Normalizing Dysfunction

Being in school was a bit of a rough time for me. I had a great group of core friends, but experienced a fair amount of bullying, especially in junior high. Even as I got into high school, and the bullying lessened, I never really felt comfortable in my skin, or around most of my peers. People were very clear about where you stood if you weren’t popular. But my discomfort wasn’t something I thought about much. After all, it was normal.

Then I got to college. I was lucky enough to go to a small liberal arts school, and there I discovered something so different. People who hadn’t been super popular in school, people who loved geeky things, people who had experienced bullying for themselves. They didn’t judge me or make comments based on what I wore or whether I raised my hand in class. And suddenly I realized that my high school experience wasn’t normal. And that something much better was possible. That I could feel good.

I think we’ve all had an experience like that. An experience of going through stress, and yet only when the stress is lifted, realizing just how much we were carrying. Of thinking our experience is normal, only to move into a new environment that shows us how off our perspective was.

"Ok, got my work for the day! Let's do it!"

One of my earlier jobs in government was Personnel Coordinator. This meant that I tracked all of the positions in my district and which offices they were assigned to. Every new hire, every resignation, every dismissal, and every move, I was the one who typed up the proper form and submitted it to the head office. I was also in the same office as district management, so was in a unique position to watch the outcomes of various decisions.

There were two different agencies run out of this office. And one agency in particular had a very distinct approach when they were dissatisfied with the performance of a specific office. Not only would they reassign the manager from that office, but they would reassign almost all of their managers at once – essentially shuffling the deck of managers until most were in a new location.

At first I didn’t give this strategy much thought. I was a low level admin, they were upper management, and I just did the paperwork. But after a while, it started to feel…weird.

There were so many deeply entrenched issues in the agency, staff morale was always an issue, resources were tight, and yet it seemed the main solution to so many problems was to reassign managers.

Now admittedly, I wasn’t privy to all the high level discussions to these decisions. But I was in a position to see the impact. Keep in mind, each move wasn’t just an adjustment for the managers. Each time this happened, all of the staff would be affected as well.

I also started to get to know some of the managers. One of them facilitated with me in a leadership program. She would talk about her connection with her staff, and the progress they were making in reaching program goals. She’d be so proud of what she was accomplishing. And then suddenly she would be moved. She’d start over, gain the staff’s trust, refocus the goals of the office. And then it would happen again.

I can see how something like this would get started. A manager is struggling, and a different one may seem to have a more appropriate skill set for that particular office. So you do a swap. And maybe the first few times you do it, it’s actually quite effective.

Until there’s a day, far down the line, where instead of providing support or training, or looking deeper at the underlying issues, or considering the impact on your workers, the standard in resolving any problem is to move managers. It’s become normal.

"Um, sure...I guess while we're shortstaffed I can help out a bit..."

I’m a fairly avid gamer, as any recurring readers know.. Recently, there’s been an increasing awareness of how toxic game studios can be, especially in how they are treating their employees. There’s been a number of articles written on just how much the workers are expected to bear, all in the name of being a good employee. Current and ex-employees are speaking out against the severe conditions in prominent companies such as Bioware and Rockstar. In some cases, these employees are working vast amounts of unpaid overtime only to face abrupt job loss when the studio folds.

I found the example of Bioware particularly interesting. This was a company that used to be my absolute favorite developer. I was so excited whenever they would release a game. And then, over time, cracks began to show.

What some of the reporting has revealed was that there was a particular game that was close to disaster. And the employees were able to pull a last minute miracle, and release something that was fairly successful.

Now, for most of us, we would see a close disaster as an opportunity to reevaluate. To be grateful for the workers that were able to pull out “magic”, but to understand that this is not a viable strategy. In reality? Nothing of the kind happened. Instead, management decided that if it could happen once, it could happen again. If you can push your staff to the limit and get a decent product, why not keep pushing?

Only the real world doesn’t work like that. You can’t make a strategy based on a one time occurrence. And it shows, as recent projects relying on this “magic” have been failures, experienced staff are fleeing for the hills, and new bright minds never dare walk in the door in the first place.

One of the most important aspects of leadership is the ability to learn from failure. And yet, in these companies, and so many others, leadership learns absolutely nothing. Time and again they rely on forcing workers into a crunch. And over time, it gets worse. People are pushed beyond reasonable bounds, beyond the point of breakdown. And yet inexplicably, it’s become normal.

"Just another Wednesday. *sigh*"

I want to be very clear here. I’ve been a manager, and I know how hard it is to stay on top of things. To see the forest for the trees. I know how easily we can all slip into seeing the unhealthy as normal.

But when you are in a position of leadership, you are absolutely still making a choice about how you treat your employees.

You are making a choice in the language you use. You are making a choice in accepting the culture, instead of fighting it. You are making a choice in telling your staff to pull up their bootstraps and stick it out until things get better.

And if you normalize dysfunction, you are normalizing abuse.


To be continued…

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