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.
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!
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Hurtful Clichés: II
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
- 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.
- Confronting the Workplace Bully: I
- When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront
or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
- Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review
of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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