The Dysfunctional Organization

Over the next three weeks we are going to talk about the dynamics of intractable conflict.  The important part is that in order to solve problems, we first have to understand the perspectives of the participants, and while that may be uncomfortable for some people, there are some realities that have to be considered.  One of the first steps in solving a problem is recognizing you have one.

Unfortunately, even organizations that seem like they are running like well-oiled machines may have their foundations eroding beneath them.  What exacerbates the problem is that each individual involved brings their own baggage to the table, regardless of whether it is deserved or not.  If you are in a position of negotiating peace between warring factions, zealotry is not going to do anything except maintain a barrier to trust.

Our organizations can be considered dysfunctional if they have unresolved problems and a lack of cooperation to solve them.  These can be broken down into a few areas of concern, principally, by the way we (that is, those of us in the organization) act toward each other, the way we do the things we do, and the way we think about our challenges.

The way in which we act toward each other is based in our relationships.  Dysfunctional organizations may find that they have “warring factions”.  These can be understood as tension between sub-groups and teams, but not in a healthy manner.  In a less benign setting there may be lack of transparency, or direction may be ambiguous.  Sometimes this manifests itself as a multi-class culture, where “those who rule make the rules” and many times, those rules are made in a vacuum.  The relationships can devolve to the point where a hostile workplace is present.

Our processes may be flawed.  We may experience broken behavior-consequence chains: promoting people who are screw-ups or suck-ups, individuals “win” through intimidation rather than through merit, or poor performance is tolerated.  Our decisions may be made at the highest level due to micromanagement or conversely, because individuals fail to take responsibility for their own roles in the problem.  Sub-optimization is another symptom of dysfunction, as one group farms work to another group, and the ship may be sinking but so long as it “isn’t on my watch”, people are okay with the way things are deteriorating.

And of course, the way we approach our challenges, in how we gather and prioritize information and assign value to it may also be a problem.  Segmented norms can be found sometimes, in that we state that our values are important, until “they aren’t”, such as saying “We value our employees” but turn right around and cut benefits as a cost-saving measure.  Or here’s one that applies: firefighters saying “We are here to protect the community effectively” and really, they could care less about protecting the community effectively, as they would much rather be fighting fires and they fail to realize there are other aspects of protecting the community, like say, providing emergency medical services.

Organizations that deal with their problems by attributing indirect cause to “how we got here” are simply sticking their head in the sand and hoping the problems go away.  Saying “things happen” does nothing to solve the problem.  We have to get to the root of the problem and consider that our approach may be wrong.   If we fail to do this, we will continue to experience the same problems over and over again.

If you see these symptoms in your organization, we may very well have dysfunction, but trust me when I tell you that there is a very wide range of dysfunction; some organizations can truly be functionally dysfunctional, if that makes any sense.  Some organizations, however, are so bad that we can’t even begin to comprehend how something catastrophic hasn’t occurred yet.  And some have that event and yet continue on to heap another disaster upon another disaster, until finally reaching critical mass.  You may know of a few of these.

Tomorrow we are going to begin to discuss the psychology of intractability as we move toward what constitutes toxic relationships.

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