Despite the lack of attention paid to dysfunction in management literature, there have always been dysfunctional people in our organizations, at all levels— from the highest levels of senior management to the lowliest subordinate. Their individual level of dysfunction, combined with their level of power within the organization, determines the impact their behavior may have upon it— and the impact you can have upon their behavior.
Coping with a dysfunctional boss is far more difficult than working with a dysfunctional subordinate. The impact of each on the organization is also very different. Dysfunction at the subordinate level impacts production, customer service, quality, materials, waste, turnover, safety, and absenteeism. These are all performance-based characteristics that are measurable and easily changed, once an agreement is reached to do so.
Dysfunction at the top takes on more sinister, undesirable forms like favoritism, racism, sexism, nepotism, cronyism, and ageism. These organizational characteristics affect values and culture. They defy measurement and are difficult to change from below.
At the higher levels, dysfunction is less about performance and more about power. Functional executives use their power to move things along, to overcome obstacles and resistance to changes, and get the job done right. They focus on organizational performance through personal achievement.
In contrast, dysfunctional seniors use their power to keep things from happening while they figure out how to take the credit should something work or how to avoid responsibility should it fail. Putting previously agreed upon actions on hold is a telltale sign of a dysfunctional decision maker. Overriding the recommendations of subordinates and making arbitrary decisions with no explanation are additional signs of a dysfunctional boss.
The life of an organization, its principles, ethics, style, values, and morality, are shaped by the actions of those at the top. Executives, who hire their friends and relatives, overlook minorities, promote incompetent subordinates, and contract with suppliers who return favors are shaping a dysfunctional culture. Yet it would be difficult to get them to admit that such actions are demoralizing.