The Adult Sandbox

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Managing Differences in the Workplace – Part 1

In the field of executive coaching there are many opportunities to provide solutions for team and organization-wide dysfunction. To describe workplace interactions as dysfunctional behaviors is not received well by some leaders and team managers. Some well-meaning professionals who want coaching and small group work for their teams go into denial when the culture is described as dysfunctional. Dysfunctional can mean:

  • Relating badly
  • Not performing as expected
  • Affected by disease or impairment

Let’s form proactive synergy restructuring teams.     Scott Adams

You know, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck! Whether we call it: (1) culturally challenged; (2) a case of management malpractice; (3) stormy weather; or (4) poor behavioral alignment, improper team interactions and the dilution of group outcomes add up to dysfunction. As an executive coach working with individuals and teams, I try not to state the situation as bad when it isn’t.  It is also important to not state it as good when it isn’t. There is a recent study that brings present evidence to this.

Incivility a growing problem at work, psychologists say

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Stressed on the job? Add rude co-workers to the list of headaches.

“Workplace incivility” is on the rise, researchers said Sunday at the American Psychological Association annual meeting.

The academics define workplace incivility as “a form of organizational deviance… characterized by low-intensity behaviors that violate respectful workplace norms, appearing vague as to intent to harm.”

Translation: rudeness, insults and plain old bad manners.

Research suggests “75% to 80% of people have experienced incivility. It’s a growing and prevalent problem,” said Jeannie Trudel of Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion.

“It’s very hard to target because you don’t really know if someone actually means to be rude or if it’s just off the cuff, so it’s an insidious problem,” Trudel says. “There are very, very negative effects of accumulated minor stresses.”

In a study she co-wrote, 86% of 289 workers at three Midwestern firms reported incivility at work.

As companies buy out and lay off workers while expecting to keep productivity up, the niceties suffer, suggests psychologist and researcher Paul Fairlie of Toronto: “White-collar work is becoming a little more blue-collar. There’s higher work demands, longer hours. When you control for inflation, people are getting paid less than in the late ’60s. A lot of people are working much harder. They’ve got fluid job descriptions and less role clarity. So for some people, for a growing fringe, work is becoming more toxic.”

The Civility in America 2011 poll of 1,000 adults found 43% of Americans say they’ve experienced incivility at work, and 38% believe the workplace is increasingly disrespectful. In the online survey, done in May by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research, 67% cited a “critical need” for civility training.

Fairlie’s online survey of 574 full- or part-timers found meaningful work is important to all ages. Older workers ‘don’t see it as meaningful anymore because they were expecting more,’ he says. ‘Younger people are seeing what work did to their parents’ and saying, ‘I’m not paying my dues. I’m going backpacking. I’ll come back and get a job.’”

Servant leadership is the foundation and the secret of Sam Walton’s ability to achieve team synergy.     Michael Bergdahl

In the coaching and consulting business there are great opportunities when a team leader and a team allow for transformational coaching and training with subsequent positive change. There are also those projects where we are brought in to attempt to rescue a dysfunctional organization or team within a larger culture. Recently, I mediated a series of team meetings that gave the team members a place to vent their concerns regarding the senior leadership. Only does Trove enter into these scenarios when there can be follow up steps to resolution. The range of emotions in these team-coaching meetings ranged from disgust to anger. Since we were working in the greater organization and knew the whole set of dynamics, our consulting context provided mediation toward solution.

The first step with these team leaders was to hear them as they described what was causing so much stress and dysfunction on the organizational culture and their outcomes. After two meetings we were able to draft a composite synopsis of the issues and some solutions as the team leaders perceived them. Before engaging the senior leadership, we set some foundational “ground rules” with them to allow for a less emotional interaction. The basics to the upcoming interaction included:

  1. Rules of engagement – We established what words should and should not be used to describe the situation when in the solution meeting with senior leadership. The “rules” included refraining from making things personal and avoiding having to make others “wrong.” Also, we agreed that going too far back to bring history into the meeting would serve less a positive purpose than benchmarking the situation in the present and working for a brighter future solution.
  2. Design solutions – We next established what the most important solutions should be and ranked them in a priority list. The team leaders and Trove spent time refining them and getting them to a place where they could be verbalized clearly and defended even if the emotions rose in the meeting.
  3. Outcome definitions – Lastly, the hurting team was coached to think about their preferred future. This dreaming helped them see and feel what it could be like if this process worked well. They established preferred outcomes that would, if senior leadership engaged in the process positively, create a new paradigm of working together. This included: (1) communication lines; (2) a “way of being” that was more congenial; (3) a new structure that gave the team leaders a “seat at the table” as to new ideas and opinion of work flow; and (4) a continuation of small group work quarterly with both the team leaders and senior leadership team to keep the solution moving forward.

Conflict is inevitable in a team … in fact, to achieve synergistic solutions, a variety of ideas and approaches are needed. These are the ingredients for conflict.     Susan Gerke, IBM, Leadership Development

There are evidently many reasons that work groups get dysfunctional. Sometimes it is a lack of clarity to roles. Other times it may include a lack of historical awareness by new leadership. Dysfunction may include structural and process weaknesses. Many times it includes behavioral issues. These behavioral issues are the ones that are often ignored by company or organizational leadership. Trove’s use of assessments helps to bring discovery to the behavioral disparities found within any culture, particularly in organizational life.

There are at least three aspects of culture, whether good and functional or dysfunctional. These three factors are: (1) the leader’s or manager’s personality and behavioral style; (2) the team members’ (no matter what level in the organization) personalities and behavioral styles; and (3) the situational characteristics. These aspects are in motion in every business, non-profit, or, in some ways, social cultures. Some say that there is a micro-society in motion as workers gather to place their personalities and emotions in play against desired outcomes of the organization. Of the three aspects listed above (leader’s behaviors, followers’ behaviors, and the cultural situation), the first two are the most pervasive, in my experience. What I mean is this: cultural paradigms and historical data can take years to shift in an organization. A leader’s behaviors and a team’s behaviors can more effectively be coached and trained to interplay effectively, and, rather quickly, if all parties are open to positive change. This does not imply that these aspects of positive change are easy nor are they achievable overnight. There has to be a willingness to cooperate and collaborate around human behavioral solutions.

Teamwork is the quintessential contradiction of a society grounded in individual achievement.     Marvin Weisbord

In an academic abstract by Dr. Mel E. Schnake from the Department of Management at Valdosta State University in Georgia, there are some cited definitions to organizational dysfunction that are very important. The article is great, so you may want to email Dr. Schnake and get a copy at Here are the definitions cited in his article:

Robinson & Bennett, 1995 – Employee Deviance  

Voluntary behavior that violates significant organizational norms and in so doing threatens the well-being of an organization, its members, or both.                                                                                                  

Giacalone & Greenberg, 1997 – Antisocial Behavior

Negative behaviors in organizations that are harmful, or have the potential to cause harm to individuals and the property of an organization.

Vardi & Weiner, 1996 – Organizational Misbehavior

Any intentional action by members of organizations that violate core organizational and/or societal norms.

Griffin, O’Leary-Kelly, & Collins, 1998 – Dysfunctional Work Behavior

Motivated behavior by an employee or group of employees that has negative consequences for an individual within an organization.

There are other definitions and writings in this strong abstract that illuminate the topic at hand: adults misbehaving in the workplace. Since this is a two-part article and the definitions of human behaviors have been set to go deeper in the second article, we leave the dysfunctional descriptions for now. However, to leave part one without any solutions would not be productive, so below are a few steps to begin solving team dysfunction. 

  1. Use preemptive problem solving rather than making others “wrong.”
  2. Use crosscutting collaboration for divergent issues rather than in isolated teams.
  3. Carefully design purposeful measurements for execution, relationships and deliverables that directly link the culture to organizational results.                               
  4. Make organizational purpose, outcomes and priorities absolutely clear so that employees at all levels understand the rock-solid priorities that drive outcomes and resources.
  5. The organization should become “outcome-driven” rather than “activities-driven” so that wasted meetings, effort and resources are minimized or eliminated.
  6. Supervisors should lead and develop their direct reports towards high functionality rather than micro-managing them, which results in low functionality and morale.
  7. Organizational dysfunctions should be quickly diagnosed and resolved cross-functionally and outcomes maximized rather than minimized.
  8. Leadership should be distributed throughout the organization and an “ownership” developed at all levels of the organization instead of people just “doing their tasks.”

The second part of this article, “The Adult Sandbox: Managing Differences in the Workplace- Part 2” will further the topic, share real-life case studies and outline some more solutions.

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