Is Your Organization Dysfunctional?

A company executive’s quote: “If you want more problems; hire more people”.  But, keep in mind that it’s your people who do the work and must do it while; putting up with poor leadership, often having to tolerate idiots for bosses, often being under paid and under appreciated and in spite of all of this they are expected to perform miracles day in and day out. So the real question: “Is most of your organization dysfunction top-down or bottom-up?

“The hallmark of a dysfunctional organization is a gap between reality and rhetoric,” says Ben Dattner, a New York Organizational Psychologist. When resources are not used effectively or fairly, when plans are heavy on talk but weak on action or when barriers to communication cripple performance, you’re dealing with a dysfunctional organization.

Once diagnosed, the corrosive effects of such problems can be corrected. But make no mistake: It’s neither easy nor immediate. You need to be tough-minded about identifying the source, particularly because it often starts at the top, where the power resides. “The discrepancy between what leaders say they want and what they really want often causes company dysfunction. You can’t ask employees to do anything you’re not willing to do yourself. “

“When you see a pattern of blaming and people trying to protect themselves and their particular turf, something is wrong,” says Russ Moserowitz of Franchise Insights, Bedminster, N.J.

The remedy is to put your trust in the people you hire and give every employee sincere responsibility. Hands-on, my-way-or-the-highway entrepreneurs won’t find this easy. But that’s how the business gets better. Fast-growing organizations are often so intensely focused on moving to the next level that no one is actually in charge. That’s how dysfunction creeps in and takes hold.

Harry Williams, Management Consultant, in Mountain View, Calif., tells about a 5-year-old software company that hired him to create a new Product Management Department. The business had released several successful products and grown to 300 employees with 10 departments, each headed by a different executive. Every one of the managers reported directly to the CEO, so no one had to talk to anyone else about his department’s work.

When Williams asked each executive what the new department would do, he got 10 different answers. It turned out that the company didn’t need a new division at all. What it needed was someone to coordinate the company agenda and get the managers to share information.  The idea for a Product Management Department was how the executives expressed need for better coordination. “The Product Development Department didn’t take direction,” Williams says.

That meant the group simply created products and released them without checking with any other department. So sales didn’t know about the features of the new products, or when to sell them. Support and consulting were also in the dark. They couldn’t help customers implement products or fix any problems. And so it went.

“Each department flew off on its own, trying to do what was right.” Priorities were constantly shifting. Decisions were continually made and unmade. “The CEO assumed the executives had the authority to make product decisions and it wasn’t her job to tell them what to do,” Williams says. While everyone had the very best of intentions, chaos reigned.

“Company leaders must set the mission and the agenda. A hands-off policy can only go so far.”

Organizational dysfunction may be funny when you’re watching a TV show, such as “The Office,” but its serious business when you’re trying to cope with it every day. The good news is that it doesn’t have to bring you down. Nobody says dealing with dysfunction is easy, but here are a few suggestions from the experts.

Start looking at your office as though it were any dysfunctional organization from movies or TV. “Sit back as an observer and watch,” suggests Donna Flagg, Principal of Learning and Productivity Specialist The Krysalis Group. “Do not participate, because things that makes dysfunctional behavior thrive is participation of dysfunctional people. If you separate yourself, you remain on the ‘functional’ side of the line.”

One way to stay functional is to avoid returning fire—no matter how under siege you feel. This allows you to control the people trying to control you, says Joel Epstein, author of ‘The Little Book on Big Ego’ and CEO of Friction Factor. “Most ‘ego monsters’ want you to fight with them,” adds Epstein. “It makes them happy.” The solution? Throw the game and lose on purpose. “Let the ego monster think they’ve won,” he advises.

Concentrating on your job performance while others are engaged in less-productive activities can be an effective way of coping and advancing, says Heather Millen, a Boston-based Marketing Administrator. “Act how you think a professional should act, no matter how enticing it is to come to their level,” she says. “I once had a boss who thought things could only be done his way. But by sticking by what I thought was right rather than giving into his every whim, the working relationship grew stronger, and we each had greater respect for the other.”

If you’re in a position to close yourself off from the insanity and negativity, do it, advises Erik Myers, a Database Administrator. “I wear headphones all day every day so that I don’t have to listen to the insipid ramblings of my coworkers and how much they ‘love their fat-free salad dressing’ and ‘have you heard about this new diet where if you eat really spicy foods you can eat all you want, because it goes through your system faster and the heat actually burns calories anyway?’” he says.

Sometimes it helps to find what career coach Marty Nemko calls “an island of sanity amid the maelstrom.” “Find one or two people in the organization that you like and can commiserate with, or even laugh at the others’ antics,” Nemko says. “Decide among you whether you want it to simply be a steam-letting-off group or want to look for smart ways to improve things, if only in pockets. And keep your group under the radar—no need for everyone to see you as a clearly identified cabal.”

Studying, but not obsessing over, colleagues’ dysfunctional tendencies can give you an edge, Flagg says. Common patterns are discrepancies between what people say and do and inconsistencies in behavior. Sure, this familiarity may breed contempt, but it also yields competitive advantage for you as well as a coping mechanism. “You can not only anticipate problems headed your way, but you can also use the insight to navigate the terrain in a positive and effective way,” Flagg explains.

In the end, the best outcome may be to move on. “It’s really the only thing that actually works”; notes organizational expert Billie Blair, author of ‘All the Moving Parts’ and President/CEO of Leading and Learning. “Our research of these situations has shown that it’s always the good and talented people that the organization loses when there is dysfunction, because they can go other places: Those who cannot simply stay and manage to endure.”