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Volume 12, Issue 52;   December 26, 2012: The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying

The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005

An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005. The storm disrupted government functions of all kinds, including law enforcement. Both civilians and law enforcement personnel exhibited lawless behavior, with the result that citizens lost significant day-to-day freedom. In a most unfortunate example of the Paradox of Structure, removal of structure led to loss of freedom. Photo courtesy U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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 thrive
bullying 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Coercion by Presupposition  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesAre 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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See also Workplace Bullying and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
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Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

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