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: I
- 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. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- Meeting Bullies: Advice for Chairs
- Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public.
When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
- 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.
- Anticipatory Disappointment at Work
- Disappointment is usually unpleasant, and sometimes benign. But when it occurs before we have evidence
of bad news — when it is anticipatory — disappointment can be unnecessary and expensive.
What is anticipatory disappointment? What are the risks?
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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