A class room full of kids is a fine example of a self-organizing system. True, the teachers have some constraints concerning children’s presence, homework, and tests, but despite plenty of school rules and directives, whatever else happens in and around school is left to the kids themselves to handle. And there are always a few that suffer from this.
Self-organization is not necessarily a good thing. A group of thugs mistreating a timid kid is an effect of self-organization that needs eradication. Self-organization implicitly assumes that people take care of themselves, which is something not everyone is capable of.
Management literature has plenty of examples of people being mistreated by their colleagues at work. They too can be the victims of vicious jokes, bad treatment, name calling, destruction of stuff they own, or their lunch boxes flying over their head across the room.
As a manager you are responsible for both promoting self-organization and protection of people, like my school was responsible for allowing kids to play and protecting them at the same time. (They didn’t do a spectacular job, I must add.)
But how do you find out if someone is being mistreated?
Honestly, I’m no psychologist. But from personal experience I can tell you that it probably won’t help asking someone “Are you being treated well?” Because everyone, including the kid with the black eye, will say “Yeah, sure”. Some organizations have a counselor to whom employees can turn with their personal problems. But my school had a counselor too. Of course, I never went there. What did they expect? That I would enter his office saying “Hi, I just came by to report how sad I feel that the other kids caused a carton of chocolate milk to burst in my schoolbag?”
I think there are two other approaches that might work. The first is asking someone “Who are your friends here?” (This happens to be question #10 of the 12 best questions to ask an employee.) At school I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question (if they had bothered to ask), because truth is I didn’t have any. Note carefully whether the interviewed person can produce a couple of friends’ names at the blink of an eye, without sweating and swallowing heavily. Of course, lack of friends at work doesn’t have to indicate something bad going on. But you might start by showing genuine interest in the person, like “Well, that doesn’t have to be a terrible thing, but why don’t you and I have a drink later this week, and talk about other things besides work?” It could make a big difference to someone. I know for certain my defenses would have crumbled quickly in front of a friendly face.
The second approach could be to ask the other people. Sure, I could have kept my defenses up and named a few neutral class mates as my “friends”. But my teachers could have asked them “Are the other kids in class being treated equally well?” or “Which of the kids in class are having a hard time?” Plenty of other kids knew about my unfortunate position in the pecking order. Unfortunately, nobody ever asked them. And I spent my time in the boys’ dressing room, using my t-shirt to wipe the chocolate milk of the burst carton from the pages of all my school books.
But you still have a choice. You can ask.
By the way, there’s no need to feel concerned about me now. I have learned to bite back so hard, that my teeth needed renovation.