Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

A shout-out to our workplace anti-bullying work

Great literature may help us to understand trauma

Great literature may help us to understand psychological trauma. In a newly published essay (link here), “Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry,” I summon Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Homer’s The Odyssey for that purpose. Drawing upon Moby-Dick, I consider the injured Captain Ahab as a workplace trauma sufferer and abusive boss. Examining The Odyssey, I see Odysseus experiencing grief and exhaustion as he tries to return home after 10 years of fighting a war.

The piece has just been posted to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, a fully online university devoted to Great Books and Great Ideas, where I am a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas.” In this side-gig role, I am contributing writings to HMU’s publications and taking part in various discussion groups.

Presentation: “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace”

Earlier this year, I gave a virtual presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” for the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” The recording has been posted to YouTube (link here). I use the first 18-19 minutes to cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, and then I discuss these behaviors in academic work settings. My prepared remarks run for about 44 minutes in all, followed by Q&A and comments for another 25 minutes.

Relevant Earlier Posts

  • Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching (2017) (link here);
  • UMass-Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative (2013) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009; rev. 2014) (link here).

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Gift”: Recovery and renewal for trauma survivors

In her first book, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017), Dr. Edith Eger recounted the major events of her life, framed by her experiences as a teenaged survivor of the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps during the Second World War. She shared the many steps of her own recovery and healing, and then described her work as a therapist helping others who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.

Dr. Edie (as she is known) has followed The Choice with The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life (2020), a compassionate, potentially transformative book that draws heavily upon her experiences and those of her patients to offer guidance on recovering from trauma. Here’s a description of the book from her website

Eger explains that the worst prison she experienced is not the prison that Nazis put her in but the one she created for herself, the prison within her own mind. She describes the twelve most pervasive imprisoning beliefs she has known—including fear, grief, anger, secrets, stress, guilt, shame, and avoidance—and the tools she has discovered to deal with these universal challenges. Accompanied by stories from Eger’s own life and the lives of her patients each chapter includes thought-provoking questions and takeaways….

Choice therapy

Dr. Edie describes her therapeutic approach as “choice therapy, as freedom is fundamentally about choice.” She identifies four core psychological perspectives that inform her eclectic method:

  • Positive psychology, i.e., moving from “learned helplessness” to “learned optimism”;
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy, i.e., “the understanding that our thoughts create our feelings and behavior”;
  • Unconditional self-love, i.e., moving away from the “misconception that we can’t be loved and genuine”; and,
  • Understanding “that our worst experiences can be our best teachers,” contributing to “healing, fulfillment, and freedom.”

On victimhood

Dr. Edie’s first lesson is the big one, leaving the “prison of victimhood.” Among her observations:

  • “Suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional.”
  • “Many of us stay in a prison of victimhood because, subconsciously, it feels safer.”
  • “Why did this happen to me? Well, why not you?”
  • “This is the first tool for moving out of victimhood: approach whatever is happening with a gentle embrace. It doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happening. But when you stop fighting and resisting, you have more energy and imagination at the ready to figure out ‘What now?’ To move forward instead of nowhere.”

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

For many reasons, I recommend The Gift to those who are struggling to recover from bullying and mobbing at work, especially when the abuse has resulted in major harm to well-being and livelihood. Dr. Edie has a unique voice that blends compassion and, when necessary, tough love, and both qualities can be helpful in helping folks to recover and renew from work abuse. For those trying to get “unstuck” and out of a place of rumination, this is a very good start.

Below I’ve linked to several relevant earlier articles, including two about Dr. Edie, whom I had the distinct privilege of meeting at a conference back in 2017.

Related Posts

  • Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor (2018) (link here)
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here)
  • Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here)
  • Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015) (link here)

WBI’s Workplace Bullying Podcast: Learn from authorities in the field

Dear readers, if you’d like to learn more about workplace bullying from leading researchers and subject-matter experts, then check out Dr. Gary Namie’s Workplace Bullying Podcast (link here). Here’s how Gary describes the series:

This podcast showcases the reality of workplace bullying and abusive conduct and related phenomena from the dark side of the world of work and society.

Dr. Gary Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute sits down with people of various disciplines, striving together to develop and share with you a greater understanding and insight around this topic.

The guests so far include:

  • Dr. Ståle Einarsen, Director of the Bergen Bullying Research Group and Professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, perhaps the world’s leading researcher on workplace bullying;
  • Dr. Maureen Duffy, preeminent expert on mobbing behaviors, who kindly recruited me to join her as a co-editor on a two volume book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018);
  • Allan Halse, a relentless workplace anti-bullying advocate in New Zealand, founder of CultureSafeNZ;
  • Kathy Fodness and Alice Percy of MAPE (Minnesota Association of Professional Employees), a labor union spearheading anti-bullying efforts in Minnesota, including the adoption of a policy protecting state workers;
  • Attorney Ellen Pinkos Cobb, a leading researcher and author on workplace anti-bullying laws and author of a new book Managing Psychosocial Hazards and Work-Related Stress in Today’s Work Environment: International Insights for U.S. Organizations (2022);
  • “Luke,” a longtime TV news executive who explains abuse and toxicity in the world of corporate media;
  • G. Richard Shell, legal and business ethics professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and author of The Conscience Code: Lead with your Values. Advance Your Career (2021);
  • Carol Fehner, perhaps the original union anti-bullying activist and an expert on applying for Social Security Disability insurance;
  • Tim Jon Semmerling, PhD, JD, talks about litigating death penalty cases and explains attorney-on-attorney bullying;
  • Retired union leaders and anti-bullying advocates Greg Sorozan and Jeff Recht explain their pioneering work to engage the labor movement in addressing workplace bullying;
  • Carrie Clark, a long-time, leading anti-bullying advocate, shares how she experienced this abuse as a targeted public schoolteacher.

Folks, I have the pleasure of knowing many of these good people, and I’m delighted to recommend that you spend some time with them. Check out this important series to learn more about workplace bullying and how we can effectively respond to it.

In addition, I’ll be joining Gary for a couple of episodes during the coming months, including a special one in which I will play the role of the interviewer. Stay tuned!

On expanding our view of global leadership to embrace human dignity

The term “global leadership” is strongly associated with economic, political, and social dominance in a neoliberal context. Degree programs using global leadership or similar monikers tend to be offered through graduate schools of business, and they usually emphasize market command in terms of ideas, information, and products. The latter point also applies to business conferences and workshops invoking the term.

However, at last December’s Annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS), I suggested that we should reframe global leadership through lenses of servant leadership and global stewardship. I expounded upon this topic and related it to themes of compassionate justice and therapeutic jurisprudence during my short remarks (under 10 minutes), which you may access here.

Definitions

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, it may help to define terms, and I’ll simply draw from Wikipedia:

Servant leadership is a…

…leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organization. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.

Stewardship is an…

…ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, cultural resources etc.

With these general definitions as guideposts, I would like us to conceptualize and practice global leadership in a way that emphasizes our roles as stewards of, and servants to, the health of this planet and its inhabitants. 

Google hits

Last fall, in preparation for the HDHS workshop, I did a quick Google search to see how many “hits” certain relevant terms would yield. Here is what I found:

  • Search “global leadership” = ~1,060,000,000 hits
  • Search “global stewardship” = ~93,000,000 hits
  • Search “servant leadership” = ~57,000,000 hits

Clearly, among these terms, “global leadership” holds sway. Hence my belief that we should invoke it to advance dignitarian values, while elevating global stewardship and servant leadership in association with the core term.

Legal systems

As I further noted in my HDHS presentation, we have to apply these concepts of servant leadership and stewardship to those served by our legal systems, on a global level. After all:

  • Many are ill-served by it right now.
  • Our laws & public policies and their applications are not necessarily just.
  • The experiences of litigation and dispute resolution can be traumatizing in and of themselves.
  • Access to quality legal assistance is far from universal.

One of the answers to this is the field of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), which examines whether our laws, legal systems, and legal institutions support or undermine individual and societal well-being and psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings. I have discussed TJ often on this blog. In 2017, I helped to create the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, and last year I published a thorough assessment of the field, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment,” in the University of Miami Law Review. You may freely access it here.

On disability bullying

We have long known that children who have disabilities are more likely to experience bullying behaviors than their peers who are perceived as being non-disabled. The National Bullying Prevention Center (link here), for example, shares that in 10 U.S. studies examining “the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.”

Indeed, search the term “disability bullying” and you’ll find the top hits centering almost exclusively around bullying of kids with disabilities. I’m glad that we have established that connection. At the very least, it validates the experiences of those being targeted and helps us to focus on preventive and responsive measures.

What about bullying of adults with disabilities?

We see less attention given to bullying of adults who have disabilities. That’s among the reasons why I welcomed a recent column by disability expert Andrew Pulrang, “The Many Flavors Of Disability Bullying” (Forbes.com, link here):

There are few things as simply and straightforwardly awful as bullying disabled people. But there is so much more to do about ableist bullying than just condemning it.

Ableist bullying is surprisingly difficult to recognize and understand, because it’s more than one thing, and has has many facets and flavors.

Pulrang goes on to identify predominant forms of bullying behaviors directed at adults with disabilities:

  • “Simple, superficial mockery,” such as making fun of appearances, physical movements, and mental health conditions;
  • “Dismissing complaints” over problems that persons with disabilities might face;
  • “Portraying disabled people as privileged and entitled” as they struggle to deal with impairments and seek accommodations;
  • Making jokes about someone’s disability in their presence, as if to test their sense of humor; and,
  • Gaslighting disabled individuals into questioning their perceptions of reality.

He concludes:

To fight disability bullying, people of all backgrounds and roles need to not only refrain from these bullying behaviors, but also engage with and refute the kinds of thinking and assumptions that prompt them.

The legal angle

At times, those subjected to these forms of mistreatment may have legal recourse via civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. In workplace and public accommodations settings, the Americans with Disabilities Act figures most prominently. Here is where questions of reasonable accommodation come into play.

Furthermore, if someone is being subjected to workplace harassment because of their disability, they may have a hostile work environment claim under the ADA. However, such legal claims are hard to win. Occasional jokes or putdowns about a disability, for example, may not be sufficient to state a harassment claim under the ADA.

Ultimately…

A combination of more enlightened human behaviors and stronger legal enforcement will diminish bullying behaviors directed at people with disabilities. Obviously we have work to do on this front. If you doubt this, then consider that less than six years ago, the U.S. elected a President who cruelly mocked a reporter’s disability while on the campaign trail.

In the past, this one act would’ve been sufficient to self-torpedo any political campaign. I can only surmise that in 2016, some people voted for him in spite of this incident, while others were more inclined to vote for him because of it. Both possibilities teach us sad but important lessons about unfinished business in terms of advancing human dignity.

Anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill advances within Massachusetts Legislature

I’m pleased to report that here in Massachusetts, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has been reported favorably by the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development of the state legislature. Having passed this important hurdle, the bill is now before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. The HWB continues to be a key legislative priority for its lead sponsor, Sen. Paul Feeney (D-Bristol & Norfolk).

The HWB permits targets of severe workplace bullying to seek damages in court and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively towards bullying behaviors at work.

The sausage grinder known as the legislative committee process has resulted in some cosmetic changes to the original bill. First, the bill has been renumbered. It is now Senate No. 2723 (formerly it was Senate No. 1200), and can be accessed here. Secondly, the bill has been streamlined, removing some of the introductory language, while retaining all core components of the original version filed last year, including a new, express provision covering online behavior.

***

If you’re a Massachusetts resident and would like to see the HWB enacted into law, please contact your state senator and state representative and ask them to support Senate No. 2723. You may go here for contact information.

Also, please “like” our new Facebook page for the MA Healthy Workplace Bill, which you may access by clicking here.

Bullying, mobbing, and incivility in the healthcare workplace

On Wednesday, I discussed bullying, mobbing, and incivility in healthcare workplaces at a Grand Rounds session hosted by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health, in New York City. It was a welcomed opportunity to discuss the challenges of the current healthcare work environment with physicians and other professionals.

Grand Rounds are a form of continuing professional education for those who work in healthcare settings. Sessions typically feature a presentation plus Q&A. Although many Grand Rounds presenters are experts in specific areas of healthcare practice and delivery, at times folks from related fields are invited to present.

When I first became involved with anti-bullying work in the late 1990s, it soon became evident that many healthcare workplaces were sites of significant bullying and related behaviors. I first started hearing accounts of bullying from nurses. Then came the stories from physicians, residents, and medical students. These streams of reports have remained consistent over the years.

Fortunately, some positive signs have appeared as well, at least at the bird’s eye level. Here in the U.S., two significant professional bodies — the Joint Commission and the American Medical Association — have now weighed in strongly against bullying-type behaviors.

The Joint Commission

In 2008 (modified and reaffirmed in 2021), the Joint Commission — an independent, non-profit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs — issued a standard on intimidating and disruptive behaviors at work, citing concerns about patient care (link here):

Intimidating and disruptive behaviors can foster medical errors, contribute to poor patient satisfaction and to preventable adverse outcomes, increase the cost of care, and cause qualified clinicians, administrators and managers to seek new positions in more professional environments. Safety and quality of patient care is dependent on teamwork, communication, and a collaborative work environment. To assure quality and to promote a culture of safety, health care organizations must address the problem of behaviors that threaten the performance of the health care team.

As you can see, the Joint Commission’s primary focus was on how bullying-type behaviors can have a negative impact on patient care.

American Medical Association

More recently, the American Medical Association — the largest national association representing the interests of doctors and other healthcare stakeholders — has issued statements, reports, and training materials covering bullying and related behaviors. The AMA defines workplace bullying as (link here):

…repeated, emotionally or physically abusive, disrespectful, disruptive, inappropriate, insulting, intimidating, and/or threatening behavior targeted at a specific individual or a group of individuals that manifests from a real or perceived power imbalance and is often, but not always, intended to control, embarrass, undermine, threaten, or otherwise harm the target.

These 2020 developments are shared on the AMA website (link here):

  • “‘Bullying in the workplace is a complex type of unprofessional conduct. Bullying in medicine happens as a result of a combination of individual, organizational and systemic issues,’ says an AMA Board of Trustees Report on the topic. ‘The first line of defense against this destructive behavior are physicians, residents and medical students. There is no justification for bullying, disrespect, harassment, intimidation, threats or violence of any kind to occur among professionals whose primary purpose is to heal. Physicians choose medicine as their life’s work for many reasons, one of the most important being their desire to help and care for people.'”
  • The AMA House of Delegates “adopted guidelines for the establishment of workplace policies to prevent and address bullying in the practice of medicine, saying that ‘health care organizations, including academic medical centers, should establish policies to prevent and address bullying in their workplaces.'”

In 2021, the AMA published a short training guide, Bullying in the Health Care Workplace: A Guide to Prevention and Mitigation, which can be accessed here.

My Advice

I closed my prepared remarks with recommendations on how healthcare institutions can address bullying behaviors, adapting them from a recently published piece on bullying in the legal profession, written for the American Bar Association:

  • “Understand that health care professionals have not necessarily been trained to work well with others. Some may not grasp the distinctions between assertive, aggressive, and abusive behaviors.”
  • “Include all stakeholders, recognizing that bullying can be vertical (typically top-down) and horizontal/lateral (peer(s) to peer(s)).”
  • “For healthcare employers, start at onboarding and orientation, messaging to new hires that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.”
  • “Include bullying in employee handbooks and employee training programs, per AMA recommendations.”
  • “Use climate surveys and 360 feedback mechanisms to help identify problems concerning bullying and related behaviors. Don’t sweep bad reports under the rug.”
  • “Consider coaching, counseling, and – if necessary – termination for abusive individuals, even if they are proficient in other areas of their performance.”
  • “Medical and nursing schools should include bullying and incivility in their curricula.”
  • “Especially during the pandemic, incivility and bullying behaviors from patients and their families should be part of education, training, and institutional responses.”

***

As I noted during my presentation, all the best practices and policies aren’t worth a thing if they are not implemented and followed with good intentions. But the fact that national healthcare associations are recognizing the harms caused by bullying behaviors to workers and patients alike is encouraging.

The Mount Sinai event attracted a strong turnout, and I received very positive feedback on the session from the program organizers. As I said to those who attended, I am especially grateful to all healthcare providers during this pandemic. I hope that they found the hour we spent together useful and interesting.

Sharing insights about workplace bullying and mobbing in SafeHarbor, Part III

This year, I’ve been writing about my visits to SafeHarbor (link here), the online site created by Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, to serve as “a community dedicated to the people affected by workplace bullying and those devoted to helping them.” I’ve also shared some past blog articles that I’ve posted for SafeHarbor members.

During my visit to SafeHarbor this evening, it struck me how a combination of knowledge, understanding, and — yes — technology has brought us to where a site like this can exist and sustain. Members can start discussions, comment on existing threads, and link articles, thereby contributing to an educative and supportive dynamic that can overcome distance and physical separation.

When I joined forces with Gary and Ruth Namie in the late 1990s, the internet was still in its infancy, with the first generation of online discussion boards offering a glimpse of what might come. While I have very mixed feelings about the omnipresence of digital technology in our lives, I am glad that we can harness it for good purposes such as this one.

Once again, here are more past blog articles that I’ve posted to SafeHarbor:

  • Not “Set for Life”: Boomers facing layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012) (link here)
  • Are calls for resilience and “grit” an indirect form of victim shaming & blaming? (2016, rev. 2019 & 2022) (link here)
  • Typing your workplace culture (2009; rev. 2022) (link here)
  • Music as therapy (2021) (link here)
  • On the social responsibilities of writers (2019) (link here)
  • Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014) (link here)
  • Let’s follow an Eightfold Path to psychologically healthy workplaces (2019) (link here)
  • Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (2011; rev. 2020) (link here)
  • “How can I make a living doing workplace anti-bullying work?” (2019) (link here)
  • Five signs of the eliminationist instinct in today’s workplaces (2015) (link here)
%d bloggers like this: