The Shared Dysfunction of Families and Organizations: Part 2


In my last posting, I said I would relate the characteristics of dysfunctional families to toxic organizations. I do so here, but first, let’s briefly revisit those characteristics.


Members of dysfunctional families often:

  • Live in denial about their problems. They may also be anxious, hypervigilent, and live in fear of their abuser. They may limit their ties to the community in order to hide the abuse or addictions from outsiders.
  • Take on specific roles. A spouse may become co-dependent with his partner and help her hide an addiction or abusive behavior. A child may learn ways to manipulate others to maintain a sense of power. Another might become the scapegoat who is blamed for the family’s problems. Still another may become the forgotten child and suppress his own needs in order to avoid the abuse.
  • Follow unspoken, but powerfully conditioned, rules such as “Don’t rock the boat” and “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Checks and Balances

An organization is a collection of people that can develop a distinct work culture. Dysfunctional work environments arise when an organization’s checks and balances no longer serve to maintain professional standards of behavior and performance. That is, they do not act as a counterpoint to the poor interpersonal skills and dynamics we might carry with us from our family upbringing to our work life. These checks and balances include:

  • Strong foundational elements such as human resources departments that are well-resourced and engaged
  • Managers and administrators who uphold the agency’s values, carry out their responsibilities in an ethical manner, and have the well-being of personnel foremost in their actions

In the next section, I present a narrative based on events I’ve witnessed in governmental public health to demonstrate the parallels between dysfunctional families and toxic work environments.

The Narrative

Hank is insecure about his abilities to manage Program X. He did not have to go through an interview process to get his job. Instead, he was appointed by a former boss, Todd, who is now on the executive team. Todd put Hank in the position, despite his questionable qualifications and temperament, because he could control through Hank the large amounts of money that Program X brought into the organization.

Hank came to believe that other program managers resented him. But rather than seek out their support and assistance, he instructed his team to keep an ear open for any rumors about him. He warned them that these outsiders wanted to eliminate Program X and their jobs. He also reminded them repeatedly about the importance of being loyal to the team.

But the team knew that Hank was really reminding them to be loyal to him, and they knew his loyalty to them was conditional. They had seen him extend favors to those who didn’t cross him or who made him look good to his superiors. For example, he wouldn’t check on their whereabouts, and he bought them new technical equipment and sent them to conferences.

And the team has seen how punishing he can be to those he perceives as not loyal. He uses physical or verbal intimidation or the silent treatment to make them fall in line or to push them out of the program. For example, Charlie used to be one of Hank’s favorites. His hard work brought a lot of praise to Program X from funders and even the distracted executive team. But then Hank grew resentful of Charlie. Charlie began to notice little things like Hank avoiding him around the office or not inviting him to important meetings. Charlie was puzzled by this until Connie, the office gossip who frequently spent an hour or two chatting with Hank in his office, began to come to his cubicle and taunt him. She implied that Charlie was working hard because he was after Hank’s job.

When Charlie spoke with Hank about the situation, Hank told him he was imagining everything. But oddly enough, after that conversation, Hank’s treatment of him worsened. Charlie stopped by to talk with him again, but Hank told his administrative assistant, Jane, to escort Charlie out of his office. Charlie endured Hank’s behavior for a few more months even though it limited his ability to do his job effectively. Charlie decided to look for another job when his physician told him that his recently-developed high blood pressure and skin condition were likely due to stress.

Hank grew ever more overwhelmed by his responsibilities, and most of his energy went toward hiding that fact. He feared embarrassing himself by making the wrong decision so he either made none or told people what he thought they wanted to hear. Renée, who had taken over Todd’s supervisory position, told Hank that people outside his program were complaining about his inconsistencies. But Hank had learned, over the years, how to use others to make up for his inadequacies. He convinced Renée that he needed more talented staff and asked her to transfer Sandra, a rising star from another program, to assist him.

With great relief, Hank delegated many of his responsibilities to Sandra even though she had little management experience. Sandra eagerly took the reins of the program, excited about being entrusted with this level of responsibility. But Hank did not clearly delineate the scope of Sandra’s role to her or the Program X team, and the team became confused about who was in charge. Hank and Sandra gave them conflicting information and instructions.

Over time, Sandra found herself becoming angry at various team members when they failed to follow her directions. Talking with Hank had not resulted in any solutions. At home, her partner suggested she ask human resources (HR) for help, but Sandra knew that, Marco, the HR consultant assigned to their agency, was useless. He openly bragged about being fired from previous jobs, and not surprisingly, he automatically blamed managers for the personnel issues they brought to him. But Sandra called him, anyway. After a few minutes, she hung up the phone. She could no longer tolerate his verbal assault.

The Program X team members became afraid to talk to each other when they realize they were choosing sides between Hank and Sandra. The few who did confide in one another did so outside of the building, which was the only place that felt safe and private.

Renée called Hank into her office one day and told him she was hearing unpleasant stories about his program. She ordered him to deal with it. So Hank held a team meeting and cursed at his staff for not following his instructions about rumor control. Then, he berated Sandra and blamed her for the program’s problems. Later that day, Charlie saw Sandra crying on a bench behind the building. He walked by, thankful he had recently accepted a job offer.

The stories Renée had heard about Program X didn’t seem too different from those occurring in the rest of the agency. Charlie had requested to meet with her, at one point, and he told her about several specific incidents. But she found these hard to believe and told him so. When she mentioned her meeting with Charlie to Hank, he did not say a word, but his face and neck swelled with fury. Renée was about to suggest he loosen his tie, because she was afraid he was going to have a stroke, when Hank pointed out that Charlie was the only one on his team who had ever complained to her and that Charlie had always been a trouble-maker.

There was also the issue of Sandra slapping Connie out of frustration, but that problem was easily settled by transferring Sandra to another program. And then there was the Program X employee who was caught by a security camera in a lascivious position with another person in the program’s equipment room. But the higher-ups just thought that was funny. And then there’s Hank’s administrative assistant, Jane, who rarely speaks and always seems to be on the verge of tears whenever Renée comes to meet with Hank. What’s her problem? Renée has often thought. She now thinks Hank really did get a raw deal with his staff.

As Charlie packs up his cubicle on his last day with Program X, he wonders how Hank has survived in the agency all these years. At first, he thought Hank must have some really good dirt on someone or was too well connected for anyone to try to get rid of him. It also occurred to him that Hank intimidated his supervisors or threatened to sue them for wrongful termination. But, after his meeting with Renee, during which she dismissed his concerns, Charlie decided the most likely reason for Hank’s survival was that the higher-ups didn’t care enough to do anything.

During lunch, Renée tells a colleague that all is well with Program X because she’s got her eye on a recently vacated administrator position. She doesn’t dare stir up any controversy now by looking into the stories surrounding the program. She needs to be seen as a team player by the agency’s executives. Renée smiles as she dreams about no longer having to supervise Hank. Program X will soon be someone else’s responsibility.

The Parallels

This narrative illustrates how the failure to use an organization’s checks and balances results in a work environment that embraces the characteristics, roles, and rules of dysfunctional families.

  • Todd failed his responsibilities by appointing Hank into a position for which he neither had the skills nor temperament. Todd put his own needs above what was best for Program X and its staff.
  • Hank failed in his responsibilities by not owning up to his limitations, creating an abusive work environment, manipulating others for his own gain, failing to provide adequate management oversight, and lying to his supervisor.
  • Renée failed her responsibilities by repeatedly dismissing the concerns brought to her attention about Program X and for: not holding Hank accountable for the mounting evidence against him; not engaging in problem-solving with Hank, and putting her ambition ahead of what was best for the program and its staff.
  • Marco failed his responsibilities by holding onto his prejudices about managers, behaving abusively toward them, and using his behavior to get out of work.

Each of these people had the power to take corrective actions, but they did not do so. It is possible that they were so conditioned by their childhood families to abide by dysfunctional rules and roles that they did not realize they were recreating them in the work place. This might explain Hank’s and Renée’s response to Charlie. They sabotaged his efforts to create a healthier environment because the resulting disequilibrium felt threatening to them.

They may also have been so stressed by overwork and the lack of support from an organization built on the proverbial ‘house of cards’ that they simply did not have the energy to address the toxicity in their work place.

But we also know that organizations are they way they are because someone is benefiting from maintaining the status quo (1), and in this narrative, the personal motives of Todd, Hank, and Renée were very clear.

In families, it is the adults who have the true power to affect change. Todd, Hank, Renée, and Marco held that power in their organization, but they did not uphold the agency’s values and professional standards of behavior and performance. As a result, their inaction taught others to ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ In addition, Program X lost talent and the staff learned to:

  • Fear the wrath of their supervisor
  • Keep the truth about their program a secret from outsiders, and
  • Abide by the rule to ‘not rock the boat’

They also:

  • Took on the roles of manipulator, forgotten child, and scapegoat
  • Suffered emotionally, and
  • Were allowed to engage in inappropriate physical and sexual behavior

It is of great interest to me whether personnel within a dysfunctional agency have the capacity to reverse the toxicity of their work environment. We might find some insight into this challenge from statements made by Nadine Burke Harris, MD, MPH in a TED talk she gave about the effect of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress. She wondered why we (society) haven’t taken this issue more seriously, and she suggests we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. That is, we don’t want to look at it. She states, “We’d rather be sick.”

I’d like to believe it is possible to turn around dysfunctional agencies so that their personnel can be creative and productive in an environment where they feel safe, supported, and appreciated. Inside the Health Department will explore this topic in future postings.

Your turn

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All the best!  Kathy


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.


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