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.
Are you being targeted by a workplace bully? 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!
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- See No Bully, Hear No Bully
- Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection
of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
- So You Want the Bullying to End: II
- If you're the target of a workplace bully, ending the bullying can be an elusive goal. Here are some
guidelines for tactics to bring it to a close.
- Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal
abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers
rely on to avoid disciplinary action.
- Judging Others
- Being "judgmental" is a stance most people recognize as transgressing beyond widely accepted
social norms. But what's the harm in judging others? And why do so many people do it so often?
- Entry Intimidation
- Feeling intimidated about entering a new work situation can affect performance for both the new entrant
and for the group as a whole. Four trouble patterns related to entry intimidation are inadvertent subversion,
bullying, hat hanging, and defenses and sabotage.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.