Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Department of Crazy

Thanks to Vine, Porschia Coleman and Jezebel we get to witness the meltdown of the day. Apparently a woman did not have an appointment at the Apple Store and really needed to have that appointment. Or perhaps a therapy appointment.

It is hard to watch this video mainly because I feel bad for the kid sitting in that stroller as Mom slaps away on the handlebar.

Secondly I feel bad for the adult Apple store employee at whom the woman is yelling.

How much do employees get paid to hear rants like that? Probably not enough. But they are trained to deal with disgruntled customers.

Most employees are not trained to deal with crazy behavior in the workplace.

The term "crazy behavior" goes beyond mere "failure to follow procedures," although that is undoubtedly stressful. The question has to do with workers whose behavior stretches if not breaks the bounds of normality as most of us understand it.

A blogger at "Untemplaters" writes:

"It’s really freaky how some people can completely change personalities from super manic to extremely apologetic within the same conversation. And it’s intimidating having someone start yelling over the phone over the smallest thing and hang up on you. And then other people are hypocritical or super quirky." 
In 1956 Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, working out of the VA Hospital in Palo Alto and Stanford University, theorized that schizophrenic symptoms could be the consequence of individuals having to deal with crazy behavior.

According to their theory, the person is "stuck" in the relationship, the message is contradictory, and they cannot talk back. This is called a "double bind" and it has three criteria:

  • Important To Stay Connected: The connection is "intense," meaning the person believes it is "vitally important that he discriminate accurately what sort of message is being communicated so that he may respond appropriately."
  • Contradictory orders: "The individual is caught in a situation in which the other person in the relationship is expressing two orders of message and one of these denies the other."
  • Can't talk back: "The individual is unable to comment on the messages being expressed to correct his discrimination of what order of message to respond to, i.e., he cannot make a metacommunicative statement."

One can easily see how this can happen in the workplace. Most people work because they need a job and therefore the relationship with one's supervisor is intense. They must understand what is wanted or be terminated. Imagine the distress if they are confronted with arbitrary orders or processes, and do not feel empowered to question or resolve them.

A related phenomenon is "learned helplessness," which may not appear as "crazy" but which nevertheless reflects the individual out of touch with the laws of cause and effect. Experiments with rats showed that when they received random shocks, they learned that trying made no sense.

Creatures with learned helplessness show evidence of depression, whether they are as big as a person or as little as a fly. (Yes, flies get depressed.)

People often question why sometimes it seems that workers act "lazy" or generally they want to know "why this organization can't seem to accomplish anything." If you really look at it, it is possible that the social structure, due to its contradictory demands, itself creates a kind of crazy. There are so many stakeholders, each with their own agenda, and the worker is caught in the middle. Lacking clear direction, or penalized without a clear cause and effect, they can and do break down, and become demoralized and disengaged.

There is a way out of this situation. One is to formally institutionalize structures within the organization that are dedicated to monitoring employee engagement and responding to their concerns. Examples include Google's "People Operations" department and Southwest Airlines' "Culture Committee."

Another, perhaps related way is for the organization to promote informal norms related to feedback. This has to do with righting a key aspect of the "crazy making" equation, the worker's inability to talk back. When the employee can reach out to other individuals within the organization, including their supervisors, to talk about seemingly contradictory demands, this alone can alleviate stress and return them to a calmer and more engaged state of functioning.

Every organization is composed of people, which means there will always be "assorted mixed nuts." The key to harmonizing them is to plan in advance for what happens when the cashews start going after the pecans.

* As always all opinions are my own.