. Suffice it to say, the presence of more servant leaders in our workplaces would sharply reduce the prevalence of bullying and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment on the job.

I find the concept of servant leadership to be enormously appealing and life affirming, especially amidst professional cultures where raw ambition, private agendas, and naked ideology too often prevail. As a denizen of the academic workplace, I have witnessed and experienced the destruction wrought by self-serving administrators and board members. Looking at academe from a distance, one might visualize it as an idyllic work setting, fostered by leaders who share a love of learning, research, and ideas. All too often, this is not the case. In fact, servant leadership is increasingly rare in higher education.

So herein lies the rub: For more servant leadership, you need the presence of — yup — more servant leaders. To me this means that the philosophy and practice of servant leadership should be part of the training and orientation of future and present leaders. This doesn’t require us to cast aside our career goals and aspirations. Rather, we should treat opportunities to lead as privileges that enable us to make a difference, guided by a spirit of service.

Sacrificing privilege to advance social change

(Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

There are many scenarios in which positive social change can occur in society, including our workplaces. With virtually any of these possibilities, chances of success will be increased when supporters of change are willing to sacrifice some of their privilege in order to advance a cause.

By privilege I refer to some advantage, by virtue of wealth, demographic status, social standing or popularity, organizational rank, legal right, and/or inherited trait. And when I say sacrificing privilege, I mean being counted in a way that could jeopardize some of that advantage. It may mean speaking up in a meeting, intervening as a bystander, endorsing an unpopular yet principled position, or otherwise doing or saying something that potentially puts one at odds with supporters, sponsors, or the in-crowd.

For what it’s worth, I do not recommend sacrificing one’s privileges willy nilly, as if to prove some level of courage or principle to the world. It’s not about that.

Rather, it’s about taking smart risks in support of something bigger than ourselves, of possibly “giving up” some advantage for a greater good.

I’m hesitant to give illustrations because I don’t want the examples to define the map on this one. But I know that some readers here, hopefully many of you, get what I mean.

Especially in times when fear and scarcity drive people to seek security, it may be something of a twist when those who have a lot of advantages are the most cautious about taking risks for reasons of principle. (It’s the opposite of the line made famous by Janis Joplin — “Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose” — in “Me and Bobby McGee“!) In any event, if only the have-nots (however we define them) are willing to stick out their necks, then the path to more humane workplaces, institutions, and organizations will be all the more difficult.

Revisiting “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership”

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I recently had occasion to revisit an article I wrote back in 2008, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” which appeared in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, published by Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater). Here’s how I introduced it:

Workplace bullying presents serious challenges to organizations, but it remains one of the most neglected problems in the realm of employment relations. Accordingly, this article addresses the implications of workplace bullying for organizational leaders and suggests measures that can be undertaken to respond to it. First it will describe common bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations. Next it will examine how organizations can act preventively and responsively to this destructive phenomenon. Finally, it will tie together these threads in the context of individual dignity and the practice of values-based leadership.

Although much has occurred in the realm of workplace bullying and employee relations since the article was published, I think it holds up well as an examination of the implications of bullying at work for organizational leaders. The article has been very positively received, now ranking among the 1,000 most downloaded articles on the Social Science Research Network out of over 528,000 pieces posted to the site. You may freely access the full piece here.

Here are a few snippets, which cover familiar ground to long-time readers of this blog:

It starts at the top. Organizational leaders must send a message that workplace bullying is unacceptable behavior. Executives and managers who preach and practice dignity will see that quality resonate throughout an organization. Establishing a culture of open, honest, and mutually respectful communication will have the salutary effect of reducing bullying and other forms of employee mistreatment.

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Education and policies are only the beginning. The next step, a much more difficult one, is to enforce policies relating to bullying by conducting genuine follow-up investigations and where necessary, assessing reprisals, when complaints arise. Unfortunately, bullying targets often report that organizational responses to their complaints about bullying made their experiences worse. One of the most common laments is that “HR was useless” in handling complaints about bullying and in some cases turned out to be complicit with the aggressors, especially those higher up on the organizational chart.

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One of the most difficult decisions from both an ethical and business perspective is what to do with an abusive manager or executive. He may be seen as a “rainmaker” who is good at attracting business. He may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine his fate. Oftentimes, a workplace bully will have mastered “kiss up, kick down” tactics that hide his abusive side from superiors who review his performance. “Oh, I cannot believe he’d do anything like that to someone” is a common refrain from those who have been shielded from a bully’s conduct.

If I could write a revised version today, I would say more about the importance of hiring and developing leaders with empathy and character. In the article, I talk about the value of social intelligence, but that’s not enough. We need more executives and managers with heart quality in addition to social smarts.

For those interested in workplace values, ethics, and social responsibility generally, I also suggest browsing through the full archives of the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, which has grown into an excellent resource for scholars and business leaders alike. You’ll find a lot of great stuff there.

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