I will soon turn the attention of this blog to how toxic organizations might be transformed, but before I do so, I would like to explore the topic of why organizational dysfunction persists despite clear signs of its existence (e.g., low morale, poor performance, and high employee turnover). It’s not difficult to understand how dysfunction begins, and I’ve mentioned a few reasons in previous posts. One of these, as noted by Robert Gates, is that individuals of questionable quality and experience are appointed by politicians to head agencies. Another is that takers (aka bullies) are not screened out during hiring or the performance review process.
But I’ve had to draw on my training in psychiatric epidemiology to understand the more subtle factors of why organizational dysfunction persists. That training was focused on interpersonal violence with a heavy emphasis on family dynamics. None of what I’m going to describe may come as a surprise to organizational psychologists, but it is easiest for me to understand my experience with toxic work cultures in governmental public health through the lens of the characteristics, roles, and unspoken rules of dysfunctional family environments. Organizational dysfunction persists when the workplace checks and balances that help us maintain our professional standards and behaviors are eroded, and we slip into old familial patterns of interacting that have a corrosive effect on our work relationships and responsibilities.
Evidence from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Studies
The potential for the shared dysfunction of families and organizations was driven home for me during a recent training I attended on trauma-informed care (TIC). During that training, participants were reminded that the 1998 ACE Study found that 52% of the predominantly white, well-educated and HMO-insured respondents reported at least one category of adverse childhood experiences. These categories were: psychological, physical or sexual abuse; living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal; violence against the mother; and a household member ever imprisoned. One-fourth of the respondents reported experiencing two or more categories. In my state, Oregon, sixty-two percent (62%) of adult respondents to a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey reported at least one ACE.
The TIC trainer also pointed out that our service-oriented agencies are often oppressive and have workforces that are overstressed and populated with trauma survivors. Her words are supported by a 2013 study, which found that 70% of social service providers reported one or more ACE.
In other words, many of us grew up in unhealthy family environments.
A Downward Spiral
We bring the interpersonal and coping skills we learned in our families into the workplace. Since few problem-free families exist, everyone’s skills need attention and refinement from time to time. Where organizations go haywire, however, is when the unhealthy interactions and their negative consequences are accepted as the norm. Toxic work environments are made worse by the departure of individuals who are willing to confront the dysfunction. As they are driven away by those who turn a blind eye to the problems or benefit from the status quo, the concentration of individuals willing to (or needing to) tolerate the organizational abuse increases—and the toxicity deepens.
[Side note: For a discussion of who benefits from maintaining the status quo in dysfunctional organizations, see the section entitled, The Illusion of the Broken System, in Chapter 2 of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Heifetz et al. (1).]
Characteristics, Roles and Rules of Dysfunctional Families
Let’s first examine common characteristics of dysfunctional families. We’ll use the hypothetical example of a family with a physically abusive alcoholic father.
This parent lives in denial about his addiction and its consequences. He pretends that nothing is wrong, and he may lack empathy for the suffering of his family. The family works to isolate itself from others to hide their problems. This is done by limiting their ties to the community. The parent’s behavior is inconsistent and unpredictable. He flips between acting in a loving manner and aggressive behavior, and he may pit one person against the other to maintain control. Everyone in the family learns to keep the secret of his alcoholism and assaults from outsiders. If sexual abuse is involved, the child victims may even learn to keep that secret from each other. Family members live in fear of the abuser and are hypervigilent. They are anxious and ever-watchful about potential threats. They may express their fear through anger, but may do so in an unhealthy manner (from passive-aggressive behavior to violent acts) because they have had poor role models for working through conflict.
Roles within dysfunctional families
Members of dysfunctional families often take on specific roles. An alcoholic’s spouse may become co-dependent and support her abusive husband in hiding his addiction. One child may become the family scapegoat, and problems are blamed on her so that the family can avoid examining its true ills. Another sibling may become the forgotten child who survives the abuse by hiding away. The golden child carries the family’s hopes and dreams, and the peacekeeper tries to ward off or smooth over conflict. Both the golden child and peacekeeper take on these roles at the expense of their own needs, and may come to be resented by other family members.
Boundaries are not respected in dysfunctional families. One of the children may become parentified. That is, she may take on adult responsibilities, such as listening to the abuser complain about his spouse, or she may be groomed to be his sexual partner. Someone in the family may take on the role of manipulator or critic, using tricks, faultfinding, and sarcasm to get what they want, including power over others. None of the children, however, has any true power to affect change in the family.
Unspoken rules of dysfunctional families
Members of dysfunctional families are conditioned to follow unspoken rules so that the family dynamic is not upset. Common rules are:
- It’s not okay [or safe – my addition] to talk about or express feelings openly
- It’s not okay to address issues or relationships directly
- Do as I say, not as I do
- Don’t rock the boat
Those of you who have worked in a toxic environment may already see how these characteristics, roles and rules relate to your experiences. In this blog’s next post, I will use a scenario to further illustrate the shared dysfunction between families and organizations.
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1) Heifetz R, Grashow A, Linsky M. The practice of adaptive leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press. 2009.