This article, How to address corporate dysfunction, was originally published in the Washington Business Journal as, “To erase corporate dysfunction, assess and address.” It is part of a series on management consulting and organizational dynamics, aptly named, “Corporations on the Couch”. In this column, psychologist, psychoanalyst and management consultant, Dr. Lynn Friedman, discussed how to understand and respond to corporate dysfunction.
Tell any senior partner or executive that you’re a psychoanalyst to corporations, and the floodgates open. No matter how high up they are in the food chain, no matter how profitable the corporation, they’ll regale you with tales of organizational dysfunction.
Ask when their problems first began and you’ll learn that they existed in the culture for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, these behaviors often do not get recognized as problems until they pose a major legal or financial threat to the organization.
What prevents us from stopping behaviors that are costly, obnoxious or even illegal? And what can be done about it? The answer is as complex as the people within the companies.
A first step is to describe the organizational difficulty in detail.
Let’s take, for example, the law partner, “John,” who can’t retain associates.
Start by writing down your own description. “John alienates associates. He asks them to work late hours and is insensitive to their personal needs. When they can’t read his mind, he yells at them, throws things and tells them they’re stupid. When they do deliver, he takes all the credit. And when partnership questions emerge, he votes against highly qualified people.”
Next, ask yourself what about John’s behavior is maladaptive. That is, in what way is it damaging to him, to the firm, to the associate and to other associates who witness it?
This loss hurts John in many ways.
At a pragmatic level, he has to constantly retrain new people, and he’s without a loyal following that will rally to his support if he’s in a bind. Associates criticize him behind his back, and everyone avoids working with him.
John’s behavior erodes the bottom line and damages the corporate culture. Those who have options vote with their feet, sometimes taking clients with them. The firm’s reputation suffers, and recruitment becomes harder.
The deleterious consequences of doing nothing are apparent, but ask yourself a seemingly bizarre question: What about these ostensibly maladaptive behaviors is adaptive?
Given the damaging nature of the behavior, why is it allowed to persist, unbridled? Who are the beneficiaries of his behavior? How do you benefit from his behavior? How does the firm benefit? How does John benefit?
You may be a beneficiary, albeit an inadvertent one. As long as John is acting highhanded, the heat’s off you. The associates aren’t criticizing you because whatever your limitations, they could not be worse than his.
If John is a partner, then, he undoubtedly contributes something to the firm, something the firm could lose if his misdemeanors aren’t addressed diplomatically. Beyond this, John’s misdeeds obscure the more subtle conflicts that occur between partners and between partners and associates.
Thus, John’s behavior allows everyone to be a little less accountable. For subordinates, John’s behavior serves as a distraction and a justification for not working their hardest.
And how does ignoring John’s misbehaviors benefit him? In the workplace, it allows him to remain unaccountable and in denial about how powerless and inept he feels.
If the partners have the courage to deal honestly with the dysfunctional situation, the firm will be stronger and the “problem” partner will have an improved sense of well-being.
Partners who’ve relied on John to “look bad” so they can “look good” will be forced to develop more realistic ways of enhancing their self-esteem. With improved morale, associates are likely to work harder and feel better about their workplace.
How does a corporation go about addressing these difficulties?
In an ideal world, the senior partners have effective policies and practices for these sorts of challenges. But this is not always the case, especially, when a member of the senior leadership is part of the problem.
Sometimes an organization’s human resources department can help. In more delicate situations, an outside executive coach can help the organization’s leadership design and implement a sound strategy.
Originally published on February 27, 2006, on the Washington Business Journal