Penn State researchers help businesses identify bad workplace trends

In order to create and maintain successful businesses, most business people typically look for patterns or apply particular styles to their day-to-day operations because that's what has worked for them in the past. But when the workplace falls into a pattern that slowly creates a toxic situation, the business is caught up in an antipattern--a way of doing things that has likely been proven faulty numerous times in various organizational settings. However, in a new book, Penn State experts have made identifying antipatterns easier, as well as avoiding or negating them.

Phillip Laplante and Colin Neill, two associate professors of software engineering at Penn State Great Valley, a graduate school in suburban Philadelphia, have just published a book titled, "Antipatterns: Identification, Refactoring, and Management," with Auerbach Press. The book, which is written for the general public and can be applied to any industry, furthers pioneering research in the area of antipattern identification.

"The book is designed to be 'comfort food,' for folks to read it and say, 'hey, they understand the problems we have here," said Laplante. "It was inspired by another book, 'Antipatterns,' which was written by a group of software engineers. That book identified some fairly general management antipatterns, whereas our book specifically outlines 24 antipatterns related to bad management, and 24 antipatterns related to environmental issues within the organization."

An example is "All You Have Is a Hammer," an antipattern in which a manager deals with all his/her employees in the same fashion, not taking into account their different personalities, backgrounds, or what motivates them to be a constructive member of the organization. According to the Penn State researchers, this is a big mistake that can be catastrophic over time.

"Every manager must find their own moral compass and follow it diligently…but one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to impose your own values and win conditions on someone else. You might be motivated by money, or title, or whatever…someone else may not be and assuming that everyone holds the same motivations, anxieties and needs ensures that most of your subordinates are unhappy and unmotivated," Laplante and Neill write in the book.

The book is filled with clever or humorous examples, such as the fictitious architect and Brady-clan patriarch Mike Brady, who in the 1995 "The Brady Bunch Movie" keeps designing buildings that are near replicas of his home, despite the fact that the Brady homestead is hopelessly outdated. Being able to adjust and adapt to the people and situation around you is vital to the success of a good leader, the authors note.

An example of an environmental antipattern is the "Boiling Frog Syndrome," during which "gradual negative changes in the work environment are too subtle to be noticed, until it is too late. Slow, negative changes in workload, work culture, or expectations will be tolerated, even embraced, until the next set of challenges is presented. Then the cycle of acclimation repeats. That is until individuals begin to rebel, quit, or drop dead at their desks," according to the book.

In addition to suggestions on how to reverse antipatterns over the long haul, the book includes short-term fixes, termed "band-aids," which are often aimed at helping the employee maintain their sanity, as much as solving the problem. For the "All You Have Is a Hammer" manager, the authors suggest: "If you're the thumb under your manager's hammer, speak out or get out. If you're the nail for their hammer, however, sit back and learn how not to do things."

Even when things are at their worst, employees must examine the situation with a critical eye to see if they are part of the problem that persists, and determine if their working conditions are beyond salvage, said Laplante.

"Sometimes if you're in an organization where lying and deceit are a part of the culture you can try to change it, but in the end, you probably don't need to be there," he said. "If you can't cope with the situation or change the situation, then you need to get out."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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