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Functioning in a Dysfunctional Workplace

Sometimes the greatest challenges lay not within the actions of competitors, or the needs of customers, they come from within one's own company. People new to their positions either through promotion, or as a new hire, are often stunned at the challenges they find waiting for them as they slide into the seat behind their new desk. The business cards have barely been ordered before elements of dysfunction begin to appear at their office door.

Does any of the following sound familiar? Processes within your organization take longer and cost more than they should. Most employees can't explain how what they do specifically contributes to what the company is trying to accomplish. The majority of meetings result in the decision to have more meetings, with very little actually getting acc-omplished. New initiatives are greeted by employees with the belief that they won't succeed.

These are not just the makings of good Dilbert cartoons. Sadly, these situations exist in organ-izations across the country. They are symptoms of a dysfunctional company.

Surviving the challenges of dysfunction is no simple task. A misstep can put you in the quicksand of beurocracy, the line of fire from competing factions, or possibly even the unemployment line. But for those that learn to survive and thrive, the rewards are significant.

Not only do they have the satisfaction of knowing they helped eliminate some of the dysfunction, they are seen, and rightfully so, as people who can get things done. People with that quality are a rarity, and are stars who are always in demand.

Are you faced with functioning in a dysfunctional company? Do the scenarios identified above represent a subset of what you face each day? If so, consider using these tips as part of your survival guide.

#1 Be Part of the Solution Not Part of the Problem

Sociologists have done extensive studies on behavioral patterns among groups and have uncovered some interesting results that can be applied in the workplace. For example, in city areas with empty lots, people were far more likely to throw trash on the ground if the lot already had some trash in it, than if the lot was clean.

Through these findings and others like them, the researchers came to the conclusion that people will imitate behavior which appears to be socially acceptable, even if it is not their normal behavior. In other words, people imitate other people's actions. Stated in the context of a company, people acting dysfunctionally will influence others to also act dysfunctionally.

Being part of the solution breaks the chain. Conduct yourself in a functional way, and you will not only create a positive behavior for others to follow, but you also won't provide a dysfunctional example that others might imitate.

For Example: At the end of meetings take the initiative to help the group identify what steps need to be taken, who is responsible for them, and timelines for getting them done. Be the first to volunteer to take on a respon-sibility. After the meeting, send out a list with the what, who, and timelines and review it at the next meeting.

If it is your meeting, and the attendees are your direct reports, make sure people are held accountable for completing their respective tasks. If it is not your meeting, make sure you get your tasks complete. Again, individuals who actually get things done are stars. Be one of those people.

#2 Share Your Ideas

Don't make the mistake of assuming that what is painfully obvious to you is equally obvious to your peers, subordinates, boss, or other leaders in the organization. Everyone has a unique background and what is common knowledge to one person might be a life changing revelation for another. When you see examples of dysfunctional actions, share your ideas on how to improve the situation. Don't blame or criticize others. Instead, ask people what they are trying to accomplish and then offer up your ideas along with the reasons why you think they will help.

Many smart individuals are too quick to make the assumption "Well, they should know that" when dealing with peers or bosses. This is especially true when people are dealing with bosses that are more than one level above them.

The reality is that either the people do know, and there are other factors that you are unaware of, or they don't know and your ideas may be just the thing they need. At a minimum you will be seen as a person with initiative who has good ideas and is trying to better the company, and you may just be the person who saves the day.

For Example: A common "idea" opportunity exists with processes. What in your area seems to take an inordinate amount of time, requires many different people to be involved, or costs a great deal per transaction? If you have seen these processes done better somewhere else, or can draw from your unique background to provide a simple solution, then take some time, write out your ideas, and let people know.

#3 Be Fearless, Not Foolish, and Bring Solutions

When you have ideas to share, do it in a way that is fearless, not foolish, and if it is a suggestion for improving a dysfunctional problem, make sure you bring solutions. There is a fine line between having the courage to let others know what you believe and telling others that they should believe you. Error on the side of the first alternative.

For Example: Setting up a meeting with your boss to explain why you think the Travel and Expense process is costing the company too much money should involve doing some research on what the process is, how long it has been in place, and why it exists as it does. Once you know all those facts, identify some possible solutions. A meeting after you have done all that, will have a very different feel than walking in and telling your boss the process should be changed because it is inefficient. One is fearless, the other is foolish and without coming up with possible suggestions, it is also just complaining.

#4 Be Optimistic

It is unlikely that the life goal of those who founded the company or those who are running the company is the creation of a place where people spend 40 or more hours per week at a place that is dysfunctional. More likely is that over time dysfunction reared its head, and for some reason has grown and spread.

It could have been the result of competing cultures after a buy-out, growth pains as the organization got larger, or possibly just bad leadership. However it began, like a scene from an adventure movie, where weeds and vines are overtaking a lost civilization, dysfunction is trying to overtake this potentially high performing company.

Be optimistic that you and your fellow employees can cut back those vines of dysfunction.

For Example: In meetings where people are discussing existing problems, resist the urge to join those who are comfortable making statements like "We've just always been poor at that, or "This new plan will never work" or "We've tried that three times already." Instead, offer support for what is being attempted, and give actual reasons why it is likely to work. If it isn't likely to work, then go back to #s 1, 2, and 3.

Success begins with believing success is possible. Be optimistic that the dysfunctional state can be turned around and that people are trying to do it.

Dysfunction can be challenging, taxing, and difficult to deal with. It also represents an excellent opportunity for capable people to step up and make a difference. Follow the four tips and be one of the people who can function in the midst of dysfunction. Then be ready for a promotion.

John Strelecky is the author of "The Why Are You Here Café", and a nationally recognized speaker on the topic of "Creating The Perfect Company". A graduate of Northwestern University's MBA program, he has served as a business strategist for numerous Fortune 500 companies, and co-founded the Business Philosophy practice at Morningstar Consulting Group LLC. He can be reached through his website at, at 407-342-4181 or

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