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Is Your Workplace Dysfunctional?

Updated on June 28, 2010

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Mention the term “dysfunctional workplace“, and most people think of a TV show like The Office, or one of the many movies in that vein. A few however, will tell you it’s their workplace; they live it everyday.

I’ve been there. It’s somewhat eerie in that the degree of dysfunction isn’t immediately obvious; rather it unfurls as one new to the job becomes enmeshed in the environment. There are many hallmarks of a dysfunctional workplace. There’s cronyism and favoritism, harassment, incompetence, apathy, and bullying. There are “personality conflicts” with antagonism so palpable one could just about cut it with a knife. There’s an absolute and total lack of communication among associates. There’s slacking on a major scale, and morale so low employees openly talk about how much they hate being where they are. One wonders how these companies function at all.

There are about a million other signs your workplace could be dysfunctional. I’ve chosen to focus on a few I’ve experienced personally:

Apathy and incompetence are richly rewarded

An individual’s position in the food chain is inversely proportional to their work ethic, ambition, expertise, and experience. Clearly unqualified individuals are brought in as managers, and every time some nitwit gets promoted there’s audible wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Everyone is terrified of the boss

When they’re not kissing up to him, they’re looking for somewhere to hide when he strolls by. He manages through bullying and intimidation, and that’s how he likes it. The general attitude is: If you don’t do anything, you can’t make a mistake.

Kingdom building abounds

Herein defined as taking actions designed solely to benefit that manager’s department at the expense of the company as a whole, kingdom building is often manifest in sucking all the available resources from the rest of the company - from the best computers to the best people. In extreme instances, one could almost imagine a moat around the kingdom builder’s department, with a drawbridge and fire archers patrolling the catwalk.

Managers are afraid to make a decision

I once worked for a company whose unofficial motto was: “Somebody needs to do something”. It was alternately frustrating and laughable. Meetings would typically dissolve into a barrage of unresolved issues being lobbed at the boss, who’d be implored to make a decision, and would counter with assurances he would “run it by” upper management. Or worse, he’d note that management was “aware of” the situation, which translated means: Don’t hold your breath.

When things get hectic, everyone goes into “slow mode”

Phones are ringing off the hook, orders are backing up on the loading dock, customers are fuming. And the employees have been transformed into robotic, zombie-like mannequins, plodding along at a snail’s pace. Waiting for someone else to actually do something.

E-mail has totally replaced conversation

A good rule of thumb: If it’s not something that must be documented, and you can see them from where you sit, get up, go over, and tell them.

It’s impossible to get fired

I once had a co-worker that was so insubordinate we had a pool betting on when he’d be fired. He openly defied his superiors, was loud and obnoxious, and spent a good part of his day searching for other jobs. Eventually he found one, and no one ever collected on the pool.

Critical processes have holes in them big enough to drive a tank through

There’s the documented way of doing things, and there’s the way to do them if you want actual results. Which typically entails a meandering path that only crosses the official process here and there. The phrase: “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission” is held as gospel.

Every workplace could stand improvement, and no one is perfect, but the dysfunctional workplace is like a sinking ship with no lifeboats. Or buckets. Amazingly, many will languish for years before finally succumbing and slipping beneath the waves. If you’re unfortunate enough to be in such a situation, your ability to change things will be dependent on where you are in the pecking order, how committed you are to change, and how much you are willing to rattle the cage.


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