A holistic approach to beating the bullies

The post has been contributed by Dr Andreas Liefooghe, Department of Organizational Psychology, with Dan Vacassin, Birkbeck Alumnus and Director of Indigogold

Of all the problems that find their way into leaders’ in-trays, one of the thorniest is the issue of workplace bullying.

Workplace bullyingIt’s an emotive and highly sensitive area, one that can have a pernicious effect on team morale and productivity, result in good employees leaving a business and cause significant reputational damage.

Dealing with bullying is no easy task, not least because the first step may well involve accepting that senior management is responsible – however unwittingly – for creating the conditions in which it can take root.

Allowing for the (relatively) rare clinical cases, the vast majority of bullies are made, not born. They are part and parcel of any human group dynamic – from the school playground to huge multi-nationals – and from an organisational perspective they often represent the dark side of the aggressive, ‘my way or the highway’ corporate culture that tends to promote those with the loudest voices or the most go-getting natures.

Such a statement should not be seen as an attempt to excuse the offence; bullying must not be tolerated under any circumstances. But simply removing the perpetrator or placing the victim(s) out of harm’s way will not address the underlying issues. In most cases, it merely ends up creating a vacancy for another bully or victim.

If bullying is prevalent, it must be tackled institutionally, not individually. The primary aim should be to establish a culture whereby behaviours that bring people together are valued more highly than those likely to set them apart.

One of the key steps to achieving this is mobilising bystanders, so that anyone guilty of an act that could be construed as bullying will find themselves receiving a tap on their shoulder and encouragement from a colleague to go and apologise. To us, there’s no better sign of a healthy organisational culture than people feeling they can give honest feedback on a colleague’s behaviour or performance without fear of reprisal.

Tolerant organisations are invariably more innovative, too, because employees will not be fearful of suggesting new ideas or better ways to do things. Individuals will also be much more willing to speak out, even if this involves delivering bad news. How many recent corporate or public sector scandals might have been avoided if the organisation and its management had been more open to criticism from within? Most – if not all – of them, we’d argue.

In the UK at least, bullying is not yet against the law, although harassment relating to factors such as age, gender, race and sexual orientation is covered by the 2010 Equality Act.

The lack of legal jurisdiction underlines the nebulous nature of bullying. It is an issue that needs careful and sensitive handling, but in our view the biggest mistake leaders can make is to let it become all about the individual or individuals, rather than facing up to deficiencies in the organisational dynamic.

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What’s in an umlaut?

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

It sometimes seems as if the news is made up of either cataclysmically large or vanishingly small issues. There are quite enough of the former to worry about at the moment, you might think – and the latter – the ‘human interest’ stories – are just there to sell newspapers.

UmlautIn theory, they do not get much smaller than the argument, reported in this week’s papers, which is raging in a small town in Minnesota.

Lindström was founded by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. The reason for the current battle is that the Minnesota Department of Transportation has decreed that the town name should consist only of ‘standard English characters’. Therefore the umlaut, i.e. the two dots above the o, has been omitted from the sign. The inhabitants are up in arms over this – apparently petty – issue.

It is interesting to look beyond the apparently trivial casus belli and consider the deeper issues at stake. Is it possible that someone in the Transportation Department is ‘anti-immigrant’, or at least very right wing (in European terms)?

They may be a supporter of the ‘English Only’ movement, which argues that immigrants should integrate linguistically. Rather than being encouraged to maintain their language of origin, which linguistic studies have shown time and time again to be beneficial to their OVERALL linguistic proficiency AND to their wellbeing, in some states they are instead obliged to take additional remedial English classes.

In this case, the immigrants in question have long ago been eaten by the worms; the umlaut-supporters are merely symbolically honouring their distant ancestors, and their own origins.

The kindest interpretation of the Department’s refusal to add the umlaut is that they just want an easy life and cannot be bothered with the idiosyncacies of the local population, which necessitate additional signwriting resources. But I suspect the issue is related to their convictions about what it means to be American.

Whichever it is, the importance of the umlaut for the population clearly goes well beyond its tiny presence on the town sign. Like so many linguistic issues, it can only be understood in terms of the link between language and identity. Crush my language, my accent, my alphabet, my name, and you deprive me of my individuality, my history, my sense of belonging to a particular group.

In Alsace under the German Occupation, Jean had to become Hans and François had to become Fritz – on pain of serious punishment. Europeans joining Islamic State change their names to Islamic ones. In this case, a Swedish name which indexes the heritage of the town is being bleached into an English name. Perhaps next year it could have an e added at the end, then why not remove the ‘str’ and replace it with an h? ‘Lindhome’ would sound as American as apple pie.

Of course none of this matters a single jot compared with the big issues in the news – until you start to realise that language is one of the main ways in which our identity is expressed. Languages, words, names – and people’s expressed wishes about them – should not, and cannot, be swept under the carpet – or painted out on signs.

Find out more about Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

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Researching History of Art in Venice and Padua

This post was contributed by Dr Laura Jacobus, senior lecturer in the Department of History of Art.

Sitting at my desk squinting at indecipherable medieval documents, I’m suddenly transported to the near-future and the summer term at Birkbeck, when I’ll be sitting at my desk squinting over indecipherable exam scripts. Academics take research leave in order to refresh their thinking and inform their teaching, keeping up at the cutting-edge of knowledge, so that we can then deliver that to our students and to the wider world of scholarship. But from students’ point of view our disappearances may be less explicable. So I thought I’d write a bit about what I’m doing.

I’ve been using this term to pull together research that I began many years ago on the Arena Chapel in Padua. It’s a fourteenth-century building, with practically every surface decorated with stunning frescoes by Giotto. I have already published a book on it, but I’d found a great deal of material which was still of interest, and it didn’t belong in that book because it had nothing to do with Giotto. This term is an opportunity to pull that material out of the filing cabinet (yes, some of it goes back that many years) and try to make sense of it, getting an overview of what needs to be done and doing some of it.

Before my leave started I’d booked a two-week research trip to Venice and Padua, and over Christmas I planned that meticulously. I had nine different archives and specialist libraries that I wanted to visit, some of them with quite short and irregular opening times. As things turned out I only managed seven of them, and in one of those the specialist collection I needed to see wasn’t available, but this is quite a high success rate for a research trip, and I may be able to go back for a few more days before the end of my leave. And, I have to say, some of those libraries were a pleasure! I’m including a photograph (below) of one, the seventeenth-century library of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Longhena and still with all its original furnishings.  I was very lucky to be staying in a newly-opened research centre in the former monastery there, so this was my local library during my stay. Before anyone gets too envious, I should also say that one of the other libraries was in a below-sea-level 1960s basement. Still, there’s no denying that doing research on Italian medieval and renaissance art has its attractions.

Longhena Library

The seventeenth-century library of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Longhena and still with all its original furnishings

The trip to Italy allowed me to find and photograph around twenty documents that should help fill some of the gaps in my evidence, but first I have to read, transcribe, translate and edit them.  I returned to London three weeks ago, and have spent much of the time since then doing just that.  It will take many more weeks to do it (more weeks than I have leave), and I am including photographs of some of them so that you can see why. A few are rather beautiful – such as this copy of a letter from Maddalena Scrovegni, the first female humanist, to the Duke of Milan in 1389…

Maddalena Scrovegni's letterMaddalena Scrovegni letter detail

…but most are definitely not. This is the copy of her brother’s will, written at a time when the family had lost everything in 1435.

DSCF0993 Pietro endowment 1435 July 30 cropped p.1Pietro Scrovegni will (1444-1450 copy) detail

I’m interspersing the work on these transcriptions with drafting sections of the next book, treating one kind of work as a break from the other. It sounds like a messy process, and in many ways it is, but the shape of the book is gradually emerging from these parallel processes of thinking, writing and evidence-gathering. If you happen to be working on a dissertation or thesis, this may sound familiar- as will the feeling of time running out! One day, a book called ‘The Afterlife of the Arena Chapel’ will appear, but probably not before I’ve marked quite a few more medieval-looking exam scripts.

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Rehearsing “why” and “how” to not drink alcohol during social occasions may help promote safer student drinking

2014 photoThis post was contributed by Dr Dominic Conroy, a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck. Dr Conroy is currently working on an NIHR-funded study with Professor Jonathan Smith to explore adolescents with conduct disorders’ experiences of multisystemic therapy. 

Students-drinking1Understanding how to successfully encourage university students to understand and heed government drinking recommendations remains one of the holy grails of health promotion research. One aspect of these drinking recommendations is to encourage individuals to take two ‘dry days’ per week where they do not drink any alcohol at all (National Health Service, 2014). In research recently published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, my research colleagues Dr Paul Sparks and Dr Richard de Visser and I were interested in assessing an exercise designed to explore how students might be encouraged to consider how occasional non-drinking during social occasions could be thought of as a more beneficial, achievable behaviour.

Students-drinking2This experiment involved a  ‘mental simulation’ exercise in which 211 undergraduate student participants were encouraged to ‘mentally simulate’ possible benefits of socialising without drinking alcohol and/or possible strategies which might make not drinking during a social occasion more straightforward. Findings indicated that compared with maintaining a drinks diary, mentally simulating benefits led to reduced overall weekly consumption, and mentally simulating strategies involved in non-drinking led to reduced episodes of heavy episodic drinking. Findings also suggested that all participants held more favourable perceptions of non-drinkers than they had at baseline, though not significantly so.

Several indicative areas for future research were clearly identified from this study. Options for delivering health promotion messages containing a non-drinking mental simulation to encourage young people and/or students to consider the achievability and possible advantages involved in periodically not drinking during social occasions are currently being explored in collaboration with DrinkAware. It would also be useful to understand whether improving perceptions of non-drinkers might offer one route toward promoting safer levels of alcohol consumption. So for example, measuring self-reported perceptions of ‘the typical non-drinker’ might provide a useful screening tool for identifying those most at risk of harmful drinking. However, future research might also help clarify how different strands of ‘perceptions of non-drinkers’ are implicated in alcohol-related perceptions and behaviour. For example, it would be useful to understand how beliefs about non-drinking as a behaviour  chosen by others or as a personal behaviour imagined or enacted by the respondent may hold links with drinking behaviour, just as ‘perceptions of the prototypical non-drinker’ seem to.

Students face a wealth of social opportunities involving alcohol consumption during their time at university. In this context research must continue to explore ways of encouraging students to think about drinking less during occasions when alcohol consumption is inevitable. This said, findings from my PhD research favour the view that efforts to successfully promote moderate drinking among students may benefit from greater consideration over how to encourage individuals to re-appraise non-drinking as a periodic behavioural option available to them personally. This might include instilling more positive appraisals of non-drinking as a social behaviour in others as well as prompting students to consider non-drinking at some social occasions as something more achievable and holding more distinct benefits than they may had previously thought. At a health promotion guideline level, this would be consistent with recent recommendations to take two ‘dry days’ each week provided by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

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