“When did people become disposable?”

A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed a long conversation over lunch with John-Robert Curtin, an educator, conflict resolution specialist, and media executive who is dedicated to fostering better workplaces. During the course of our conversation, J-R (as he likes to be called) repeated a question that has stuck with me, because it transcends so many societal settings, ranging from the workplace to international relations: When did people become disposable?

In the employment realm, disposability continues to manifest itself in so many ways, especially during this era of the economic meltdown, the effects of which continue to haunt average folks despite the performance of the stock market. Whether we’re talking large-scale layoffs while CEOs collect year-end bonuses, workers bullied or mobbed out of their jobs by co-workers, or horrific working conditions for those toiling in developing countries, this dynamic is very much a part of our modern systems of employment relations.

How can we reverse the moral, ethical, and psychological forces that allow us to treat people like this, denying their dignity and depriving them of good, safe jobs? Among many other things, we need to expand this conversation and our realm of influence to help make it so. This is why I am pleased to be a Fellow with the International Center for Compassionate Organizations, having accepted an invitation from Center co-founders Ari Cowan (Executive Director), Tony Belak (Associate Director), and J-R (Governing Committee member) to serve in this advisory capacity. The Center describes its mission this way:

The International Center for Compassionate Organizations is a nonprofit organization registered in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, USA. The International Center focusses on fostering cultures of compassion in government, business, healthcare systems, service agencies, colleges and universities, schools, faith groups, and other organizations worldwide. The Center responds to the emerging trend among a broad range of organizations seeking to incorporate compassion as a value and practice in their relationships with their staff, colleagues, board members, customers, and communities. The Center develops practical research, resources, education, consulting, coaching, and conferences. It takes a nonpolitical, evidence-based, and public health approach, and assists organizations to effectively improve employee engagement, productivity, staff retention, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

Later this year, J-R and I will be presenting on a panel on coaching as an intervention strategy for workplace bullying (with Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez and Jessi Eden Brown) at 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. This year’s conference will be held on May 6-9 in Atlanta.

Work in progress: A quick look ahead to 2015

I'm not a big holiday decorator -- here's is this year's "tree"

OK, so I’m not a big holiday decorator

Thank you…

…for your continued readership! I look forward to a seventh year of writing blog posts and publishing your comments. For better and for worse, the world of work gives us plenty to talk about. And so it will be in 2015.

When I started this blog in December 2008, I didn’t fully appreciate how it could become such an engaging way to share information, ideas, and opinions. But now, with 1,000+ subscribers, some 580,000+ page views, and several thousand posted comments, I’m grateful that Minding the Workplace can contribute to our conversation on work, workers, and workplaces.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do in order to create and grow workplaces that embrace worker dignity. Here’s to a New Year of progress on those fronts.

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Forward on the Healthy Workplace Bill

With the 2015-16 state legislative sessions approaching, our advocates are preparing to resubmit and support the Healthy Workplace Bill in states across the nation. With two states, California and Tennessee, enacting workplace bullying legislation this year (albeit in very watered-down form), and other cities and municipalities approving workplace anti-bullying ordinances for public workers that draw language from our legislation, we’re steadily moving toward the day when more workers will have legal protections against this form of mistreatment. It is proving to be a hard slog at times, with opposition arising as our efforts gain support, but we continue to make progress.

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New side gig

During 2015, I’ll be launching a part-time “side gig” initiative that offers coaching, consulting, and programming on workplace bullying, career transitions, and fostering dignity at work, as well as assorted publications covering the same. I’ll also be developing more free content and referral information for those in search of guidance and resources. I’m excited about putting some structure around activities that I’ve provided informally for many years. I’ll be rolling this out gradually, as time and energy permit. These services and materials will be offered on a separate website, with details to come!

At the same time, I’ll be keeping my day (and often evening) job as a law professor, and as a scholar and advocate I’ll remain steadfastly committed to advancing worker dignity. And as I indicated above, I’ll be adding lots of posts to this blog during the year to come and beyond!

On being a change agent: The role of “Edgewalker”

edgewalkers

In her 2006 book, Edgewalkers: People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground, author Judi Neal writes that the “Edgewalker is someone who walks between the worlds,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way. Neal draws heavily from diverse cultural and spiritual traditions in defining this role.

I discovered this book a few months ago, and I find that the concept of Edgewalker describes many of the change agents I find myself drawn to in my own work. A multitude of the folks who are at the heart of several communities near and dear to me — including the Therapeutic Jurisprudence network, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, and workplace anti-bullying movement — would fit comfortably into the Edgewalker framework.

I also realize that I have been unconsciously trying to define an Edgewalker-like identity for myself. The term “silo” is now one of the most overused in organizational life, but it captures the kind of insularity that inhibits creativity and frustrates the search for solutions. An Edgewalker strikes me as being a silo buster, and I like that. Whether it involves transcending professional and academic disciplines, melding the roles of scholar and practitioner, or integrating different strands of traditional and non-traditional higher and adult education, I find that this role resonates with me.

Neal also recognizes that the Edgewalker role can be a lonely one at times. After all, if so many people are crowded into more traditionally defined groups, then being an Edgewalker can mean walking alone, or at least it may feel that way. The solution, I’m finding, is to seek out and connect with other Edgewalker-type people. What can be more exciting than to foster communities of bridge-building visionaries?

 

Workshopping human dignity

Day 1 participants, HumanDHS workshop, Dec. 2014 (Photo: Anna Strout)

HumanDHS workshop, December 2014 (Photo: Anna Strout)

It’s not often that one can attend an academic/professional gathering that includes separate sessions on improvisational expression and the distinctions between shame and humiliation, but that’s one of the compelling qualities about the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, held in December by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network and hosted by Columbia University in New York City.

HumanDHS, as I’ve written before, is an international assemblage of educators, practitioners, activists, and students devoted to advancing human dignity. I’ve been devoting this week’s posts to the workshop held last Thursday and Friday. I’ve become a regular participant, and for various reasons, this year’s offerings really struck a chord with me.

Open “dignilogues”

Among the highlights for me were the open “dignilogues,” participant-driven breakout sessions on topics generated by the group. The two I participated in could not have been more different, and both were immensely rewarding.

On Thursday I joined a session on improvisation, led by music educator and performing artist Christine de Michele. I must admit that I wasn’t quite sure what Christine meant when she proposed this topic, but it sounded intriguing enough to give it a try. For the next hour or so, our small group jumped right in with improvisational exercises, mixing sounds, music, movements, storytelling, and drawing. It’s hard for me to describe in words just how freeing and “un-conference like” this was, but suffice it to say that it was a fun, creative, and energizing experience.

On Friday I joined a session devoted to exploring the differences between shame and humiliation in our society. It was an earnest, heartfelt exchange, mixing theoretical ideas with personal experiences. Although it wasn’t required that the group reach a consensus on such complex matters, it’s fair to say that many of us agreed that while the experience of shame can, at times, lead to personal growth, the experience of humiliation is more often a diminishing one.

Dignity at work

One of my contributions to this year’s workshop was a Thursday evening talk on advancing dignity at work. It gave me a chance to share many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I tied together these topics under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

I then 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.

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Related post

For a closer look at the work of HumanDHS, here’s a post I wrote earlier this fall, “Creating an intellectual framework for human dignity.”

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Chris Guillebeau’s advice: Do your own annual review

Chris Guillebeau is a prolific writer, entrepreneur, and global sojourner who is playing a lead role in encouraging people — Gen Xers and Millennials especially — to think creatively and independently about what to do with their lives. One of his recommended life-planning activities is to do your own annual review as the year comes to a close. Using his blog, he shares his annual reviews with readers and asks for their feedback.

In a recent e-mail update to his list subscribers, he describes his annual review process this way:

Every year in December, I go away for a week and spend time reflecting on the year that’s drawing to a close, and then (and more importantly) make a lot of plans for the next year.

I’ve been sharing this process online since 2008, and many of our readers take part in it too. This is a free exercise and you can do it in your own way.

…Since I’ve been following this practice, it’s been the single most important ritual in ensuring I achieve meaningful and challenging goals.

In contrast to employer-provided performance reviews, which even Business Week has tagged a “worthless” corporate practice, the DIY annual review is, well, largely self-generated and self-directed. If, like Chris, you want feedback from others as part of your review process, it’s up to you do solicit it.

In one of my early references to Chris’s work, I praised his first book, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010), while adding that it suffered “from a touch of youthful arrogance.” Yikers! Well…today I’d change my words, suggesting that he writes with a (comparatively) youthful confidence that manages to convey both boldness and intelligence. If, at times, I feel a tad uncomfortable with the confidence Chris exudes, it may be due to the fact that I — at middle age — feel less certain about some things that I was completely convinced of back in my 30s. But that’s about me, not anyone else!

In any event, I like the idea of a personal annual review as a centering and planning exercise. I haven’t decided whether I’ll do it at the end of this year of at the conclusion of the academic year next May, but I’m sold on giving this a try.

Recycling: Five years of November

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

November 2013: Creating new workplaces – “When I named the New Workplace Institute in 2006, I did so with institutional transformation in mind, hoping that it would contribute to the development of better workplaces. Some seven years later, I now realize that the term “new workplace” has at least three meanings. One involves transforming existing organizations into better places to work. Another involves creating brand new workplaces that are healthier and happier than their predecessors. And yet a third involves individuals finding new places to work, hopefully much better than the ones they left, and possibly including a career shift.”

November 2012: Does the term “collateral damage” help us to understand how some organizations treat workplace bullying? –“Though [collateral damage is] commonly used in a military context, the term resonates with my understanding of how some organizations regard the mistreatment of employees, especially bullying, harassment, and discrimination….(W)hen bullying or other forms of mistreatment occur, bad organizations often regard the targets of such behaviors as collateral damage. Hey, bad stuff happens in the rough and tumble world of work, and occasionally some really bad stuff happens – that is, to others. Organizational leaders assume that everything is going well, except for this distracting problem.”

November 2011: Some real “job killers”: Executive salaries, bullying managers, health care costs, and demanding stockholders — “The Chamber of Commerce and other powerful trade organizations are fond of using the term “job killer” to denigrate virtually any proposed legislation or regulation that protects workers, consumers, or the environment. They claim that costs of prevention and compliance drain monies that otherwise would be used to create jobs….I)n the interest of fair play, let’s consider an alternate list of job killers….”

November 2010: Do organizations suppress our empathy? — “That conditioning mechanism may be the culture of institutions that teach us to abandon the target, lest we, too, become one of them….In the case of schools, kids learn very early that targets of bullying are outcasts. Heaven forbid that we risk our social standing or sense of security to help someone being picked on, even if those whose approval we seek happen to be mean-spirited jerks. Not infrequently, the schools themselves fail to take assertive action to prevent or stop bullying, especially if the latter situation involves popular kids being the aggressors….Fast-forward to the workplace: A feared boss, or perhaps a popular co-worker, bullies another employee. Once again, the target is abandoned by colleagues and the employer alike. Cycles of abuse and abandonment repeat themselves among adults.”

November 2009: Why concentrated power at work is bad — UC-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner reports: “My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.”

 

What can military planning teach us about creating transformative change?

Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change? With America’s Veterans’ Day upon us tomorrow, I thought I might acknowledge some of those lessons.

Yup, I know, some readers may wonder why a civilian with liberal politics (uh, that’s me) is looking to the military in this way. But I’m also a devoted amateur student of history, I have a lot of respect for many of those who serve in the military, and I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders. Here goes:

Plant the seeds for future success now, even if that success seems far away

During the early years of Second World War, Hitler was running rampant over Europe and the Japanese were doing the same in the Pacific. By any realistic account, the Allies were losing the war on just about all fronts. Nevertheless, their leaders assessed what needed to be done, and they developed rough timelines for achieving their goals. Among other things, Churchill and Roosevelt made the critical decision to defeat Germany first, then beat the Japanese.

Lesson: At times, changing things for the better seems like an insurmountable obstacle. If your assessment of a situation indicates that major change will require many steps and stages, plan out what must be done and take the first steps toward advancing.

Avoid tunnel vision: Plan using parallel tracks

Sound military strategy usually involves a multifaceted approach toward achieving goals. For example, those planning the D-Day landings in France needed to think about personnel, equipment, geography, weather, communications, and a host of other logistics and contingencies. Take the “simple” question of building landing craft to reach the beaches: Someone had to develop proper designs, the factories had to start mass producing them, and they had to be shipped to England. All those plans had to be in the making well before the June 6, 1944 landings.

Lesson: Most significant social change goals also require parallel tracks of planning activity. Making the world a better place typically involves multiple stakeholders, actions, and timelines. Understanding how those dots connect is vital toward achieving success.

Be passionate about your goals, but plan and evaluate dispassionately

The stakes over warfare can hardly be greater. But when it comes to military planning, the best leaders don’t let their emotions carry them into making bad choices. They stay focused yet appropriately flexible, with a constant eye on their endgame.

Lesson: Change agents are similarly urged to disentangle their passion for a cause from the cool planning and evaluation needed to create transformation. This is not easy. The more invested we are in addressing injustice or a societal challenge, the easier it is to be ruled by our hearts rather than our heads.

Learn from mistakes, even (especially!) gruesome ones

If you study the biographies of great military leaders, you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. They learned from those mistakes and remained determined to succeed.

Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes the lessons we learn from our miscues.

Sometimes you compromise, and sometimes you fight

Not every situation in life can be a “win-win,” and armed conflict is a prime example. At times, negotiation, compromise, and settlement are the right thing to do. On other occasions, one must press on to overcome the enemy. Hitler is an easy case of an enemy who had to be stopped completely, but there are countless other situations more complicated than that. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, offers valuable lessons about how military force, diplomacy, and compromise combined to narrowly avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Lesson: This dilemma applies to nearly every attempt to engage in meaningful change. When do you broker an agreement, and when do you go for it all? A capacity for understanding the bigger picture helps us to make smart choices in this regard.

Be gracious and humane in victory

Wise wartime victors know that treating a vanquished foe with dignity is the right thing to do, both morally and out of self-interest. In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious Allies set out to punish Germany, imposing humiliating conditions of surrender. They stoked the destruction of the German economy and planted the seeds for Hitler’s rise to power. After the Second World War, however, the Allies realized their mistake and imposed conditions upon Germany and Japan that promoted renewed relations with those nations and the rebuilding of their economic and social structures.

Lesson: In social change efforts, too, good victors don’t attempt to humiliate their opponents. Such mistreatment only serves to fuel cycles of anger, resentment, and aggression.

Envision something better

As the tides of the Second World War turned, the Allied nations began planning the United Nations. Today, the U.N. is far from being a perfect world organization, but it plays an important role in brokering diplomatic relations and humanitarian efforts.

Lesson: As your social change goals near a milestone victory, think hard about how that success can lead to more lasting, positive transformations. What comes next?

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