I have had a number of conversations recently about dysfunctional and toxic organizations, cultures that are steeped in mistrust and disrespect, which have, at times, resulted in disengaged employees. I have experienced different levels of damaged organizations throughout my career, and have come to realize that there are varying degrees of dysfunction.
Thinking about the various characteristics that I’ve observed or talked to colleagues about, they tend to be positioned on a wide spectrum of organizational culture. From these anecdotes and observations, I have started to develop a spectrum of damaged organizations.
- Organizations that are in the unhealthy point on the spectrum experience moments of misunderstanding, usually relating to lack of clarity regarding expectations. Complaining is widespread. There may be lapses in trust among employees; issues tend not to be dealt with in the moment, and bad feelings can linger. The action of choice is inaction. An “ignorance is bliss” attitude prevails.
- Issues have lingered without action for too long. There is distrust among staff, lack of respect is evident in how employees treat each other and how management treats employees, plus a lack of clarity around expectations is rampant. Staff start to disengage from each other, from management, and from their work. Staff feel powerless.
- The disengagement turns to disconnect, and in cases where the inaction continues and issues are ignored, this turns to disgruntlement. Conflict among staff or with management are loud and no one intervenes. There is fear. Staff tend to call in sick, go on leave for extended periods of time, or quit because of the environment they experience and the feeling that nothing can be done to change the organization is overwhelming.
- Organizations at this point on the spectrum have negated their responsibilities to ensure psychological safety for employees. Fear of reprisals paralyze staff and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness permeates the workplace. Productivity decreases substantially. Loyalty is non-existent, and failure to survive and thrive becomes a reality for the organization.
Organizations experiencing issues that place them on this spectrum are not lost. There are ways to build psychological safety, trust, and empowerment within an organization, but this work is hard and requires mindfulness and commitment. Organizations that are willing to put in the work, developing relationships, addressing issues and conflict as they arise, being aware of the wellness of the individuals within the organization, and embedding these practices into all areas of the organization, can support a positive and healthy organizational culture.
Plexus A1, Artist: Gabriel Dawe, May 2016, Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Photo: A. Hatcher