When dysfunctional behaviour becomes normal

Dysfunctional behaviour becomes acceptable


“Oh, he’s always been like that” is a phrase that makes me shudder. It often means that dysfunctional behaviour has been part of a workplace culture for so long now that nobody notices anymore, except those that haven’t been there for very long.

It means that dysfunctional behaviour has gone unchecked for enough time that people no longer care about changing it. They just consider it to be part of their weekly life.

Dysfunctional behaviour doesn’t happen on its own

Repeated dysfunctional behaviour doesn’t just happen. In productive, effective workplaces, leaders understand that continued evidence of the behaviour will lead to problems, so they address it – quickly.

Repeated dysfunctional behaviour happens because it goes unchecked. The dog who jumps up at people doesn’t do it because it’s a bad dog. It does it because it is a natural instinct which nobody has taken the time or effort to stop. The dog learns that this behaviour is acceptable, because there have been no consequences so far.

When dysfunctional behaviour becomes part of the culture, you’re in trouble

Organisational culture is a strong, powerful beast. Changing it takes effort on all levels, but this can’t really be effective without the concerted focus of leadership, followed by adoption and championing at the lower levels within the organisation.

When your organisational culture tolerates dysfunctional behaviour, to change it you are in for a long battle. One person can’t change a culture. Even if somebody is willing to fight against the dysfunctional behaviour, if nobody else supports this, then it will simply continue.

What’s worse is that often in organisational cultures that tolerate dysfunctional behaviour, even those who hate it will be forced to “live with it”, just to perform their jobs at all.

A simple example of dysfunctional behaviour

Let’s start with a trivial example. Someone in your organisation decided that it’s OK not to reply to emails within a reasonable timeframe (let’s say a day or two). This person works in a different office, so face to face conversations aren’t always possible. “He’d better reply to my emails”, you think.

So when he doesn’t reply to your emails, you’ll ring him and ask him to respond to it. He’ll say that he’ll get to it when he can. Talking to other people about it, they simply say “Oh yeah, he hardly ever responds”.

Then you’ll try again. Same result. Eventually, you will either need to choose to fight about this or to concede ground. The only problem is, you’re not just fighting against the dysfunctional behaviour. You are fighting against potential years of reinforcement from people not addressing the behaviour.

Before long, you’ll start to adapt your behaviour to work around the problem. You’ll contact other people who can satisfy your request, instead of him. After all, that’s his goal – to not need to respond so that he isn’t bothered. You will start to work differently, adjusting the way you work so that you don’t require any input from him at all.

Obviously, there are worse cases of dysfunctional behaviour than not responding to emails. But you’d be surprised how small things like this can destroy productivity and affect the ability of other people to simply do their jobs properly.

Here are some more examples of accepted dysfunctional behaviour that I’ve seen and experienced:

  • Being disrespectful to people by talking down to them
  • Deflecting blame so that it is always “someone else’s” fault
  • Arguments for arguments sake – bickering over inconsequential issues to waste time
  • Repeated failure to deliver work at the agreed time
  • Passive aggressive behaviour
  • Being late to or skipping meetings

Why don’t people fight against dysfunctional behaviour in the workplace?

In my opinion, the number one reason why people don’t fight against dysfunctional behaviour is because it’s hard work and it takes persistence. It is uncomfortable to have those conversations and people don’t like being uncomfortable.

Imagine, you are just trying to do your job. You don’t have time to continuously focus on the behaviour of others. Often when these behaviours occur, you aren’t the direct manager of the person who is displaying them, so it is more difficult to address it.

Ultimately, people need to care more about working in a great place and doing a great job than the degree to which they’re uncomfortable with the difficult conversations.

When people don’t really like their jobs and aren’t motivated, then obviously they are never going to fight against dysfunctional behaviour. It’s hard enough just going to work every day, let alone needing to fight battles to get someone to stop doing something that is counterproductive.

How do you get people to rally against dysfunctional behaviour?

You need to instil a sense of pride in the workplace. You need to get people frustrated at how somebody else’s behaviour is ruining how your team works or how your organisation functions.

You need to create a situation where this statement becomes true:

The amount people care > The discomfort people feel in speaking out

If people in your workplace don’t really care, then you won’t get anywhere. If they just want to turn up to work and go home without investing much of themselves in the workplace, then you’re out of luck. If being friends with everybody and not rocking the boat is more important than functioning effectively as an organisation, then you’re in trouble.

Unless you can show them a better way. Unless you can show them a vision of a workplace that functions better, that produces better quality work and that people can be proud of.

Then you need to point out how the dysfunctional behaviour is getting in the way of achieving that vision. If you can achieve this, then the culture becomes an entity that fights against dysfunction without individuals feeling like they are going out on a limb to do so.

The leadership need to set the tone for the culture of the place. Start by doing the following:

  1. Explain to the person exhibiting the dysfunctional behaviour exactly how it negatively affects the team and the impact that it has
  2. Reach a compromise – find a way to satisfy the person’s needs and operate in an acceptable way at the same time. After all, the only reason dysfunctional behaviour exists is because the person undertaking it is gaining something from it
  3. Don’t back down – involve the person’s direct manager as necessary. Try to enlist their support.

When people in your organisation stop caring, you are in trouble. Dysfunctional behaviour will flourish and will go unchecked.

You will notice that when dysfunctional behaviour goes unchecked for too long, or if leaders refuse to confront it, people will leave your organisation. They will often be good people, who want to do a good job, but feel that in the current environment, they are unable to.

What you will be left with are the people who don’t want to rock the boat and are happy with mediocrity.

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