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The four stages of workplace dysfunction.

Updated: December 10, 2009 - 3:24 pm

Posted: January 21, 2002

Workplace dysfunction has been with us for a long time. Unfortunately, because of the personal nature and negative connotations involved, it's not widely discussed in management literature. However, the lack of interest fails to hide the fact that it definitely exists.Much like a family, an organization becomes dysfunctional when its members lack the confidence, ability and desire to pull together. Individual performances start to decline, as do the results of mutual efforts. Similar in form to a contagious disease, dysfunctional behaviors can spread from person to person and from unit to unit. If the condition remains undiagnosed, it is possible for an entire organization to become dysfunctional and still not know it is "sick."Organizations don't become dysfunctional overnight. It happens gradually as a company moves through four stages. While some may reach stage one or two and stay there, others move, unchecked, toward stages three or four. By understanding the conditions defining each stage, you may be able to intervene and bring about productive change before the dysfunction sets in permanently.Stage 1 — Ambiguity is not questioned: A new, flexible working-hours policy is announced and two department heads give conflicting interpretations to their teams, not realizing they have countermanded each other. Their subordinates don't feel comfortable pointing out the disparity. While waiting for the bosses to discover the ambiguity, each team acts according to what suits it best.Stage 2 — Inconsistencies are ignored: Several employees start taking extended lunch hours without telling their supervisor. This throws the production schedule off to the extent that some people have to take shorter breaks or miss lunch altogether. Attempts to rectify the problem are periodic and lack substance, so the issue persists. When the short-changed employees complain, they're told that the issue is being looked into. But the situation continues unabated. Stage 3 — Ambiguities and inconsistencies are undiscussable: Should management ask how things could be improved, employees provide shallow and unrelated responses like, "The parking sucks and so does the cafeteria food." People won't risk getting themselves and others into trouble by telling management the truth about how they really feel.Stage 4 — Undiscussability is undiscussable: A consulting firm, brought in to conduct a climate survey, finds employee morale and job satisfaction are both low. Without warning, the CEO fires the human-resources manager and the two department heads with the lowest survey ratings. Despite the empty seats at the next executive meeting, it's business as usual, with nobody mentioning the survey or the missing bodies. It is not uncommon in this day of rapid change for an organization to hover between stages one and two and still remain basically functional. But if the organization reaches stages three or four undetected, the following consequences may result: Frustration levels will grow because people are working on different tasks that should be coordinated, but no one is on the same schedule. Some ambitious people will use the distraction to score points with the boss and gain the advantage over a co-worker who is competing for advancement. Individuals arrange for private meetings with key decision-makers where they seek approval for their ideas, thereby circumventing the normal chain of command. Because people are duplicating tasks and projects, energy is wasted. People work independently on the same things and are not aware of it because they aren't discussing it. New programs start without official notice, while similar projects, begun earlier, are forgotten or ignored. Disagreements occur regularly because the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. People accuse others of withholding information or critical input because everything seems to be going wrong and somebody must be to blame. Unexpected and unnecessary problems arise simply because there is chaos instead of order. People can't recall who agreed to do what. Problems that were thought to have been solved resurface. Quick fixes replace carefully thought-out solutions, and past mistakes are repeated. The confusion that ensues provides an opportunity for people with dominant personalities to impose solutions that are to their advantage and not what's best for the organization. Befuddled employees will run with one of these ideas simply because it looks as if somebody knows what's going on.To open up a discussion of dysfunction in your workplace, just download the Behaviors Checklist from the Tool Box at and pass it around the office. The resulting discussions will get everyone's attention. Tom E. Jones is a motivational speaker, seminar leader and author of If It's Broken, You Can Fix It: Overcoming Dysfunction In The Workplace. E-mail him at or visit