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How to Tell if Your Organization Is a Dysfunctional Place to Work

Okay class, its quiz time. Our topic today is dys-func-tion (dis funk ‘shen) n. abnormal or impaired functioning.

To learn how dysfunctional your organization is, check the statements that apply to your place of employment. Tallying the results is simple. The more checks the greater the problem. So take out your pens and let’s begin.

In your organization, do you or others you work with:

  • Guess at what normal behavior is?
  • Have difficulty following a project through from beginning to end?
  • Lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth?
  • Criticize and judge yourself/themselves and others without mercy?
  • Have difficulty communicating effectively, consistently and honestly with peers, subordinates and supervisors?
  • Have difficulty relaxing and having guilt-free fun?
  • Overreact to changes over which you/they have no control?
  • Constantly seek approval and affirmation?
  • Feel super responsible or super irresponsible?
  • Demonstrate extreme loyalty even when evidence indicates loyalty is not deserved?
  • Act impulsively locking yourself/themselves into a course of action without thoroughly considering the consequences?
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time backtracking and having to “clean up the mess” that results from impulsive/reactive decision making?

How are you feeling after taking that test? If the answer is not good, read on. Understanding and hope awaits you.

The Origins of Dysfunction

The study in dysfunction started with families. Much work was done with families where there was alcoholism. As researchers began to probe deeper, they noticed the symptoms of dysfunction in alcoholic families were replicated in other types of families. Where there was abuse, there was dysfunction.

Whether the abuse was physical, sexual, verbal or psychological, the results were the same. People from these environments suffered to varying degrees from low self-esteem and all its assorted ills.

Depending on whom you believe, anywhere from 50 to 95 percent of all families have some degree of dysfunction. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s 62 or 71.5 percent. The point is there are more people from dysfunctional families than aren’t.

When you look at an organization, what you’ll see is a family structure. It comes complete with parents (partners/owners/managers), children (associates and staff), and siblings (peers and co-workers). The dynamics are amazingly similar when you compare the expectations of these three groups with their familial counterparts.

If people come from dysfunction, then it stands to reason they will create dysfunction—not out of some sadistic or masochistic motive, but because that’s all they know. Hence, the dysfunctional organization.

The keys to change are understanding and commitment. Knowing why we are, who we are and why we do what we do, is the beginning of change. By looking at the problems in depth, we can gain a greater understanding of the issues before moving on to solutions.

· Guessing at what normal behavior is:

In a dysfunctional organization, every day is an adventure. In these types of organizations, one never knows what kind of mood the people around you will be in. That in and of itself is not dysfunctional.

What is dysfunctional, however, is the fact that people don’t talk about why they do what they do and show little concern for how their behavior affects others.

If this is the life you grew up with and this is the life you now lead, you would have no way of knowing whether it’s normal or not. Not being able to ask questions creates confusion and a sense of isolation and loneliness. Not knowing leads to guessing.

· Having difficulty following a project through from beginning to end:

Part of the lack of communicating in a dysfunctional organization is a lack of guidance. It’s sort of every man for himself.

If you have trouble prioritizing tasks, setting goals or managing time, it is unlikely that anyone is providing help for you. Without help, guidance or reinforcement, some people flounder.

In a dysfunctional environment, there is a visible absence of empathy. “If I can complete a project, then why can’t you?” is a common response.

· Lying when it would be just as easy to tell the truth:

Sir Walter Scott wrote “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Lying is a two-part process. We lie to ourselves first, others second.

Lying in dysfunctional organizations takes many forms. It can take the form of withholding or distorted information, broken promises and denial. There are many reasons why people lie: fear of looking bad, fear of losing clients or customers, guilt (which often leads to further lying) and shame.

As in families, it is the role of managers and owners (parents) to set the example. If they lie, associates and staff (the children) may reason, “Why should we bother, the truth isn’t that important around here?” Often if one tells the truth, they risk being ostracized or even terminated. Remember, in a dysfunctional environment, people don’t tell.

Highly Critical Environments

· Criticizing or judging people without mercy:

Relationship therapist, Harville Hendrix, refers to criticism as “pathologically dysfunctional behavior.” Criticism and judging are Siamese twins. Constructive criticism is an oxymoron. Most people criticize because they have been taught it is a form of communicating. They reason that the way to tell someone what they want is to tell them what you don’t what or don’t like about them or what they did.

The result, of course, is the individual feels embarrassed, scolded, humiliated or some other variation of “not enough.” Where this s tolerated there is very little safety. To function effectively, human beings need to feel alive and safe. Criticism allows neither.

· Having difficulty communicating effectively, consistently and honestly with peers, subordinates and supervisors:

The dysfunctional organization is the land of the lost. It is the home of fear, passive-aggressiveness, self-consciousness and other unhealthy forms of acting out frustrations.

In a dysfunctional environment, people can quickly become unhappy and distrustful. This combination makes real communication virtually impossible. It also promotes that insidious game of faultfinding.

· Having difficulty relaxing or having guilt-free fun:

In many organizations the pressure of turning a profit and the desire to impress combined with a lack of organizational skills leaves little time for fun.

If there is little laughter or sense of joy in the workplace, there is little fun. And those who do want to have fun are often berated for their lack of commitment and professionalism.

Happy people, it turns out, are flat out more productive than unhappy people. They have more energy, are better able to concentrate, and are more creative. Plus, they’re pleasant to be around.

· Overreacting to changes over which managers and staff have no control:

A dysfunctional organization is an accident constantly waiting to happen. If mistakes weren’t allowed, if disapproval is around every corner, it would seem the only solution is to stay on top of the problem.

The paradox of control is that in order to have it; we have to give it up. Control is at its center an illusion. Over what do we have control? Certainly not other people’s thoughts and actions. In the dysfunctional world, that is precisely what we are trying to control.

Each failure to control brings increased anxiety, irritation, and the possibility for some type of inappropriate behavior (verbal or emotional abuse); and, as a result, increased fear.

· Constantly seeking approval and affirmation:

Like a carrot in front of a horse, approval and affirmation in a dysfunctional place seem constantly out of reach. Constantly seeking approval is a sign of a person with dangerously low self-esteem. In a world where people are too busy or have too many problems of their own, affirmation may be a long time coming. This lack of attention can lead someone with low self-esteem to spiral even farther into the abyss.

· Feeling super responsibility or super irresponsibility:

Feeling super responsible or super irresponsible is the flipside of the same coin: a fear of inadequacy and the need to be perfect. The problem with perfection is that we have never been perfect nor do we know anyone who is.

By definition then we are aspiring to a goal that cannot be attained. The super responsible person responds by constantly doing more, taking on more and giving more. Their thinking is “If I just do more…then I’ll be perfect.”

The super irresponsible person looks at this mountain of perfection and quits. “Why bother?” they ask. “I’ll never be perfect, so why try.”

In the dysfunctional environment, the super responsible person will be surrounded by takers and drained dry. The super irresponsible person will be deemed a “loser” and discarded.

· Demonstrating extreme loyalty even when evidence indicates loyalty is undeserved:

In this culture, we are taught that the employer-employee relationship is not a value-for-value exchange. Jobs are hard to find and employers can always replace a worker.

If you believe these messages, you’re not likely to leave a job unless you have another offer. Even if you find yourself being mistreated, you might very well remain out of fear.

In these circumstances, people learn to “go along to get along.” Also, if you are working in a dysfunctional place, your self-esteem can take such a beating that you can begin to believe you deserve the mistreatment.

Your response might be “How fortunate I am to have an employer who will keep on providing a living for someone as worthless as me.”

· Having a tendency to act impulsively without thoroughly considering the consequences :

A tendency for impulsivity is something we bring to the workplace. It is most often not created by the environment. People work the way they live. If you are impulsive at work, odds are you are impulsive in other areas of your life.

A dysfunctional environment can certainly add to the stress and anxiety that often precedes not looking before you leap. An environment where there is poor communication, mixed signals, little if any feedback, and non-existent or inadequate support, also contributes.

The bottom line for the impulsive person is to get the problem or the anxiety out of the way as soon as possible. At the time, they may not even be thinking about the consequences of their actions.

· Spending inordinate amounts of time on backtracking or damage control because of impulsive decisions:

As was just mentioned, the reactive person is not thinking about the consequences of their actions when they are under stress. The problem with impulsive decisions is that they are often incomplete decisions.

Information hastily assembled is sometimes incomplete. Work done in a hurry may be sloppy or contain errors. When this happens, the situation has to be remedied. Not only is this time consuming but also embarrassing. Just what the doctor ordered for a person who was already feeling stressed out and inadequate.

CTS Consulting, Inc

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Baltimore, Maryland 21214

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