Tackling the Dysfunctional Workplace


As I speak to business leaders around the country, I am always curious about the challenges they are dealing with and the problems that keep them up at night. If I distill these various conversations down, it would be appropriate to describe much of what I am hearing as "workplace dysfunction." So often businesses focus on the bottom line or sales growth, but don't do the things necessary to keep the employees--who are the backbone of the organization--happy, fulfilled and engaged.
For more insight into this issue, I sought out a consultant who deals with this every day. Brandon Smith is a leading expert in workplace health and dysfunction. He is the founder of www.theworkplacetherapist.com, a resource dedicated to eliminating dysfunction at work, improving workplace health and restoring a sense of optimism and hope in the workplace.

Brandon, you have spent the last few years writing and speaking about workplace dysfunction. What are the top dysfunctions in the workplace today from your perspective?

"There are so many! If I had to pick the top three dysfunctions that I commonly see today across organizations of all shapes and sizes, I would lift up these Big 3:

1. Lack of courageous leadership - whether we are talking about making tough decisions about the future or simply finding the courage to say 'I don't know,' there has been an obvious lack of real courage in leadership today. This lack of authentic courage is resulting in elevated levels of anxiety, uncertainty, fear and indecisiveness across nearly all workplaces.
2. Lack of appreciation - from the entry-level employee to the senior manager, very few of us are getting kudos, pats on the back or even the simple 'way to go.' Personally and professionally, I have never seen appreciation at such an all-time low. This has become so pervasive that I have yet to find an organization that is not suffering from this easy-to-fix dysfunction.
3. Too much - Combine too much work, too many demands and too many unrealistic expectations with too little boundaries and you've got a problem. Thanks to our mobile technology people are working nearly nonstop regardless of the time and place, threatening their mental, emotional and relational health like never before."

Are there underlying causes for these issues? What are they?

"There are definitely underlying causes. First, we have the common mantra of 'do more with less.' That has resulted in people overworking and losing work-life balance. Second, nearly every organization is in the middle of some seismic industry shift. From traditional publishing to healthcare, the world as we know it is flipping upside down for most organizations. This is requiring leaders to either be courageous and visionary or stick their head in ground in hopes that 'normalcy' will resume. This pressure on leadership is driving fear and anxiety into the organization. As a result, most managers are solely concerned about their personal survival. You can't appreciate or develop others when all you are thinking about is yourself.

What role does the pervasive lack of authenticity in our culture play in the workplace dysfunction you have encountered?

"Lack of authenticity erodes trust, confidence and innovation. When we are authentic, we aren't afraid to share with others what we are feeling and thinking. This invites them into the conversation and encourages them to help us solve the problem. However, when we refuse to be authentic (after all, authenticity requires vulnerability), we attempt to present ourselves as perfectly perfect. By doing so, we not only shut down a bigger conversation but we come across as a rigid politician. No one trusts a rigid politician."

Do you see the ever-increasing numbers from Generation Y entering the workforce having a significant impact on the types of dysfunctions you are seeing? Will it be positive or negative?

"Two interesting observations about Generation Y entering the workforce today: First, because of the delayed retirement of the Boomer generation and the lack of overall job growth, I'm seeing more of a 'trickle' into the workforce versus the massive Gen Y tidal wave everyone predicted. Second, because of some of the ways Gen Y grew up (highly structured, immediate feedback, 'friend' relationships with their parents, etc...) the common dysfunctions at work I referenced earlier have hit them particularly hard. Gen Y employees aren't getting appreciation and feedback, there is fuzziness and an overall lack of clarity at every turn and older generations do not appreciate Gen Y's informal approach to workplace relationships. If I look into my crystal ball, I see Gen Y making the most of this painful experience and eventually putting in place the structures they want and need at work (clarity around career-pathing, mechanisms for feedback, etc...) after Boomers fully exit. Short-term, I don't see much changing, unfortunately."

What is your favorite story from your research on workplace dysfunction?

"I have so many favorite workplace dysfunction stories from workplace zombies to bosses behaving badly. One of my favorite stories comes from a conversation I had with a former student several years ago. 'Tim' was working for a large corporation downtown and loved his job. His role entailed mostly strategy work which was fun and stimulating. Tim was also fortunate enough to have a direct report that handled the tactics and day-to-day stuff for him, freeing Tim up to focus on the work he loved. When the economy turned, Tim was told he needed to let his direct report go and do both jobs himself. Over the course of that year, Tim's division had record profits. At the end of the year, after celebrating the great accomplishment, Tim went to his boss and said, 'this is great news. Can I get my direct report back?' Tim's boss looked at him and with a smug grin told Tim, 'Of course not. Keep up the great work!' Tim was devastated and exhausted. It was then that he realized 'help wasn't coming.' Tim realized that no matter how much he begged and asked, his employer would never give him the help he needed until it became a problem for them. That story sums up the dysfunction all of us are facing today - 'help isn't coming.' We are not being asked to run a marathon at work today. Rather, we are being asked to run until we drop. As a result, it is up to each of us to set healthy boundaries, actively give appreciation to our fellow runners and look for the jobs that are going to meet our needs. No one is going to do it for us."

Are you dealing with workplace dysfunction in your organization? I would love to hear your stories.