"I favor general use of the psychic-prison metaphor to free people from the traps of favored ways of thinking and to unleash their power and creativity."
--Gareth Morgan
"We cannot just remodel the prison. No, we've got to get out of it."
--W. Edwards Deming

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Bad apples"

Today I read a New York Times article that Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program had shared. I couldn't help but notice that this article's title on the NYT website was not the link's teaser, "How to Endure a Mean-Spirited Workplace," but rather: "How Bad Apples Infect the Tree" by Robert Sutton. I tend to agree with Lisa Takeuchi Cullen's reservations about Sutton's "No Asshole Rule", when she writes: "But something about Sutton's message hits a nerve. Maybe it's the epithet, which he defines helpfully as someone who persistently belittles and abuses those of inferior power or status. (As if we needed it spelled out.) Or maybe it's his argument that jerks exact a cost to the bottom line as they single-handedly corrode an organization's cohesion."

It's good to see Ms. Cullen--while not condoning atrocious behavior--defending her bosses from the eliminative impulse, even after she admits that "Sure, beastly bosses have shaved months off my life." But not to worry. My experience is that those who tend to be labeled as "bad apples" and subsequently eliminated from the workplace are much more likely to be those who at some point were seen as being a challenge to someone of higher rank, rather than those who in actuality might act abusively toward their subordinates. As Sutton's colleague Sam Culbert lectures (@3:22): "We live in an organizational culture where it's highly likely--and even probable--that subordinates get fired and the bosses get promoted."

Emily Bassman writes: "Abused employees are in a Catch-22 situation. Their harassers are in a position to control a variety of resources, which makes abused employees similar to other victims of abuse. But, unlike other victims, they have an added disadvantage. By virtue of their subordinate position, they automatically have less credibility than their superiors. Charging that they are being treated unfairly by their supervisors would challenge the context of the hierarchical system, which is a very threatening proposition to those who are in a position to help."

Then there's the notion of provocative victims, who are "frequently misperceived as bullies." More generally, fingers being pointed at someone as being akin to rotten fruit--such that "people around them wish they'd go away"--seems unlikely to bring out their best behavior. This isn't the first time we've come across the employee-as-spoiled-fruit metaphor. The author of the Employee Termination Guidebook, argues against attempting to "rehabilitate the problem employee," noting that "a bad apple remains a bad apple."

Given the organizational culture noted above, for Sutton to conclude that bosses themselves should look in the mirror is indeed a bold admonishment. Luckily, he's got tenure.

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