Countering Workplace Dysfunction

We’ve spent a couple of weeks talking about the ways dysfunctional or toxic behavior can get normalized within the workplace. Sometimes it’s done intentionally, sometimes not. However if we want to break this behavior, we absolutely need to be intentional.

Now, I can’t tell you any of this is easy. There may be some workplaces where it could even be unsafe to push back, depending on how far the toxicity has gone. In the end, you have to decide the best path for yourself. Just be mindful – often those of us with privilege only worry about the consequences for ourselves, and don’t really consider the difference we could make for others. If you are white and are nervous to act, imagine how your co-workers and employees of color must feel. If you are a man and hesitate to speak up, think of how it must be for your associates who are women. Be wise, but don’t use your fear as an excuse.

Oof, what did they do to this place?

Tactic #1: Trust yourself

This one is hard. Believe me, I know. Especially if you are part of a marginalized group and have been socialized to put the comfort of others above your own. You’re already getting messages every day that your perspective isn’t valid or worthy. You may be in a workplace that reinforces those messages. But it’s worth the work to get there.

My father has a lot of great advice, but one of the most memorable things he told me was that if I was having concerns or doubts about someone or something at work, there were going to be others who did as well, even if they weren’t saying it.

This really stuck with me, because it can be so easy to doubt our own feelings. And if we’re in an environment that encourages our doubt, we start to feel like we may be the problem. His words made me realize I could give myself permission to trust my own perceptions. That not hearing anyone else complain about something bothering you doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make it less valid, or less likely that others are experiencing it too.

If you’ve been in the dysfunctional environment for a long time, it can be so hard to realize this. And it make take time to rebuild your confidence in your own judgement.

But I can tell you, right here, right now, you are not wrong for how you feel. If something feels off, it’s off. That feeling in the pit of your stomach? That sense of disquiet? It’s there for a reason.

And the interesting thing is that once you learn to trust your perceptions, you’ll find confirmation that others feel the same way.

I had a really great manager who retired, and the first manager hired to replace her was…let’s just say, not a good fit. He wouldn’t listen, spoke down to his female employees, and thought he knew best in all situations, despite not having any real experience in the type of work we were doing. Now, I knew a couple of my co-workers were unhappy, as we spent a lot of time together and could talk about it. But it wasn’t until he was fired, and we were able to have our first unit meeting without him, that I truly found out how deeply hurt so many of our staff were. We had all been suffering, but unable to share it openly.

Of course the ability to trust your own intuition and perceptions isn’t something you can develop overnight. It takes time. Just last week I found myself using very apologetic language to remind my building’s maintenance team that they needed to finish a job for me. I shouldn’t need to apologize. I should be able to remind a man to do his job without feeling bad. The socialization runs deep, but I’m going to keep pulling it apart, piece by piece.

Trust yourself. You know what’s right.

Here we go...

Tactic #2: Speak truth to power

Another aspect of learning to trust yourself is learning to see authority with some perspective. It’s challenging, because we live in a culture where people with power are often granted the assumption that they are there because they earned it, and that we have a responsibility to be obedient to them.

Power differentials based on job classification are reinforced constantly in our culture. Just recently there was a trending article where a woman was talking about her three children being doctors and CEOs, and bragging about how it was her parenting style that got them there. That’s all well and good, but what does that say about people who have children who are receptionists and janitors? Are they supposed to feel lesser, or like they failed at parenting? I don’t know about you, but I bet if you removed the CEOs from some companies, and the support and janitorial staff from others, the ones without the CEOs would fare a whole lot better. In the end, there is nothing inherently superior about you because of the job you do.

Throughout my career, no matter where I went on the ladder, I always felt the power of authority. The first time I presented in a meeting with the district manager, I was keenly aware of the power differentials in the room. I was flattered when I got attention from those in higher level positions. I was excited if the director of the agency would attend our leadership program graduations, because I knew it would mean something to our students for someone of that level to be present.

None of that is inherently bad, of course. When someone has a great deal of decision making power over your career, it’s natural to want to be noticed by them.

But there are some important things to keep in mind.

People in power are not smarter than you. They are not more deserving. They are not better than you. And they need to be questioned.

If they are doing something wrong, it is wrong. It doesn’t matter who they are.

And this goes both ways. Because if you hold positional power? You need to be open to being questioned. Which leads me to my next point.

Tactic #3: Transparency & honesty

Unfortunately, we can’t control the honesty of others. Our current government proves that. But we can be honest and transparent ourselves, and encourage it in those around us.

When I was quite little, I was playing with some of the other kids in the neighborhood. And this boy came over and started chasing some of us around. I didn’t really know him, or want to play with him, and I didn’t like being chased. So after running for a moment, I just stopped.

The funny thing? Once I stopped running, he had no idea what to do. He literally veered around me to go run after someone else.

It was a huge moment for me. I realized I didn’t have to play by his rules.

Often people will claim that they’re not personally responsible for being misleading or hiding the truth of what’s really going on. In other words, “it’s just the culture”, “everyone else is doing it”, “I can’t succeed if I don’t play along”. “I didn’t make the rules.”

You may work somewhere where honesty and transparency are non-existent. Or maybe you have it with your co-workers, but you know management isn’t being truthful.

That sucks. But it doesn’t mean you need to play by those same rules.

Folks who have any experience with change management know that a huge element of it is managing the people side of change. I had a co-worker who was an expert in change management, and would conduct trainings on how to form committees of employees to assist during times of change at companies. The important thing about these groups was that there would be no managers. No one in a position of authority to control what was talked about. The group would be a conduit between staff and management, and could make recommendations purely from the staff perspective.

My co-worker once told me a story about doing a change management training where she emphasized, “Unless you manage the people side of change, your change will fail.” And the manager, at the back of the room, nodded his head vigorously. She repeated it for emphasis. And he again agreed.

So after the training, she went to talk to him. “So, you’re going to form a change management team?” she asked. “Oh no,” he said. “We don’t have time for that!”

And that’s how it seemed to work with transparency at my agency. Talk to any manager about the need to be transparent about decisions and to keep employees in the loop, and they would vigorously agree. And then, when a major change was happening? No information, staff becoming increasingly upset and stressed, and in the end, usually a last minute email letting employees know how they’re being impacted in the most disconnected way possible.

There are some workplaces where this is taken to a terrible extreme, where management knows their company is about to shut down, but doesn’t tell staff because they want them to keep working until the last possible moment.

But the thing is, most employees know things are wrong. They know they’re not getting the full story. If you’re not being honest with them, you’re going to lose them. They may still be physically present, but they’re not with you. Not really.

Everyone deserves the dignity of being treated like a full human being, and part of that is showing them you’re a human being too. Just be honest.

Tactic #4: Find your allies

There are always going to be those who resist change. There’s a number of people who strongly benefit from the inequity inherent in dysfunctional systems, and they have no interest in helping those who want to upset the status quo.

This applies to a number of people who will say the right things, but then still prioritize their own perceived self-interest over improving conditions for everyone. (Yes, this includes you, white women).

But the great thing is that you do have allies out there.

There were times I would get so frustrated at the lack of progress towards equity at my workplace. However, I knew I could meet with my like-minded co-workers, talk about ambitions and plans for continuing to move forward, and leave the room ready to keep going. I knew if I hit a wall, that I had someone who would take me to grab a coffee and let me vent. I knew I had people who would trust my perspective and support my passion for adding more voices to the work we were doing. I knew they would speak up for me and my ideas. And I knew that I could do those same things for all of them.

This is more than having work friends. This is standing side by side with others who are ready to do the work.

Side note, for those of you with privilege, you’re going to need to put some time in here. You don’t get to just be an ally by choice. If you want to be an ally to people who are marginalized, you need to do the work. This means doing more than posting Facebook memes and watching the occasional Ted Talk (even though I love Ted Talks). You need to be able to acknowledge your own privilege and bias, recognize the part you play in oppressive systems, and learn how to center other people in the conversation without taking it over yourself.

The advantage of doing that work? You get to connect with some amazingly awesome people on the other side. And it means that none of us have to fight alone.

1 thought on “Countering Workplace Dysfunction”

  1. Just catching up on some of your recent blogs and something you said in “Trust Yourself” really resonated with me. I found in my last 20+ years of working that there were SO many times that I felt very alone in how I looked at a situation, only to find out at some point that others felt exactly the same way. As time went by, I started to trust my gut feelings more and express, to those I trusted, my thoughts. I often reflected on all those times in the past when I questioned myself when in actuality, I had the insight to recognize a problem or issue before others did. Something that I had thought was a deficit on my part, was actually a strength. All of us need to listen to our inner voice and not be afraid that we’re alone, whether in the workplace or just in our everyday encounters. Thanks for bringing so many of these very real, yet often overlooked, issues to our attention. Awesome thoughts to ponder!!!

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