Dysfunctional Organizations Are Like Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunction causes organizations and families to fail to meet their goals.  I wish I had time to do actual digging (and research) on this, but other things like … making a living … make that impossible.  Still, I have my observations, and here they are:

The impact of dysfunctional relationships and behaviors is almost always negative.  When an organization is dysfunctional, such as when one part of it has inordinate power, it will be challenged to meet its goals.  Quality, timing, and cost will all usually be less favorable than planned.  Projects will be routinely delayed, costs will routinely be revised upward, quality will be at risk of being forgotten in the quest for profitability and timeliness, products will be at risk of many and/or severe defects, and customer satisfaction will lag behind more capable and less dysfunctional competitors.  Similarly, a dysfunctional family will have parallel problems with achieving its goals.

An imbalance of power is a frequent cause of dysfunction in families.  Imagine: a family with several children embarks on a big project, a trip to Ocracoke Island, for example.  If one child is more demanding, needy, or otherwise exceptional, and the family has developed a dysfunctional behavior pattern centered on that child, things will be disrupted and plans will not work out.  The child may have to stop at every rest stop, and take a long time getting back into the car, delaying progress on the trip.  The father may know the ferry schedule for getting to the island, and know when the family needs to be at the dock, but he may not be able to change the child’s behavior, nor the behavior of the mother who caters too much to the demanding child.  Random and unanticipated delays caused by the child, who has no understanding of the constraints the father faces, make them late and they miss the ferry, incurring additional cost of a night’s stay on the mainland.

An imbalance of power is also a problem for large companies.  I have worked for companies in which one top manager or one function, product styling, for example, can cause a nearly-perfect parallel to the dysfunctional family.  The product styling group knows when they need to finish the design, but their job is to make the product look attractive, and they have so many people involved, from multiple levels of the organization, that they can’t get it done on time.  Top managers come through the studio to look at the new design, but, many having been engineers and designers in the past, they each see something they feel needs to be changed.  Since they don’t come through the studio until the design is supposed to be nearly complete, their suggestions set back the design process, and the design is late.  The engineers who have to integrate the design with functional parts are left to play “catch-up” with their designs, involving late changes, overtime, and a huge amount of rework to recast financial figures, get revised quotes from suppliers, re-time the plans, etc., etc.  The suppliers, too, have to change their plans and designs and renegotiate with their suppliers in turn, and are delayed as well.  Packaging, marketing materials, sales and service training classes, and many other efforts are all set back.  Even if top management is understanding and “lets well enough alone” from then on, the project is doomed to be over budget and late. 

It takes savvy management at the top, executives or parents, to limit dysfunctional behavior and keep things on track.  In my five different careers I have seen this same basic pattern repeated over and over, becoming nothing more than the standard way of doing business for some organizations.  The only mitigating force I know of is having really savvy upper management who understand how such things happen and are willing to actively work to avoid them.  A smart top manager can rein in the overzealous designers, for example, and understand the principles of diminishing returns and the need to understand when “roughly right” is good enough.  Similarly, the skilled parent can understand the problems caused by favoring one child over another, and carefully manage the behavior of the individuals in the family so that the family’s overarching goals are met.   Maybe it’s just my experience, but I have seen that such skill and savvy are all too rare.

Ethnic or national culture can be a significant factor in instances of dysfunction.  Interestingly, management savvy and parenting skill are heavily influenced by cultural factors.  In Western cultures where there is a strong value placed on individuality, managers can acquire the “gunslinger” mentality, which makes them think they have to do everything themselves and be the best at everything.  With such managers collaboration and communication can suffer and, while they may be stars in their own right, the organization can suffer from the conflicts and snafus that will result.  Similarly, in a strongly patriarchic culture, the father, feeling like he must be the all-knowing authority, may ignore the small child who hears the tire rumbling as it starts to go flat, and as a result miss the ferry due to a shredded tire and the time required to fix it.

Organizations can become dysfunctional by promoting those who do extremely well.  Some businesses promote engineers and designers who create great products to high level management positions, and then some wonder why the organization does poorly.  I have often noted that many engineers take this career direction because they don’t like dealing with people, and would rather “stick their head in a machine” and make it work as nearly perfectly as possible than negotiate with other people.  To take someone who, by their nature, hews to jobs that avoid interaction with people and put them in a job that requires excellent people skills is asking for trouble.  They will not only be uncomfortable and unhappy, but they may not understand interpersonal and organizational behavior well, struggle, and not do a very good job.  At the same time, to go back to engineering would be a terrible demotion and pay cut, so they are stuck, often for decades, in a position for which they are only marginally suited.

Many parents, like many executives, were never suited or well prepared for their roles.  Similarly, many parents become that by accident, perhaps through lack of proper attention to contraception, or through social imperatives – older family members who lobby hard for grandchildren, for example.  Some parents had tough childhoods, for example, and never had the chance to witness good parenting as children, yet they often find themselves responsible for a family with children and (perhaps) a spouse, and even elderly parents that need their care.  In a society with little focus on or cultural knowledge around good parenting, they will be severely challenged to run a family effectively or avoid the mistakes that were perpetrated on them as children. 

Dysfunction tends to stick around and follow organizations and families.  Thus, in both organizations and families, dysfunctional factors will exist from the start or creep in over time, and propagate forward from one generation or regime to the next.  It is for this reason that sometimes a board of directors of a corporation will dismiss not only a CEO but many of his reports as well, and bring in fresh management talent from outside the company to try to instill a new culture.  While this is drastic and difficult in a business organization, it is even more difficult and disruptive to a family, and usually involves social service organizations and courts intervening in ways that may or may not produce better long term results for the family members.  In both cases the situation must be extremely bad before such changes can be justified, and a majority of such situations probably are never very well addressed.

I am sorry I can’t present better ideas for mitigating dysfunction here, but because it is such a pervasive problem in business and society I will undoubtedly revisit again, do more research on the topic, and offer some approaches for improvement in future articles.

Please leave a comment, link to relevant information, or account of your similar experiences if you like.  These are extremely complex and difficult issues, and I am more than willing to learn more.  Thanks in advance — Tim

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5 Responses to Dysfunctional Organizations Are Like Dysfunctional Families

  1. G D McCurdy says:

    Let us shear information as I am about to research a dysfunctional organization.

    • timprosser says:

      I’d be happy to, G.D. I’ve worked for and written about a number of them.

      Keep in mind that every organization looks pretty stupid from the inside. There is a certain amount of dysfunction in any person or organization, but I believe savvy leaders can cope with it and make a better working organization that is reasonably humane to the people involved in it (as well as suppliers and customers). – Tim

  2. […] Dysfunctional Organizations Are Like It takes savvy management at the top, executives or parents, to limit dysfunctional behavior and keep things on track. … Your email address will not be published. Required fields … […]

  3. Harro Drexler says:

    Dear Tim,
    You linking of dysfunctional behavior of families to those of organizations is very good. Have you done more work on dysfunctionality? I have written a book called “Managers Behaving Badly – the real cause of workplace stress” in which I propose dysfunctional behavior in managers is the root cause of workplace stress. The original book was badly written and edited. I am rewriting the book with much more background information, and I would like to use your text on dysfunction to bring home the concept, Regarding your thoughts on mitigation, I have concluded that one of the only explanations for this behavior is self deception. There are programs available to help people. Please let me kmnoe whether I can use your work and whether you have further interest to stay in touch on this subject
    Best regards
    Harro Drexler Sydney Australia

  4. timprosser says:

    Hi Harro,

    Thanks for the comment, and I will be interested in seeing your book when it is done. Certainly you may use whatever you can from my blog.

    Of course, the reason I write in a blog form is that I don’t have the credentials (or the time) to back up my conjectures in a substantial or scientific way. My hope is that, while I don’t expect I am right on everything, I can stimulate further thought and discussion, and perhaps inspire someone else to do the serious research. Then hopefully they’ll share their work with us all so I can learn from them.

    One of the things I try to keep in mind, and don’t cite often enough, is that organizations are systems and have cultures, and the expectations and requirements of the system and culture drive the behavior of the people in it more than anything else. I also try to remember a question W. Edwards Deming very often asked: “How could they know how best to act if they were never taught?” I don’t think that people witness or are guided toward professional behavior in Western (and perhaps most) cultures. It is significant, I think, that really successful managers and organization builders often have one or both parents who had skills and constructive attitudes that lent themselves to similar pursuits. Those who are exposed to good management thinking are likely to carry what they learned with them for life and observe it in their daily and work lives. Good management thinking includes fundamental, constructive understandings about people and organizations, but I haven’t seen this type of knowledge being passed on in the business education systems I’ve been involved with (just a few) even though some of that was with one of the top 4 business schools in the US (where I got my MBA). I suspect such things are taught somewhere, but that this aspect of management is not well researched, at least from this angle.

    I am pleased you are working in this area, and look forward to your book. Please let me know when it is released.

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