From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

(image courtesy of 1001freedownloads.com)

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

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Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

Harvard Business Review on working with toxic colleagues

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On Point, a periodic collection of themed articles drawn from the archives of the Harvard Business Review, devotes its fall 2016 issue to “How to Work with Toxic Colleagues.” Here’s a summary of the table of contents:

This issue of Harvard Business Review OnPoint identifies common scenarios and personality types that are difficult to work with and offers psychological, managerial, and tactical insights on how to combat, and even reverse, the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. Articles include “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo; “Coaching the Toxic Leader,” by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries; “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” by Michael Maccoby; “Is Silence Killing Your Company?” by Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams; “HBR Case Study: What a Star-What a Jerk,” by Sarah Cliffe; and “Make Your Enemies Your Allies,” by Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap. You’ll also find selected content from our website, such as “How to Deal with a Mean Colleague,” by Amy Gallo, and “Defusing an Emotionally Charged Conversation with a Colleague,” by Ron Friedman.

I’ve browsed through this issue, and it looks like a worthy purchase for those interested in how to deal with varieties of toxic co-workers at the ground level, particularly in professional office settings. It will be less useful for those seeking advice on how to transform or fix toxic workplaces. These pieces are not openly available online, so you’ll need to buy the issue if you want to read them.

In fact, I think the closing of the editors’ intro note is telling:

Armed with insight, your own sense of self, and the right strategies, you can combat — and even reverse — the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. You might even come out looking like a hero.

The Harvard Business Review isn’t about worker solidarity. And this collection of articles implicitly recognizes that determining how to deal with a difficult or nasty colleague or boss in today’s professional workplace is usually an individual choice, not a collective assessment. This is often the reality of things, though we don’t have to be happy about it.

Psychological safety and the successful workplace

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Aamna Mohdin writes for Quartz earlier this year on Google’s research efforts to identify the keys to creating successful work teams. The answer turned out to be pretty simple:

Google’s data-driven approach ended up highlighting what leaders in the business world have known for a while; the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.

Consequently, says Mohdin, “Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team.”

Or, to put it another way, it’s about valuing human dignity on the job. It’s about embracing the Golden Rule at work. It’s about trying to be inclusive and fair.

The flipside, of course, is when incivility, exclusion, harassment, and bullying enter the picture. Psychologically safe organizations have a culture that discourages these behaviors, but what happens when they occur? The true authenticity of that culture is revealed by how these situations are handled, individually and organizationally.

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Hat tip to Cosette Chichirau for Quartz piece on Google.

“Rage-aholic” behavior and intermittent explosive disorder

Mayo Clinic webpage

Mayo Clinic webpage

Informally, we might call them “rage-aholics.” You know, those persons who dial up their anger from 0 to 90 miles per hour in a split second, seemingly at the slightest provocation. They account for many instances of negative and abusive workplace behaviors: Bullying, incivility, and physical violence. We also see plenty of them in domestic violence situations.

Some of these individuals may have a clinically diagnosable condition called intermittent explosive disorder. The Mayo Clinic describes IED this way:

Intermittent explosive disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder.

These intermittent, explosive outbursts cause you significant distress, negatively impact your relationships, work and school, and they can have legal and financial consequences.

Intermittent explosive disorder is a chronic disorder that can continue for years, although the severity of outbursts may decrease with age. Treatment involves medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses.

IED appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the current 5th edition of the DSM now recognizes verbal aggression as a qualifying behavior. The National Institute for Mental Health has estimated that some 16 million Americans may be affected by IED during some point in their lives.

I’ll offer my hypothesis that online communications, especially e-mail and social media, are fueling behaviors that might be dubbed rage-aholic and could reflect the presence of IED. We’re certainly seeing a lot of that rapidly dialed-up anger online these days, and it’s adding to our stress and anxiety levels. Alas, the comments following many an article or Facebook posting about the current political season might suggest an epidemic.

Workplace bullying: Can a developing situation be nipped in the bud?

(image from thefreedictionary.com)

(image from thefreedictionary.com)

Can a developing, potential workplace bullying situation be nipped in the bud? In my judgment, the answer depends on definitions, the characteristics of the aggressor(s), and in some instances the savvy of the intended target.

So much of the research, commentary, and advice on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse assumes situations that have already elevated into a serious state. However, we know much less about situations that may start as lower level conflicts and then elevate into more serious interpersonal abuse — and whether informal or formal intervention could’ve prevented the latter.

For what it’s worth, here is my sense of the landscape on this question:

When a situation involves mostly incivility, rudeness, or disrespect, it may be resolvable.

When a situation involves an abrasive boss or co-worker, it may be resolvable.

When a situation is still one of conflict, strong difference of opinion, or a personality clash, it may be resolvable.

By “resolvable” I mean informal and formal means of working out differences, even in situations that might involve a perceived dignity violation. Talking things out and informal mediation are among the most common ways of getting to a better place. In more intractable circumstances, a move or transfer may be advisable before a situation becomes sharply acute.

In some, perhaps many, of these less severe instances, the personal traits of the individual experiencing the mistreatment will come into play. In no way I am suggesting that we engage in victim blaming here. Rather, I’m saying that an individual’s interpersonal skill set may play a role in navigating, avoiding, or stopping incivility and disrespect, as well as helping to ratchet down disagreements threatening to go haywire.

And, of course, the overall quality of management and the culture of the organization will feed into these equations, too. Quality workplaces are better equipped to handle these situations and resolve them fairly.

Interestingly, all of these scenarios may be defined — often wrongly, I believe — as bullying. In this context I think it’s vital for us to distinguish between individual bullying-type behaviors and genuine bullying or mobbing situations. The latter are what we most need to be concerned about in terms of personal impact.

The big, huge “however”

So folks, here’s my big however: When someone is subjected to intentional, targeted mistreatment designed to cause them harm or distress, that’s the game changer. Toss out of the window notions of conflict, differences of opinion, personality clashes, bad manners, or general jerkiness. The situation is now abusive, and we’re looking at genuine workplace bullying.

Incidentally, this is where I’ve set the bar for recovery under the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I drafted. It’s about providing a legal claim for health harming, targeted abuse at work.

Once we’re at this point, a target’s strong interpersonal skills will be of less use. The bullying or mobbing has started, it is driven by malice, and the aggressor(s) aren’t that interested in patching up differences and making peace. The eliminationist instinct often has taken over.

In sum, if a situation quickly accelerates into full-fledged bullying, then nipping it in the bud is awfully hard. Other, less severe scenarios may possibly be resolved with only minor bloodshed.

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

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Last December, 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. Right now, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016) is one of the hottest new non-fiction books. In a recent 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 and incivility

I’m especially interested in this topic because it carries great relevance for the workplace. One of the most common and misdirected responses to concerns about workplace bullying is that many of the targets are weaklings who cannot deal with the normal ups and downs of a job. Furthermore, some confuse abusive bullying with lesser forms of negative workplace behavior, such as incivility and disrespect.

My sense of this?

First, genuine workplace bullying is about abuse, not bad manners or even angry arguments and disagreements. We need to keep reinforcing the point that bullying is not about a bad day at the office 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 “strong,” “weak,” or somewhere in between.

Third, an abuser isn’t “off the hook” because he happens to target someone who is more vulnerable. In fact, if he goes after someone because he perceives a person’s vulnerability, well, that speaks volumes about the messed up ethics, morality, and psychological make up of the abuser.

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? 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.

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