A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
January 4th, 2013 by William

The Alice Syndrome

Like my previous post,“The Alice in Wonderland Syndrome,” there have been a number of metaphors derived from Alice in Wonderland, but I will present another one here about which you won’t find much written. It’s simply called the “Alice Syndrome.” This term is used to describe what happens to students as they make that final move from school to the workplace and find that “nothing is as it should be.”

The syndrome is derived from Chapter 5 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, when Alice has a conversation with the Caterpillar.

The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence; at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a contemptuous voice. “Who are you?”

Alice replied, rather shyly, “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present–at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar, sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied, very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself, to begin with; and being so many different sizes a day is very confusing.”

“It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.

“Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet, but when you have to turn into a chrysalis–you will someday, you know–and then after that into a butterfly, perhaps your feelings may be different,” said Alice.

In their article, “Through the Looking Glass: Identifying Causes of The Alice Syndrome in Undergraduate Engineering Writers,” Natasha Artemeva and Janna Fox explain the syndrome; “We use this term to describe what happens to some engineering students when they move from academia to the workplace and find that “nothing is as it should be.” Alice moved from a regulated, rule-governed, familiar space with well-defined roles and clear expectations into a fuzzy, unfamiliar and often unsafe world on the other side of the looking glass.

“In the same way that Alice could not explain who she was because of all the changes taking place in and around her, so too student writers in engineering may wonder who they are and what has happened to them once they leave the university.”

In reality, The Alice Syndrome affects “all” students in the same way that Artemeva and Fox describe, not just engineering students. Recent graduates expect a workplace where everybody plays by the rules, but in reality nothing is further from the truth.

Despite all the regimen, process, procedure, and bureaucracy that drive business, the workplace can be, and is, a hostile environment. There are plenty of downright dysfunctional organizations out in the real world, and even those that are relatively smooth running and sane can still suffer from the games people play to better themselves at the expense of their colleagues. As I note in my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, “every organization has its own brand of dysfunctionality.” It’s just a matter of degrees.

Newcomers can pose a threat to incumbent employees so they enter the workplace many times already a target of bad behaviors. Woe to the person who enters a dysfunctional organization on their first job–the damage to self-esteem can take years to overcome.

Combating this syndrome is primarily why I wrote my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw. It tells the truth about the modern workplace and arms newcomers with the necessary understanding to combat the behaviors they’ll encounter. In this way their indoctrination into the mainstream workplace won’t be quite so traumatic.

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