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Working With Change…

The potential pitfalls of workers stuck in the hierarchical model

The hierarchical model of business has flourished since the industrial revolution. This model acted as a system for molding and sustaining the sort of employee it needed to run itself. If we look at some of the cartoons of the 1950’s we see the accepted concept of work at this time. In the first frame we might see the mild-mannered husband kissing his wife good-bye at the door. The next frame shows him at work, transformed: red-faced, buttons popping, eyes bulging, steam coming out his ears, a halo of electrified hair . . .he has become Mr. Hyde. The third frame shows him coming up the walk at home, clothes torn and tie askew, exhausted, but Dr. Jekyl once again . . .he looks dazed and confused. His wife greets him saying, “rough day at the office, dear?” Though exaggerated, this was funny because it spoke to the truth of its time. This hierarchy was a system that whittled on what ever was plugged into it until all round pegs fit into the square holes. Diversity and learning were not at the forefront of organizational thought. Order and control were. Because of extreme shifts in global economy, indeed the very idea of global economy, corporations have had to change radically or die a messy, expensive death. Teamwork, shared responsibility, encouragement of creative thought (with tolerance for the inevitable failures this risk taking brings), diversity among workers to more closely match market diversity, encouragement of expanded learning, shared goals and ideas company wide, represent some of the changes that developed into necessary corporate policy. This is a radical change still in process. The workplace no longer looks like the New Yorker cartoons of the 50’s & 60’s. It no longer looks like Darrin Stevens and his boss Larry on Bewitched. We can see this change by looking at the cartoon “Dilbert”, where the ideas are in place, but not necessarily functioning at maximum capacity. “Dilbert” is funny because it speaks to our time, our experience. “Dilbert” addresses the mistaken idea you can superimpose change on the same old model. Because that model (hierarchy) is a system and not just a concept, superimposing new concepts will not work. The new model also will not work until it becomes a system that shapes its handlers, as hierarchy does. 

Generally, the larger the corporation, the more of a shift we see toward the policy ideas listed above. Why is this? --Because it is expensive to do anything else. To do anything but shift is life threatening to an organization. Because this shift is a work in progress many smaller organizations have not yet been forced to adapt to these ideas. This article is about one key pitfall, the dinosaur of hierarchical management: the workplace bully. 

Nearly everyone has had an experience with the garden-variety bully. We are familiar with the definition at it’s most encompassing; hugely unreasonable expectations, inappropriate or abusive speaking patterns, back stabbing and direct sabotage. Larger businesses tend to invest highly in professional managers and employee education, having recognized early the devastating financial consequences of hiring people who are incapable of working as a team. This obvious bully tends to be weeded out early in the larger corporations. Smaller businesses who have as yet not made or completed the market shift to the more competitive style of management are left wide open to the pitfalls of hiring this castoff but highly experienced worker. If the bullying behavior is subtle, it may take years for the small business to recognize the long-term financial liability of this worker, or this work style.

In its less apparent form, bullying is an attitude. It appears as a subtle but pervasive bombardment of superiority; I am more important than you. I can do your job better, faster. Without me, you couldn’t function, etc. None of these statements need be said aloud for them to have an impact on the workplace. Attitude always finds it’s way into the work environment. In the case of a boss or superior, it may show up as an inability or lack of desire to know employees' names or jobs. For example: consistently calling John, “Jack" . . .despite the number of corrections offered. There is no proverbial name-calling, shoving or sand throwing. This sort of bully is often tracked down and identified by a trail of negative feelings and moods left in his/her wake. If you suspect this sort of bullying, look among coworkers for: a sense of hopelessness, ineffectiveness, fear, discontents, under appreciation, resentment, and foot-dragging.

Most bullying lies somewhere between the two extremes. It is important to note that “bullying” is not a character flaw. According to behavior analysts, bullying is a classic relational engagement. In other words, this isn’t a behavior: this is how that person engages in a relationship with you. People who behave in this manner are often clueless as to the impact of their behavior, brushing aside coworker feelings as a weakness in them, or over-sensitivity. There is a difference between the occasional negative behavior of a colleague and that of a full-fledged bully. The person, who bullies regularly, as a matter of course, is thinking they are having a relationship that this is what relating is. This behavior is part of their identity. It follows then, that this would be an extremely difficult mode to change. It requires the bully to reorganize his/her relational skills and ability. It requires learning to see ones impact on others. It requires the reordering of the sense of self. In the case of employees, unless an individual was highly motivated, change seems unlikely. However, frank talk and the consequence of job loss may be enough of a motivation for some people. If the bully is a boss or CEO, frank talk about the financial liability, or loss of commercial edge brought about by their way of “working” may be enough. In any case, keep the discussion to business, not feelings.

Bullies as liabilities:

The cost of employing a bully can range from lawsuits (sexism, racism, harassment, unfair dismissal etc.), to completely losing the competitive edge in the marketplace. For example:

Company X: highly productive for the amount of employees they have, works on a team basis. Employees are encouraged to take considered risks and be creative. A management find there is almost always a germ of innovation in even the failures . . .no good failure is a tragedy. Workers are so eager to come to work; Company X finds it must put a lid on hours allowed. There is an energized atmosphere in Company X’s hallways. Employees encourage each other to new solutions. Teams meet, split apart and meet again. There are company meetings with everyone invited to have input on the direction the company is taking. When problems and conflict arise, which are the inevitable byproduct of teamwork and creativity, they are addressed directly and concisely, even if only to say . . .We have a problem with each other, each of us thinks our very different approaches to the company’s problem will be the most successful, we are going to have to bring all of our resources to bear on this to find a resolution. Will you work with me on our problem? 

Company Y: Moderately productive for the amount of employees it has, works on a team basis, yet a walk into Company Y looks and feels nothing like Company X. Why? Company Y is facing a harassment lawsuit, but most of the employees don’t know this, so that can’t be it. Two new employees are being trained to replace the ones that were fired last week. The phone is ringing off the hook. The harried worker stops typing the new product list to explain to customers there will be a delay on shipping. Walt is out sick (Walt always does this the week after the boss has one of his blowups and yells at him in front of his coworkers-workers) No one else can take Walt's job because of new worker orientation. Suddenly it’s noon and our worker’s boss comes out demanding the new product list. The product list she is working on had been the job of one of the now former employees. There’s her own project sitting there unfinished, due tomorrow, and the product list (which she received this morning) is not ready yet because the new employee who is supposed to field calls is in the training seminar. Her boss says, “But I told you I needed to fax this to Australia by noon, Cynthia, I am very disappointed. And isn’t it taking you a long time to answer the phone? How will our customers reach us? Don’t forget who really pays your salary. I want that ready by 1 o’clock when I come back from lunch. What on earth is wrong with you today? 

Bill is upset. Bill is Walt’s coworker. Bill was there when the boss blew up at Walt’s idea for reorganizing shipping. Sure, Walt can get a little out there at times, but Bill thinks he knows the hole in Walt’s plan. While Walt was talking, Bill realized they would only have to change one small thing for Walt’s plan to really work, and no one had thought of it yet. Bill doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s afraid to go to the boss with his idea, what if the boss won’t hear him either? Could he lose his job? Would the boss start picking on him the way he picks on Walt? No, it’s safer to be invisible. Who cares about the company anyway.

Since bullies typically micro-manage, and often are threatened by sharing competence, they are incapable of true teamwork. The company is held hostage to their needs. Employees are often running scared, whether they admit it or not. Fear and creativity are anathema to each other. Chronically frightened employees are not innovative employees. A loss of innovation may mean a loss of competitive edge. Additional losses sustained may include absenteeism, increased illness, and resistance to direction, silence and the “tone” bullying sets up. This “workplace tone” directly impacts productivity; fear of failure, fear of being next, shame at not sticking up for yourself or a coworker-worker, shame at being drawn into a bullying situation because of the fear of being next. Add in the costs of constantly training new workers and losing valuable experienced ones, and the financial loss skyrockets. If turn over is high, will the company ever achieve the experience level necessary to forge ahead of its competitors? All of the above may lead to an inability to attract the best and brightest workers to your company. In general, allowing bully management to flourish may bring a few short-term gains. Bullies DO know how to win the battle. Unfortunately, they often do not know how to win the war. The bully’s need for power and importance holds the company hostage. Their work centers around their importance and position, not what is best for the company, even thought those two paths might diverge as one for a time. Micromanaging and shortsightedness are common traits for those who bully. Teamwork expands company horizons by engaging many understandings of the “vision”. Teamwork is a “We” statement. Bullying is an “I” statement. Teamwork fosters creativity, appropriate dependence, a supportive system for risk-taking and a realistic view of coworkers' worth. Interdependence is the foundation of teamwork. Throw a sanctioned attitude of superiority into the works and everyone loses.

The first thing a small company must recognize is that bullying is not a given in employment. The stance of “I am the big boss, you are the replaceable worker.” is no longer tolerable in today’s competitive marketplace, if ever it was.


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