Changing Organizational Culture Revisited: Dysfunction Junction

Dysfunction - GeneralLeadership“A dysfunctional company culture does not improve with transparency…it just gets exposed.”
Harold Jarche

In my April 9, 2015 blog post, “Changing Organizational Culture”, I promised to offer some pointers in a future post on recognizing a target within organizational culture that needs a fix. Here is one possibility for you to consider.

I often commented across my leadership journey, “That place must be dysfunction junction” when I would hear descriptions of the places people worked or the environments they encountered along their way. I had labeled this phrase when poor leadership, poor attitudes, and weak personnel and organization behaviors collided and often times disrupted the mission, fractured the organization, or broke the people.

Status Quo - GeneralLeadershipI worked in some jobs across the years that had a level of dysfunction, sometimes it was why I worked there: to try and correct the situation and get the train rolling smoothly down the tracks towards success, organizational bliss, or some altered state from the present aimed for that nirvana-like destination that many in the workforce passionately desire called “status quo.”

Dysfunction in the organization means different things to each of us. To some it is high order chaos, from the boardroom to the work floor, where nothing happens easily without lots of drama, angst, and disheartened employees. And to others, it is loose organizational structure, disorganized processes, and disrupted mission. Our individual character types factor into our definition, understanding, and into our overall tolerance for dysfunction.

The challenge for leaders is to have an organization that accomplishes the mission, stays relevant and engaged in quality processes, and satisfies the majority of the internal and external stakeholders along the way. This requires an ability to be introspective, welcoming to the feedback and observations required for constant organizational growth, and the strength and ability to implement corrective actions when necessary.

As a leader, are you prepared for that day when you realize that you have arrived in dysfunction junction? It is tough to make this destination if you never leave the station. In other words, if you have stayed in the same organization for the majority of your work and leadership experience, you may be at your destination and not even realize it. Often times, familiarity greatly reduces our ability to sense and recognize dysfunction.

When dysfunction exists in the workplace or environment around you, you may not see or feel it. I have always enjoyed bringing in new faces with “fresh eyes” and allow them to get acclimated and then get their perceptions of what level of dysfunction really exists in the organization. I have always called this “fresh eyes and fresh perspective”. It only lasts a short while and leaders are smart to capitalize on it before the employee becomes accustomed to the new environment and it becomes “status quo.”

I recall hearing from teammates who returned from in-resident Enlisted Professional Military Education (EPME) courses that their supervisors and co-workers told them to forget what they had learned and to get with the program, “We don’t do that around here, and this is the REAL Air Force.” This was the mantra of weak supervision and status quo lovers run amok. It was also the informal organization leadership telling the returning member that fresh eyes and fresh perspective were not welcomed. Far too often, these types of responses would shut off the best opportunities for organizational growth, new ideas, fresh perspectives, and worker-led change. This type of organization is well on the track towards dysfunction junction.

Two short years ago, I retired from the Air Force and my wife and I returned to our chosen hometown to spend our retirement years. My wife Kerry and I chose to do some focused volunteer work in our community. We chose where we would volunteer based on our backgrounds and likes. We chose some local faith-focused activities and I also chose a veteran’s service organization.

I was surprised when I started attending regular meetings of the veterans service organization and became more involved with their weekly and monthly activities…I clearly recognized that I had personally arrived at dysfunction junction!

Over the course of a year, I watched and listened and identified the areas of the organization that were not performing well and that were causing the greatest angst among the membership. I shared my fresh eyes and fresh perspective information with some other members and a few of the leaders and was pointedly told, “That is not how we do things around here.”

I worked hard to tolerate the “shut-up and color attitude” of the status quo lovers and did my volunteering while remaining focused on the service to the veterans and the local community that we were providing. I recognized, as did my wingman, that I was not happy when I was scheduled to volunteer and this was taking away the very reason I was doing it. I had seen this same situation in the workforce at times across the years in organizations where dysfunction was high, energetic people felt they were strapping on a yoke when at work and then tried to get some energy back and enjoy their life as soon as work ended.

For the last five monthly meetings, I have watched the leadership team closely. One of the team, with an unbelievably negative attitude, when given the opportunity to speak, always tells the assembled veteran volunteers that they are too stupid to do this, disrespectful when doing that, and they damage the organization.

Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect. We must each respect others even as we respect ourselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I watched and listened, I witnessed the other leadership team members sit silently and I noticed that all of the members stayed quiet too. I recalled the feedback statements from so many years ago when the EPME students returned to their home units. I clearly recognized that I was squarely parked in dysfunction junction and the broken piece of the organizational culture was basic respect for the people within the organization. In the May 11, 2015 Harvard Business Review, respect was identified as “the leading behavior that’s most important to employees.”
Please Put it Back - GeneralLeadership

Most recently, while making coffee for a three-hour volunteer session, I saw this note taped to the can of coffee and was quickly reminded myself that there will always be some degree of dysfunction in every organization. The note reads, “Please put the coffee back to where you got it, or is that too much work!!”

In my professional leadership opinion, the highest order of dysfunction is when an organization does not respect its people who are its lifeblood giving of their time and talents. For me, a life-long leader and faithful student of leadership, this is unacceptable in any organization and this note was the last indicator I needed to confirm that this organization’s culture was badly broken, the people were suffering, and if fixes were not implemented soon, the mission could be in jeopardy.

Is your organization headed for dysfunction junction? Is basic respect for the people lacking or worse? If so, can you help it get turned around before it makes that dreaded destination of dysfunction junction? Is it already there and perhaps you did not hear the tell-tale signs signaling the arrival?

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