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All Dysfunction Is Actually Functional. That's Why It's So Hard To Fix.

Photo (edited slightly) of Sugarloaf Mountain, MD by Silveira Nieto via Flickr

For change to be accepted, there must be a crisis that endangers the ecosystem.

For proof of this, just look at how people get married. How A chooses B even though they are totally the opposite, and seemingly incompatible.

On every episode of Divorce Court, they have an extremely unlikely-looking couple do a he-says, she-says that just makes you laugh it is so crazy.

I love watching Judge Lynn Toler listen and react with her funny and accurate marriage advice. But what most interests me about the show is, "How did these couples get together in the first place?"

Self-help books, like Getting the Love You Want and The Dance of Anger give us lots of insight. A common theme that runs through them:

Every dysfunctional relationship is also functional.

Remember The Odd CoupleIt was a show about two roommates who never got along. Felix was a neat freak so anxious he couldn't enjoy life. Oscar was a slob who knew how to calm down and just enjoy life a little bit. They fought endlessly on the show -- a sign of dysfunction -- but they stayed together because each performed a kind of corrective function for the other.

Personal dysfunction is also always functional.

When I am upset, the first thing I want to do is eat a piece of cake. That is a dysfunctional response for sure. But it is also a functional one: The simple carbohydrates act to calm me down quickly.

If you want to fix the dysfunctional organization, you have to carefully isolate the "bad" elements and find out what "positive" purpose they serve - even if you wouldn't normally look at it that way.

Think of a forest, where trees fall down, rocks tumble, and deer and snakes proliferate. All of these also protect the system and enable it to regenerate. But when there are too many deer you have to start killing them.

In the federal government, a good example of dysfunction is the performance management system. The presence of frighteningly harsh bosses serves to silence employees who might otherwise take advantage of the many protections the system allows. But that implicit "agreement" is falling apart as the workplace social contract changes.

  • The employees who "grew up" in such a system are retiring, replaced by employees who expect a more facilitative and mentoring management style. To be a bullying boss is quickly becoming a social taboo.
  • Incoming employees are restless and do not have patience for slow-moving official channels. They use social media to empower themselves and each other and will work outside the red tape if they have to.
In a forest, a federal agency, a small business, a synagogue, a hospital or a school, dysfunction is the norm and not the exception. It serves some hidden purpose. And the system will fight back to expel those who seek to create change -- unless its very survival is at grave risk.

At that point, someone will undoubtedly cry out that there are signs are trouble. And the brilliant, brave, or opportunistic leader will listen, knowing that otherwise their own life is in jeopardy.

Working in small groups, networking across the enterprise, they have the ability to bring the rest along.

But even then, there will always be signs of terrible struggle until the new normal takes hold. And good employees will be felled by the fighting.

* All opinions my own.

Keep Your Eyes On The Quiet Ones

A mentor of mine used to investigate corruption in the ranks. According to her, it was never the complainers who were the problem -- although it would be easy for management to see them as trouble.

Rather it was the quiet ones who tended to commit fraud. The ones who showed up on time, did everything they were told (seemingly), put in the extra effort to fit right in.

If you think about it, this makes total sense. The normal employee exhibits normal ups and downs in their behavior, successes and frustrations individually and with the team. Sometimes they are late. Sometimes loud. 

But the "sniper" is there only to take, and from their perspective the richness of the organization is like gold to be plundered. They want that gold for themselves. 

The more exclusively a "sniper" is after one of the following, the more circumspect their behavior will be -- and they will not want to operate in the open:
  • Money: They want to take as much as they can while actually working as little as possible.
  • Power: They get satisfaction from pulling the strings -- they want the power "of life and death."
  • Policy: They want to institutionalize their vision of the organization. You're either on board or you get thrown off the train.
Here are some ways to tell that you're dealing with one:
  • You feel bad after dealing with them. You get a bad vibe, you feel somehow "taken," you sense they do not listen to what you are saying.
  • They strongly resist sharing information. Their world is closed, and they will drop you a line.
  • They trade in gossip. A normal person goes to work to get work done. A sniper avoids focusing on work and instead tries to manipulate the system to their advantage.
  • They stay excessively late. The idea is to gain influence by obtaining an audience with people who are normally in meetings during the day. 
  • They restrict their social circles tightly. The sniper wants to control information as well as their exposure to risk. Thus they have at most 2 confidantes and the rest are "outside the circle of trust." 
  • Snipers manage up, not sideways or down. If you are below their grade level, do not bother approaching them.
  • They are extremely nice, when they want something. They will smile and kindly engage you, but then if you cannot or will not give them what they want, they will just as easily act as though you are not there.
  • Excessive or minimal attention to dress. It's usually either one or the other, but it's deliberate. They use outward appearance to lull others into complacency.
At the individual level, there are two ways to handle a sniper. One is to confront them, which can be dangerous but necessary if you work in the same group. The other is to stay very far away. 

From a leadership and management perspective, these employees are absolutely toxic, all the more so because they tend to find their way into leadership and management positions! 

You might think that a good "coaching" program can help them, but this is to miss the point. They are sociopathic thieves of organizational resources. They cannot be helped -- this only enables them.

Rather, the commitment has to be from the leadership team itself to recognize the symptoms of a sniper -- someone who acts only and primarily in self-interest -- to isolate them, and eventually to remove them from the organization.

There should be a registry.

* All opinions my own.

That Weird Space Between Leadership And Management -- And Why It Matters

Leadership managers (LMs) are both leaders and managers. These are second-line managers and above who must:

  • Instruct and motivate people to produce work
  • Monitor and measure their output
  • Take responsibility for success or failure
Many LM's don't even know they are LM's. (And neither do their bosses fully understand what the job means.) And so these crossed wires occur:
  • Assuming too much authority-- then getting shot down when there is resistance or failure, and they lack senior backing
  • Assuming too little authority--then being judged weak or inadequate. 
In a comment in Harvard Business Review's LinkedIn Group, LM expert Greg Weismantel, President and CEO at management consultancy the Epic Group, offers this advice for LMs, about "How To Make The Tough Decisions":

#1: "The bases for any leadership manager are accountability and metrics, and if you don't understand the use of these two concepts then you should never take the risk of making a decision without the authority to do so. 

Meaning: You demonstrate accountability through metrics. If you don't have authority and can't show any outcomes, you are putting your job at risk.

#2: "Assumed Authority" places your own family in jeopardy because by definition it is "Assumed Accountability" which can easily erase your position. 

Meaning: The person who makes an authoritative decision also bears accountability for that decision. If you don't have backing from the leader, don't exert authority.

#3: "Accountability is at the basis for making any decision, not just a tough one....(it) includes three ingredients: the work or issue, authority from a higher level to make a decision on that work or issue, and your own agreement to accept the work & authority."

Meaning: If you don't know what the issue is, you can't make a decision. It's not always clear -- defining the problem accurately requires a drilldown. At that point, you must either ask for or be granted the authority to act. Even then, you must be comfortable actually exercising that authority. (For example, if you're not qualified to act you may defer.)

No matter what stage of your career you're at right now, if you are interested in pursuing an executive career it's important to know the difference between management, leadership management, and the executive tier.

* All opinions my own. No endorsement expressed or implied.

People Are Not Interchangeable

Photo by Becky Bokern via Flickr

Step by step, heart to heart, left right left
We all fall down like toy soldiers
Bit by bit, torn apart, we never win
But the battle wages on for toy soldiers
- Eminem, "Like Toy Soldiers"

When I was in kindergarten they gave me an I.Q. test and immediately moved me to first grade after seeing the result. The move was traumatic for me. I was happier with kids my own age. It was less important to be with the smart ones.

The second time they moved me a grade up it was because of a troubled teacher. Rather than fire him immediately (which they ended up doing anyway), they moved me, from fifth to sixth grade. I was smart, and they figured I could handle it. But what they missed was all the positive relationships I had with the other fifth grade teachers, and the fact that I was not necessarily suited to be the Doogie Howser of the 6th grade.

Later in my yeshiva high school they divided us into "honors," "regular," and the "lower kids." But the divisions were not based on how smart we were. Rather we were sorted based on our religious level as assessed by the teachers, and the least religious kids were downgraded. There was one girl new to the school who was very non-religious and very beautiful, and all the boys used to stare at her. 

They threw her out after less than a year -- just because she was a distraction.

People are not interchangeable. Groups work because of the ties that bind teams together. Not because of some abstract intellectual meeting of the minds.

There's this famous and very old Jewish story about a rabbi and his dialogue with a Roman noblewoman. 

She asked him, probably sarcastically, 

"In how many days did God create the world?" 


"Since then what has God been doing?"

"Matching couples for marriage."

Sarcastically she replied, "Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage." 

So she put a thousand men and a thousand women together and "married" them. The next morning, "her estate resembled a battlefield."

If marriages are so hard to get right, why on earth do we expect work relationships to be any different? 

If we really want the workplace to work we should reflect human-centric beliefs, values and behaviors every day. That means:

  • Spending significant time daily working on group dynamics within and outside the group
  • Making sure that individual employees are growing and engaged, or finding other positions that better suit them
  • Promoting diversity of every kind, and fending off groupthink and "power cliques"
  • Investing in training on the job and off
  • Enabling staff to find mentors who can support them in dealing with tough work situations

If it takes a village to raise a child, it similarly takes one to build and retain a stable, high-functioning institution.

But none of this can happen without a real commitment to the people who comprise a workgroup. 

It is immoral to use people for their brains and ignore the rest of them.

It is right to invest in the relationships, even when relationships are hard. 

* All opinions my own.

Stay Alive - Watch "Game Of Thrones"

You can buy Season 3 on Amazon* Screenshot source here.

Here are 18 organizational dynamics lessons gleaned from GOT. The symbolism of "18" is that in Hebrew, it spells "Chai," which translates to "Life." With G-d's help and intervention, knowing the overt and hidden rules can keep you alive in the modern organization.

1. Organizational conflict is always personal and the closer you get to the top, the more innocent people get hurt by these fights.

2. Leaders take the people for granted, but people only follow when they are inspired.

3. Women are every bit as much the skillful and dirty fighters as men.

4. Leaders always justify their own selfish behavior in terms of G-d, or the people's interest, or the interest of the organization.

5. Only a weak leader has to say, "I am the leader and you must listen to me."

6. The true power very often stands quietly behind and beside the throne.

7. The more confidence you have in yourself, the more confidence others have in you.

8. Beware of people offering "help."

9. We don't like to hear the truth sometimes, but we know it when we hear it.

10. You can tell where a person's loyalties are by their actions, not their words.

11. The worst thing you can take from a person is their self-respect.

12. Bravery and foolishness are not the same thing.

13. Success means making alliances with people you don't like, have fought before, and will likely fight again.

14. A good defense is the best offense.

15. The less a person speaks, the more impact their words have.

16. Constant and disruptive change is the norm.

17. Knowing how to defend yourself is not the same as aggressiveness.

18. A true leader wants to set the people free, not hold them down or keep them prisoner.

* All opinions my own.