Psychology at Work: Practical Ways To Set Boundaries Informally

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    In graduate school I did some work for Dr. Catherine Silver. She was a sociologist who studied the unconscious traits of senior leaders. One of the things that stood out was the tendency of CEOs and the like to have narcissistic personality disorder (stop laughing).

    What stands out about psychosocial studies like this is that they don’t focus on the individual per se but on how the individual’s mental state affects the group around them. This can be bad or good.

    For example, clearly if a leader is narcissistic then they are going to have an exaggerated sense of their own importance and minimize the contributions of others – bad for the team.

    On the other they tend to feel anointed to lead – so people tend to have confidence in them.

    In this connection I have been thinking about the concept of “enabling” which you may be familiar with from the perspective of addiction studies. We know that when someone behaves badly, whether because they’re an addict or for any other reason, loved ones tend to make excuses for their behavior and that is a bad thing.

    In the workplace as in any social gathering there are going to be people who act in ways that are not optimal for the group. And there will be people who excuse their behavior – “enabling” it.

    Here are just a few examples:

    * A talented writer who delivers great product but takes months (instead of a week) to turn assignments around.

    * An otherwise cheerful and helpful team member who means well but uses profanity continually during staff meetings.

    * A team member whose ideas are extremely valuable but who resists authority by interrupting the supervisor to disagree in a disrespectful way.

    Often I think we don’t realize that the cost of enabling is very high. In some ways it can solve problems (perhaps the person acting out is very competent or works under impossible circumstances) but in others it can disrupt the productivity of the group (because there are uneven standards, etc.)

    Obviously in the government there are formal remedies for some of this stuff. But how about informal remedies?

    If you’ve seen acting out in the workplace how have you or someone else handled it gently but firmly, without upsetting the applecart or creating a lot of drama?

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