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Towards Less Dysfunctional Workplaces

All organizations are dysfunctional. That might sound like the ultimate career limiting thing to tell your boss and peers, except at the water cooler and directed towards some common enemies. But it could also be the most liberating and enlightening idea in the history of organized work!

It certainly happened to me about 15-20 years ago. After a short stint in academics and several years in Corporate America, the utopia of my youth were confronted with the harsh reality that most if not all workplaces feel more like feudal households and even demilitarized zones than the meritocratic and transparent democracy as advertised on company web sites all across North America and the developed world.

Coping mechanisms differ from person to person, group to group, firm to firm but the overall patterns or structures of organizational dynamics are remarkably consistent and brilliantly characterized by Barry Oshry in his book, ‘Seeing Systems’. The bottom rung of the organization feels suppressed, dehumanized and fearful of what ‘they’ (management) would do to ‘us’; the top dogs are overwhelmed by the complexity of the ever changing business landscape, trying desperately to placate (always demanding and sometimes ignorant) external stakeholders and steer (always limited and sometimes immature) underlings towards a future that is often far less certain than anyone would want to admit; the middle managers feel like caught in between a rock and a hard place, torn by the marching orders from the top and bitter resentments from the bottom.

The liberation and enlightenment came to me as I realized that this pattern or structure of dysfunctional organizational dynamics has a natural cause in the basic human condition, not the result of some evil doers placed at any rungs of the organization. Instead of wasting our time and energy in egotistic reactions (e.g., resentment, cynicism or fear), what if we redirect our attention towards discovering and implementing better pathways to minimize such dysfunctions and channel our organizational energy towards more versus less productive outcomes, even if only by 1% at a time?

This ‘simple’ idea or enlightenment has since guided my career in Corporate America in the past 15 years or more. To my pleasant surprise, it has opened a path of personal and organizational growth that I had never imagined. I am grateful for the moderate ‘success’ that came my way. I value even more the many friends that I have made along this journey whom I never knew existed and without whom I would surely have crashed and perished long ago … I feel that we are entering a new era in Corporate America, just like when the early settlers landed in the New World. Globalization and the digital age are opening doors to an entirely new world economy. The terrains are vast and complex but the potentials are great and exciting! There are valuable lessons and stories from those who came before us but there is no complete guide book written for us. We must author the book ourselves as we navigate our lives through Corporate America and the global economy. There has never been a time in human history that is as sophisticated in technology and interconnected in economic impacts as ours. A 1% improvement in critical areas of human dynamics could produce a huge return on our investments, in both human and capital terms. The question is where should we start and how to proceed from our current and natural state of dysfunction? We’ll explore that question next time.

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