How to Address Corporate Culture Dysfunction

In order to fix a broken corporate culture, leaders must examine their own behaviors and weed out toxic and unproductive behaviors that may be leading to dysfunction. Here’s what to look for.

Steve Harrison, Chairman, Lee Hecht Harrison
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Any group can fall prey to dysfunctional processes or behaviors that result in negative consequences. Some examples of groups include families, sports teams, institutions, corporate teams and entire corporate cultures. Dysfunction leads to instability and threatens the group’s ability to thrive.

In the context of the workplace, the issues of dysfunction are these: How pervasive is dysfunctionality? Exhibiting what symptoms? With what adverse impact? With what leadership implications? To what degree is there a commitment to resolve or eradicate dysfunctionality, which if ignored, can result in underperformance? Indeed, is it possible at all to fix dysfunctional behaviors in the workplace?

There’s no easy cure for dysfunction and no fail-safe solution to remove the corrosive effects dysfunction has on people and culture. However, we can start by first defining what we mean by dysfunction.
Merriam-Webster defines dysfunction as, “Abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group.” 

The causes of dysfunction in the workplace are myriad. An unexpected business downturn, disruptive innovation, bullying, inequitable compensation and favoritism, complacency and resistance to change, lack of transparency, high turnover, to name just a few.

Accountable leadership can play a key role in repairing corporate culture dysfunction. Accountability starts with self-awareness. In order to fix a broken corporate culture, leaders must examine their own behaviors and weed out toxic and unproductive behaviors that may be leading to dysfunction. Here’s what to look for:

  • Narcissism/Arrogance
  • Shifting Strategy 
  • Mega-bureaucracy
  • Divisiveness/Favoritism
  • Non-commitment
  • Ethics Compromise
  • Priority Overload
  • Dishonesty/Deception
  • Volatility
  • Inauthenticity
  • Myopia
  • Risk-Aversion
  • Culture-Deafness
  • Habitual Distrust
  • Overplaying Strengths
  • Greed
  • Intimidation

In plain-speak: An environment where the words don’t match the music; where there’s a shortage of “DWYSYWD”: (Do What You Say You Will Do); where executive pomposity reigns supreme, where too many leaders do things for effect rather than to get things done; and where constructive criticism is an oxymoron.

Corrosive leadership team behavior can insidiously impact corporate culture, resulting in non-commitment, divisiveness, counterproductive politics, “RHIP” (rank has its privileges); innovation devaluation, and decision aversion (”ready, aim, aim, aim…”).

How do you fix a broken corporate culture? What gives traction to an “engaged” grounded workplace? Indeed, what are the main ingredients that are the remedy to corporate culture dysfunction?

  • Telling the truth, not spinning the truth
  • Sharing credit, accepting blame
  • Tuning in to aberrant behaviors and addressing these promptly
  • Avoiding evidence and symbols of hypocrisy
  • Praising in public; criticizing in private
  • Calling out executive pomposity
  • Calling out harassment and bullying
  • Promoting trust via accessibility, transparency and candor
  • Mediating unproductive conflict
  • Articulating, publicizing and operationalizing core values, ethical standards across all levels and functions within the organization
  • Demonstrating and applauding small decencies: the exponential power of non-conditional acts of kindness and civility.

Dysfunction, if not confronted, can have a destabilizing impact. It can overtake the functioning of an organization, derail progress, impede growth and interrupt career momentum. 

Repairing corporate culture dysfunction isn’t mushy “psychobabble” or HR speak. Rather, it’s leadership’s commitment to gaining uniformly positive response to this question: “How does it feel to live in this environment and be shaped by it?”

Bottom Line: It’s likely that all companies can exhibit pockets of dysfunction. Even those on the list of “great places to work.”  Some would say that at Steve Jobs’ Apple cultural dysfunction was a predictable setting—indeed a prerequisite for breakthrough innovation. But Jobs’ successor, Tim Cook, reset with a new manifesto that provided structure and texture to the enterprise without dampening Apple’s creativity:

“Business should be places where individuals can find meaning and purpose…Whatever you do in life must be infused with humanity, values and decency…When you know your course is right, have the courage to take a stand.”

I propose that this include an uncompromising intolerance for cultural dysfunctionality.

I heard one leadership consultant suggest that corporate culture has “a very strong immune system.” Overcoming a broken, dysfunctional workplace culture requires the ability to question, honestly assess, refocus and commit to change. A dysfunctional culture doesn’t stem from one person’s unproductive behavior—fixing it requires accountability and commitment to productive behaviors from all. 

 
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