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How to Stop Jerks at Work

Your company culture isn't as friendly and supportive as you want it to be. What can you do about it? Seth Godin has an unorthodox idea.
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As if you needed any more evidence that bullying behavior is corrosive to your culture, here on Inc. last week we reported the results of two studied that found being a jerk is actually contagious, spreading from the original bully to his or her unfortunate victims and then outward to infect the office culture in general.

For business leaders, this science tracing how bad behavior spreads through a group may be interesting, but the more pressing question about bullying for bosses probably is: How do you put the genie back in the bottle?

If your company has somehow become infected with nastiness and your culture (and team productivity) is suffering, is there any way to battle the malaise and re-instill a sense of safety and support among team members?

A fascinating recent blog post by best-selling author Seth Godin offers a suggestion. For inspiration, Godin looks to perhaps the world's most bully-intensive environment--yes, you guessed it, high school—to explore the roots of nasty behavior and what interventions are effective to stop it.

He starts out with a clever definition of what bullying actually is: "Bullying is what happens when an individual with power exercises that power against people who don't fit in. By threatening to expose or harm or degrade the outlier, the bully reinforces the status quo in a way that increases his power." And goes on to suggest that to combat jerk behavior at its root, organizations, whether they be schools or small business, need to explicitly celebrate the weird:

Bullying persists when bureaucracies and hierarchies permit it to continue. It's easier to keep order in an environment where bullying can thrive (and vice versa), because the very things that permit a few to control the rest also permit bullies to do their work. The bully uses the organization's desire for conformity to his own ends.

At the fabulous lab school in Manhattan, they're making huge progress at undoing this problem. A recent assembly (organized and run by students and volunteers) was created around weirdness, fear and most of all, "owning it."… When there isn't a race to fit in the most, bullying those that don't fit in loses much of its power.

This is incredibly brave and risky for those in charge. It involves trusting people to become something wonderful, as opposed to insisting that they fit in at all costs.

"We're all a lot weirder than we'd like the world to know," he concludes. Bullying, in other words, thrives in environments that value conformity and implicitly demand group members hide their true selves to make life easier for the higher ups. That sounds like high school, but remove the raging hormones and ill-advised fashion experiments, and it also sounds like plenty of businesses.

Could encouraging a little more weirdness make your business a friendlier and more productive place to work? 

Last updated: Feb 26, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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