There is a proverb that says insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That quote is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, but there is no definitive proof he actually said it. However, being pretty familiar with Albert Einstein as a person, philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, it seems very consistent with the way he thought and lived his life and did his work.

Organizational dysfunction starts with this definition of insanity. The reality is that most organizations that exist, wherever or in whatever sector of the world, have some dysfunction in them. Humans, by nature, are dysfunctional, and since humans make up organizations, it follows that dysfunction, to some degree, will exist.

With quintessential leadership at the top, though, most of the dysfunction can be changed or eliminated so that the organization itself is not dysfunctional.

However, when there is no quintessential leadership at the top levels of an organization, the organization becomes dysfunctional. The interesting thing about dysfunction, which is abnormal or impaired function, is that once it becomes the norm, it only gets worse until the whole system – in this case, organizations – fails and eventually dies.

Ironically, as organizations get more dysfunctional, the more effort people in top leadership positions put into attempting to save the organizations from death by doing the same wrong, non-working, and sometimes just plain dumb things that made the organizations so dysfunctional to begin with. When I see this, it reminds me of someone hyperventilating and when the panic of not being able to breathe sets in, the person hyperventilates even more, making it even more impossible to breathe.

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense, does it? And, yet, in every dysfunctional organization, when the big picture is analyzed to see how the organization got to where it is and what the organization’s response is, it’s the same reaction as a person who’s hyperventilating and panics.

There are many obvious signs of organizational dysfunction and a lack of quintessential leadership at the top, just as there are signs of deepening dysfunction within an organization, but I’ll cover just a few of these here today.

A tell-tale sign of organizational dysfunction is elitism and an upper class (who’s important) and everyone else (who’s not). If you see “us” and “them” or “we’re special and you’re not” in organizational thinking, you’re dealing with organizational dysfunction.

Elitism and upper classes are created by a group of people, starting with the people in top leadership positions, who confer on themselves (and make sure everyone else knows), with no basis for doing so, an elevated and special status above everyone else in the organization. This group pitches this status out like a bone to a dog to the rest of the organization as something to aspire to and it creates minions and sychophants who, driven by a desire to be part of the upper class and have its self-conferred power and nothing else, will do anything, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or bad to get there.

These people naturally float to the sub-leadership positions (because all dysfunctional organizations have an elaborate multi-class structure) because they will also agree with everything the elitists say, do, and promote. This is a key reason why organizations get more dysfunctional because there is no one in a leadership position who is a quintessential leader and will say, “This isn’t working and we need to figure out why and how to correct it,” or “That’s wrong; here are the right ways that could be done,” or even “That’s a dumb idea. It’s failed over and over, so it’s time to start over and figure out how to implement a smart, workable idea.”

The irony is that the more dysfunctional an organization becomes, the less disagreement of any kind is tolerated, which means there’s simply no place for quintessential leadership in that organization in a way that will bring the organization out of its dysfunctional state (there will always be a few quintessential leaders even in the worst of dysfunctional organizations, but they will be mostly invisible except to the people who work directly with them).

When an organization reaches extreme dysfunction, then absolute agreement with everything about the organization becomes the mandate that is explicitly communicated to every individual in the organization with some sort of “either you’re with us or you’re against us” or “if you don’t agree, you might as well leave” statement attached and the threat of elimination from the organization if disagreement is found (whether expressed or suspected as a result of intense coercion, which is often employed at this point, to root out dissension).

Another sign of organizational dysfunction is that the people in top leadership positions make sure they’re taken care of, no matter what, to the exclusion of the rest of the organization. An example that illustrates this, which I read earlier this morning on Forbes’ website, is that of Hostess executives getting bonuses for the liquidation of the company while 18,000 people are losing their jobs.

The dysfunction of an organization begins when that organization structures itself by corporate charters and organizational documents so that the elite are protected and taken care of, while there is no similar protection or care given to the rest of the individuals in the organization (who fall into an “at-will” class – so, yes, there is a bottom class!). Additionally, and this is duplicitous and egregiously wrong on every level, many organizations use these founding documents to ensure that people who’ve been identified as the elite of the elite are the only ones eligible to assume the top positions in the organization. Often, these same organizations will offer a public posture of opening the floor up to democracy in filling these positions, which is dishonest, while the elite have made sure that only the people they want to fill those positions actually meet all the criteria.

And this sign leads to the next sign of organizational dysfunction, which is a lack of trust, a lack of respect, and a lack of loyalty to the organization by the individuals in that organization who are not in the elite class.

From an objective and big-picture standpoint, this is the inevitable result of watching, as a part of, an organization form dysfunctionally, operate dysfunctionally, and be seemingly clueless that its dysfunctional. 

And the response from the elite is just as baffling. They become more dysfunctional and the organization becomes more dysfunctional.

Instead of the elite looking around them and at themselves and realizing they’ve created and are perpetuating and worsening the organizational dysfunction, they make all the non-elite individuals in the organization the problem.

This is communicated in statements like “we don’t get the respect we deserve” and “nobody cares about loyalty anymore”. The reality is that when people in top leadership positions create and perpetuate dysfunctional organizations, it involves trust-breaking tactics (dishonesty, manipulation, and deceit, to name a few) and the result is a lack of loyalty to the organization (really, who in his or her right mind is going to pledge loyalty to an organization that, first, is not loyal to him or her, and second, has proven a lack of integrity by its actions?).

Once those statements are communicated, then the next step by the elite is to try to dictate and demand respect and loyalty by imposing very constrictive restrictions on the individuals in the organization. This creates a very hostile environment and destroys morale and motivation. 

At this point, the dysfunctional organization is already in the actively dying process. Some of the non-elite will start looking for an environment where quintessential leadership exists and they can trust, respect, and have a measure of loyalty (loyalty to humanly-devised organizations should not be absolute because humans – myself included – make mistakes, do things wrong, mess up, but the response to those screw-ups is what matters and what builds or destroys trust, respect, and loyalty) and leave as soon as they are able.

Others will just quit with no other prospects in sight and either drop out of the organizational pool altogether or become entrepreneurs and start their own organizations. And others – this will be the majority – will just quit and stay, ensuring the imminent death of the dysfunctional organization.

The saddest part of this is that dysfunctional organizations don’t have to exist. They shouldn’t exist. But until quintessential leadership is being lived, practiced, and a part of every individual within that organization – quintessential leaders mentor, coach, and provide the opportunity for everyone they interact with, professionally and personally, because that’s who they are, to learn how to be quintessential leaders – we will continue to have and see the increase of organizational dysfunction. 

Comments
  1. […] of organizational dysfunction, which I elaborate on in the Quintessential Leader blog post, “Organization Dysfunction – A Total Absence of Quintessential Leadership at the Top.” I encourage everyone to read both articles because, as Myatt correctly observes, […]

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  2. […] Quintessential Leader blog routinely looks at why unquintessential leadership makes organizations dysfunctional. John Bossong rejoins this discussion with his article that looks at how we can identify […]

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