New video: FACE to FACE With Workplace Bullying

Massachusetts documentary producer Jay Fedigan has posted this superbly done, six minute video, “FACE to FACE With Workplace Bullying,” featuring interviews with individuals who bravely share their stories of being bullying targets.

The video builds off of Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying, an artistic photo display designed to raise public awareness about workplace bullying and to voice support for the Healthy Workplace Bill (House No. 1771, currently before the MA legislature). The display features photographs of 14 individuals who have been targets of workplace bullying, along with their names and statements about the circumstances surrounding their experiences. It made its official debut on the 4th floor of the Massachusetts State House in April and is now on display at Worcester’s Union Station.

Jay interviewed several of these courageous change agents for his video, and the result is a moving testament to the need for change. It’s six minutes of your time well spent.

To find your passion, give it time to find you

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Psychologist Angela Duckworth (Univ. of Pennsylvania), in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, recognizes that many new graduates have not have discovered the passions that commencement speakers so fervently urge them to follow:

If you’re relying on a commencement speaker to set your compass, you may still be confused at day’s end. In my experience, it’s common to hear “Follow your passion” from the podium. This is great counsel if, in fact, you know what that passion is. But what if you don’t?

. . . As a psychologist who studies world-class achievers, I can say the reality of following your passion is not very romantic. It takes time to develop a direction that feels so in-the-bones right that you never want to veer from it.

Duckworth suggests that instead of following a passion, many would be benefit by fostering a passion. In her article, she elaborates upon three pieces of advice for doing so:

  • “Move toward what interests you.”
  • “Seek purpose.”
  • “Finish strong.”

I can relate

Duckworth’s advice rings very true to me.

I have friends from law school who have been in same field of law — and in a few cases have been with the same employer — since our graduation. During those years, they have progressed from novices to masters, fueled by ongoing, heartfelt commitments to what they are doing.

Those who have known me for some time would likely attest that I have always had stuff that I was passionate about, especially in the general realm of law, politics, and public policy. I have long harbored the instincts of a reformer and a maverick, though often driven more by a generalized resistance to authority than a commitment to finely honed principles.

However, I didn’t become interested in workers’ rights until I became a union shop steward for the NYC Legal Aid lawyers’ union. I didn’t discover the burgeoning topic of workplace bullying until the late 90s. My deep interest in psychology as a frame for looking at the law didn’t start to sharpen until roughly eight years ago.

Today I find myself centered on multidisciplinary approaches to supporting dignity in the workplace and on efforts to make law and public policy more attentive to psychologically healthy outcomes. This work is likely to be lifelong, yet it was not on my radar screen when I graduated from college or law school many moons ago.

In other words, when I tell my own students that their passions may not come into focus until many years after graduation, I speak from experience. You just can’t hurry this stuff, and I’m glad folks like Prof. Duckworth are sharing that message.

 

Like Dracula, workplace narcissists have reason to fear the sunlight

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931)

Retired English professor Linda Labin brings Dracula and narcissism together in a thought-provoking blog post, “Dracula is The Iconic Toxic Narcissist“:

When I speak or write about toxic narcissism, which is, I believe, the source of all evil in the world, I often mention that toxic narcissists are like ‘psychic vampires,’ in that they suck the souls out of good, compassionate people in the same fashion as mythical (I hope) vampires suck the life blood out of trusting victims. That construct leads me to examine here the idea that Dracula, the epitome of vampirism, is also a perfect icon of toxic narcissism.

How apt a connection for this blog! At work, it’s not unusual to find Dracula a narcissist in a position of power, influence, and responsibility. After all, some of the very qualities that give more decent folks the shivers have helped the narcissist climb up the greasy pole.

Like Dracula, workplace narcissists work best in the dark and in the shadows. Operating in stealth mode, they strive to ensure that their targets are left to defend themselves alone. They can quietly pick off these victims that way, one-by-one.

Also like Dracula, pouring sunlight onto a workplace narcissist is one of the best ways to diminish him. This process of illumination is very rarely a grand public gesture. Rather, it’s typically done through the grapevine, via an expanding circle of private conversations — mostly in-person, sometimes via e-mail or social media — where people share their stories and those of others. The clinical term may not enter the stream of dialogue immediately — livelier, often profane descriptors tend to be used — but at some point someone will mention that they “read an article about narcissists and so-and-so fits the description to a T.” Hey, you don’t always need training in clinical psychology to connect those dots.

So here’s the thing with workplace narcissists: Prolonged exposure to them is revealing. They may charm you at first, but eventually the manipulations, lies, bullying, gaslighting, and other lovely behaviors show themselves.

What counts is the potential impact of being outed. When the twisted practices of a workplace narcissist become well known throughout an organization, said narcissist may lose a chunk of his perverse power, because people are on to him and can sometimes neutralize him. It doesn’t mean that his power is completely dissipated, nor does it guarantee that all are now protected from his actions. But potentially, at least, it’s the beginning of the end for him, or at least a partial de-fanging. Bite on that, Drac.

Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets?

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

Over the past few months, I’ve had several conversations and exchanges related to this question: Are ethical employees more likely to be workplace bullying targets? 

My instinct has always been to answer “yes.” The works of Gary & Ruth Namie, Kenneth Westhues, and others have long reinforced for me that targets of bullying, mobbing, and abuse tend to be ethical individuals, and my own interactions with hundreds of self-identified bullying targets have underscored that belief.

But I think the question demands more than a simple yes or no answer. Like so many other topics concerning abuse at work, there are layers to it. Based on my fifteen years of working in this realm, I feel confident in making these observations:

First, whistleblowers are often bullied as a form of retaliation. This is the proverbial no-brainer. Challenging the legality and ethics of decisions and actions made in a less-than-wonderful organization can quickly place a target on one’s back.

This short piece cannot do justice to all of the relevant guidance that whistleblowers should consider in view of these risks, but suffice it to say that a decision to engage in such reporting activity should be made carefully, not impulsively, and with the fullest possible understanding of options and potential ramifications.

Second, people with a highly developed sense of ethics may stick out. Those who are perceived this way in an organization with a low ethical baseline will be more vulnerable to bullying and mobbing actions.

This observation yields potential lessons: If you find yourself in an unsavory organization, then it may be advisable to pick your battles carefully. Be wary of the risks of being perceived as an ethical crusader in a less-than-ethical workplace, and avoid gratuitous actions prompted by feelings of self-righteousness.

Third, very rare is the self-identified target of bullying or mobbing at work who struck me as being unethical or, as some might put it, “sketchy.”

There’s more to this seemingly milquetoast point than meets the eye. Consider the logical flip side question: Are ethically challenged folks actually at lower risk of being bullied at work?

There are exceptions, of course. For example, an employee who does something harmful or damaging could be on the receiving end of mobbing behaviors by resentful co-workers. Nevertheless, I would hypothesize that many potential workplace aggressors have the good sense not to mess around with their, umm, “peers”!

Okay folks, this is concededly more of a weekend meandering than a scientific investigation. I should add that before writing up this piece, I did a quick check to see if any research studies had delved into this topic. While predictably I found a lot about workplace bullying and organizational ethics generally, I didn’t find much specifically exploring the ethical profiles of the target population. This doesn’t surprise me, as it would be a challenge to assemble a representative cross-section of bullying targets on this particular scale to complete a survey instrument.

I hope this has been useful food for thought nonetheless.

Targets of workplace bullying: A short checklist for assessing options

 

(Image courtesy of clipart lord.com)

(Image courtesy of clipart lord.com)

We can identify four stages that targets of workplace bullying, mobbing, or abuse may experience in working their way to better places in their lives. I have discussed them at greater length in an earlier piece, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Recognition — Recognizing and understanding the bullying behaviors and their effects on you;
  • Response — Figuring out how to respond to the mistreatment;
  • Recovery — Recovering from the experience; and,
  • Renewal — Moving forward.

These stages often overlap, and they are not necessarily linear.

Weighing options

Getting to that better place, however, is no easy task. To help people understand the scope of potential options, here is a quick checklist of possibilities, with a note that the legal and employee benefit options are specific to U.S. readers:

1. Medical assistance — For seeking treatment for physical and mental health conditions related to the mistreatment.

2. Therapy and counseling — For addressing mental health issues related to the mistreatment, ideally with a licensed mental health provider who understands interpersonal abuse and traumatic stress.

3. Coaching — For understanding, developing, and assessing options and choices.

4. Career coaching/counseling/consulting — For obtaining career guidance in the midst or aftermath of a bullying situation.

5. Employer-provided vacation, personal, and sick days — Using up accumulated leave days to remove yourself from the toxic work environment and to consider options.

6. Family and medical leave — Federal and state laws providing (usually unpaid) family and medical leave may offer an option if you have used up paid leave time but want to retain the right to return to your job.

7. Legal assistance/potential lawsuit — As many readers know, we are still working to enact comprehensive workplace bullying legislation. However, in some instances, anti-discrimination laws, disability laws, whistleblower and anti-retaliation protections, collective bargaining agreements, employee handbooks, and other miscellaneous legal provisions may provide the “hook” you need for a potential legal claim.

8. Legal assistance/public benefits — Unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, and Social Security Disability offer potential sources of income replacement due to job loss and work-related injuries.

Resources

The Need Help? page of this blog contains links to helpful resources and past blog posts that expound upon some of the items above.

Also, I highly recommend these two affordably priced books:

Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009) — Gary and Ruth are co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute, whose website also is an excellent source of information. This is the bestselling book on dealing with workplace bullying situations, and for good reason.

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014) — Maureen and Len have written an excellent book, especially for those who are facing mobbing-style mistreatment at work.

A final word

As many readers can attest, there are few quick fixes when it comes to dealing with most severe workplace bullying situations. Furthermore, the challenge of sorting out options is often left to the individual experiencing the mistreatment. Making smart decisions in the midst of a bullying or mobbing situation requires arming yourself with as much information as possible and seeking out available sources of help. There are no guarantees, but these efforts can make a positive difference.

Real-life Gilderoy Lockharts: Narcissistic professors, their students, and bullying at work

Kenneth Branagh as Prof. Gilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter series

Prof. Gilderoy Lockhart (actor Kenneth Branagh) from the Harry Potter series

I’m a bit of a latecomer to this ball, but I’ve just started reading the Harry Potter series. I’m deep into the second book, and I’ve already developed a humorous distaste for Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, a preening, lying, self-promoting narcissist of an instructor at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Young Harry’s dislike of him is laugh out loud funny! Author J.K. Rowling has freely admitted that Lockhart is the only Hogwarts character “deliberately based on a real person.”

While the pompous Lockhart makes for some good chuckles in the Harry Potter world, the real-life impact of narcissistic instructors on their students may be no laughing matter. In fact, a new study suggests a troubling connection to students’ academic performance. A research team from Appalachian State University led by Prof. James Westerman conducted a study of professors and undergraduate students from a university business school, examining the potential impact of narcissistic faculty members on more and less narcissistic students. Here’s an abstract of their findings, published in full in the International Journal of Management Education (July 2016):

Results indicated that narcissism congruence was significantly related to a student’s final grade in the class such that less congruence was associated with lower course grades and that this negative association was partially mediated by perceived professor status and perceived class difficulty. Particularly concerning was the finding that more narcissistic faculty were associated with detrimental outcomes for less narcissistic students. Considering the well-documented and profoundly negative implications of narcissism for workplace environments, this finding suggests a need for future research on the impact of narcissistic faculty on business students and on successful intervention strategies.

Colleen Flaherty, writing about the study for Inside Higher Ed, helps to translate:

Much has been written about the effects of toxic leaders in business, but a new study suggests that toxic business professors — specifically narcissists — wreak havoc in the classroom, at least for their more modest students. More narcissistic students, meanwhile, may benefit from having similarly self-obsessed instructors.

Relationship to workplace bullying

Narcissism has long been associated with workplace bullying behaviors. The Appalachian State study now brings the narcissistic personality traits of certain professional school faculty members into the mix.

In a 2012 blog piece, “Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying,” I suggested that “that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.” I further explained:

You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; and (3) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of “left-brain” logical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence.

You then unleash them unto the world of work. Uh oh.

What I didn’t sufficiently build into that thesis was the potential impact of faculty members as role models and mentors. In addition to providing instruction, professors model attitudes and behaviors for their students. Although I am unaware of any large-scale studies of professorial personality profiles, I would bet a fair amount of money that narcissistic traits appear frequently in law, business, and medical school faculties, who happen to train leaders in vocational areas frequently associated with workplace bullying.

Combined with the findings of the Appalachian State study, this suggests that such schooling may well empower the most narcissistic students and discourage the more modest ones. Might this translate into more promotions and power for the former group ten or twenty years down the line? Uh oh, indeed!

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries

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Two summers ago, Yes! magazine devoted its cover package to the power of storytelling for purposes of driving positive social change. I’ve thought about that collection of articles often in connection with the challenges of telling stories about workplace bullying, both to educate the public generally and to advocate for passage of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Of course, it’s relatively easy to summarize frequent bullying behaviors, their prevalence, and their destructive effects on individuals and organizations. For example, I start a lot of my talks on workplace bullying with a quick section that covers these basics. I often find a lot of people nodding their heads in recognition of the behaviors I’m describing and how people are affected by them.

Similarly, stories of overt, in-your-face bullying behaviors are pretty easy to summarize. This form of workplace mistreatment is probably the closest thing we have to common schoolyard bullying or verbal domestic abuse. The facts are fairly straightforward and easily comprehended.

But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.

Over the years, many individuals who have experienced more complex forms of bullying at work have shared their extended narratives through long personal statements, social media, and self-published books. The inherent problem is that very few of them translate easily into digestible summaries that maintain the attention spans of legislators, journalists, and the public. I know of many other instances of severe workplace bullying that are hard to comprehend in their entirety without a strong understanding of all the players and institutions.

By their very nature, some stories are complex. They require time and effort to get their significance. In an age resistant to detail and nuance, the challenge of finding receptive audiences for these complicated stories of bullying at work yields no simple answers. This will continue when the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law. The storytelling challenge will then move from the court of public opinion to courts of law. It will be up to legal advocates to help craft these narratives with, and on behalf of, their clients.

Success vs. significance on the job

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Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber, in an excellent blog piece for Next Avenue, recounts a talk he attended featuring Dr. Aravind Srinivasan, a pioneering eye surgeon:

Here’s what Srinivasan said: “There’s a difference between success and significance. Success is what happens to you. Significance is what happens through you. Success is what comes to you. Significance is what you give away to others.”

The good doctor’s observation caused Webber to reflect:

It’s the kind of distinction that, when you hear it, makes you stop and think. You think about the difference between success and significance. And you think about your own life and the culture in which we live.

We live in a culture that worships success. Money is the default setting we use to measure success: The more money you make, the greater your success. The greater your success, the more you are deemed worthy.

We tend to equate wealth and success with intelligence and talent. If you are rich enough, famous enough, successful enough, you are qualified to have important opinions. You’re worth listening to. You may even be qualified to run for President.

Beware of avaricious success seekers

If “success is what comes to you” and “significance is what you give away to others,” then let me say: Beware of grasping, covetous success seekers.  They rationalize raw ambition to the exclusion of so many other qualities and values. They walk over and through other people; the skillful ones do it with smiles on their faces and may be appear, at least from a distance, as charming or even “friendly.” They may manipulate and bully as necessary, especially if someone is in their way. Whether due to insecurity, entitlement, or some combination of both, they believe that the brass ring should be theirs for the grabbing.

I have seen these folks in higher education, as I’m sure you’ve seen them in your vocation. There’s another odd dynamic that I’ve noticed about this type of individual in my business: They have a knack for racking up accolades relatively early in their careers, even when it’s not clear that they’ve accomplished anything of . . . well . . . significance. It’s almost as if they’re getting public brownie points for building their resumes. These honors and recognitions fuel their belief that future kudos are their birthright.

Instead…

Generically speaking, most of us want to be “successful,” however we might regard the term. Indeed, aspirations, goals, hopes, and dreams are all fine. So let’s pursue them with authenticity, guided by an inner ethical voice that says we should strive to make contributions of significance and treat others with a baseline of dignity.

Trump: If you’re bullied, get over it

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Donald Trump continues his apparently relentless campaign to prove that he is the most empathy-free presidential candidate in U.S. history. During an interview with Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly, he shares his view that targets of bullying just have to get over it. As reported by the Associated Press:

Months after he savaged her on Twitter and elsewhere, Donald Trump tells Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that people who are bullied “gotta get over it” and fight back.

. . . Trump says he’s a counterpuncher who goes after people when they go after him, only 10 times harder.

Asked if he was ever bullied, the Republican presidential candidate said no. But he said bullying doesn’t just happen to children. “People are bullied when they’re 55,” he said.

For the sake of my own sanity, I have avoided paying too much attention to Trump. However, I have been well aware of him, going back to when I lived in New York City during the “greed is good” decade of the 1980s. It was then that his now familiar displays of narcissism and arrogance became his personal behavioral brand.

Correspondingly, I have yet to see evidence of genuine empathy or kindness in the man.

In a seemingly unprecedented way for a presidential candidate, Trump is attracting the attention of psychologists who are publicly commenting on what makes him tick. In the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic, psychologist Dan P. McAdams (Northwestern U.) probes the Trump psyche and concludes:

Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.

Okay, so the race for President is not necessarily about finding a good and kind soul. I get that. However, let’s think about the stability of someone who justifies punching back “10 times harder” when he feels wronged. Does this mean that a minor act of military aggression against the U.S. would — in his so-called judgment — justify a massive retaliatory strike? What would it take to provoke him into unleashing America’s nuclear arsenal?

We are frighteningly close to being one November election away from finding out the answers.

Are calls for resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming?

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In December 2015, literary critic and New York Times editor Parul Sehgal questioned the growing chorus of calls for greater resilience and grit on the part of younger folks. In a piece for the Times Sunday magazine, she wrote:

Resilience is fleet, adaptive, pragmatic — and it has become an obsession among middle-­class parents who want to prepare their children to withstand a world that won’t always go their way. ‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting.

. . . But where ‘‘resilience’’ can suggest new avenues for civic infrastructure — admitting that disaster can’t always be diverted and shifting the focus to survival strategies — it is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.

Sehgal examines these calls for resilience in the context of younger folks on college campuses, especially when used to counter students’ concerns about racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion. Many critics of these advocacy efforts are suggesting that today’s students are too soft and take offense too easily. Sehgal, however, suggests that “demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.”

This debate is likely to become more intense. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her popular book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016), identifies resilience and other qualities she associates with grit as being keys to success. In an interview in the Times’ Education Life supplement, she summons her research to argue that grit is the most significant factor in determining someone’s likelihood of success:

My lab has found that [grit] beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.

Duckworth says that once someone identifies an interest or passion, they should then pursue it with determination:

So once you’ve fostered an interest, then, and only then, can you do the kind of difficult, effortful and sometimes frustrating practice that truly makes you better. Another thing is really maintaining a sense of hope or resilience, even when there are setbacks.

Relationship to workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility

I’m especially interested in this topic because it carries great relevance for workers and workplaces. One of the most common and misdirected responses to concerns about workplace bullying and mobbing is that many of the targets are weaklings who cannot deal with the normal ups and downs of a job. Furthermore, some confuse work abuse with lesser forms of negative workplace behavior, such as incivility and disrespect, which may further paint self-identified targets of bullying or mobbing as lacking in requisite resilience to deal with everyday work hassles.

My sense of this?

First, genuine workplace bullying and mobbing are forms of interpersonal abuse, not bad manners or even angry arguments and disagreements. We need to keep reinforcing the point that work abuse is not about a bad day at the office, “rough around the edges” co-workers, or generally lousy management.

Second, treating others abusively is wrong, and that includes workplace settings. It doesn’t matter if the intended target of that abuse is perceived as being “strong,” “weak,” or somewhere in between.

Third, abusers aren’t “off the hook” because they happen to bully or mob folks who are more vulnerable. In fact, if they abuse someone because they perceive a targeted individual’s vulnerability, that speaks volumes about their ethics, morality, and psychological make up.

Fourth, most of us stand to benefit by being resilient. For all but the rarely blessed, life will deliver its share of setbacks, disappointments, and sometimes hard body blows. The better we can process and deal with these ups and downs, the better our overall lives will be.

Finally, having a greater reserve of resilience and grit can help us to cope with the really bad stuff at work, including bullying, mobbing, and harassment. This reserve is not bottomless, however, as many resilient and gritty individuals have experienced. Just about everyone has a breaking point, and there are countless instances of work abuse that have taken people past it.

Bottom line? Resilience and grit are good. Targeted bullying, mobbing, and abuse are bad. Let’s strive for less interpersonal mistreatment and more individual resilience. And let’s take more personal and social responsibility for our actions and the state of the world.

***

This post was revised in September 2019.

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