The paradox of structure is that structures, of whatever kind, simultaneously enable and limit human activity. The paradox has long been recognized in the field of education. For example, at one time, decades ago, it was thought that playground fences inhibited children's creative play. But in fenceless playgrounds, it was found that students felt insecure, playing less creatively. They remained clumped in the center of the playground, afraid to use its open expanse. When the fences returned, the students expanded their play to use all of the playground space. The limiting structure of the fences paradoxically enabled a sense of freedom.
Because of the Paradox of Structure, removing or imposing structures can have surprising, unintended effects. At work, although we might expect structure removal to further organizational goals by enhancing productivity or creativity, it doesn't always do so. And imposing new structures doesn't always limit behavior in the ways we hope it will.
Consider workplace bullying. Targets of bullies typically assume that they can end their misery — or at least minimize it — by adjusting their own behavior. They hope that if they avoid or take care not to offend the bully, the bully will leave them alone. This hope is based on social structures built around one of the customs of decorum that most of us honor: courtesy begets courtesy, and offense can beget counter-offense. Such a relaxed social structure enables most of us to interact smoothly with each other, more or less. The structure enables our fair treatment of each other.
But it also limits our fair treatment of each other. Here's how.
Most bullies don't bully to exact revenge on their targets for supposed past offenses. Bullying behavior is pathological, and the pathology lies within the bully. Bullies might use some prior act of the target to justify their abusive behavior, but they are merely exploiting, as a defense, the reciprocal-courtesy social structure in which we all work together.
Ironically, Bullying in the workplace persists
because the workplace social
structure is weak enough to
enable bullying to thrivebullying in the workplace persists because the workplace social structure is weak enough to enable bullying to thrive. Probably out of respect for personal freedom, many workplace social structures tend not to impose constraints on personal behavior that are as tight as the constraints that address work processes. By avoiding constraints on personal behavior, workplace social structures leave room for bullies to maneuver. In the end, because bullying persists, relaxed workplace social structures create tighter constraints on people overall than would a more stringent regime that severely limited bullying behavior. Now emerging is a consensus that we can reduce the incidence of workplace bullying only by tightening constraints on personal behavior.
Manifestations of the Paradox of Structure are subtle. But once seen for what they are, we can usually find a better balance between freedom and constraint. Top Next Issue
Is a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Covert Bullying
- The workplace bully is a tragically familiar figure to many. Bullying is costly to organizations, and
painful to everyone within them — especially targets. But the situation is worse than many realize,
because much bullying is covert. Here are some of the methods of covert bullies.
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: II
- To make the bullying stop, many targets of bullies try to defend themselves. But defense alone is not
sufficient — someone must make the bully stop. That's why counterattack is much more
likely to work.
- What Micromanaging Is and Isn't
- Micromanaging is a dysfunctional pattern of management behavior, involving interference in the work
others are supposedly doing. Confusion about what it is and what it isn't makes effective response difficult.
- Double Binds at Work
- At work, a double bind arises when someone in authority makes contradictory demands of a subordinate,
who has no alternative but to choose among options that all lead to unwelcome results. Double binds
are far more common than most of us realize.
- Unrecognized Bullying: III
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, perpetrators,
bystanders, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect
are two of these biases.
See also Workplace Bullying and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info