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Leonard Wolff

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The dysfunctionally functional company


Leonard Wolff examines those companies that function successfully despite being dysfunctional. So, what makes for a dysfunctionally functional company and what does it mean to work for one?

Companies exist in many sizes and forms. They all have their own uniqueness, quirkiness, and management styles. For the most part employees adapt accordingly. Some companies or organisations exist in a manner that I suggest is dysfunctionally functional and are successful to some degree despite themselves.

So, what makes for a dysfunctionally functional company? What are some signs, characteristics, and indications of such a company? What does it mean to work for or do business with such a company?

The following indicators with a discussion of each contribute to what I define as a dysfunctionally functional company. These include, but are not necessarily limited to: an interchangeable combination of an arrogant president and a micro-managing chief operating officer (or a vice president with a similar job function); multiple levels of management; a seemingly endless merry-go-round in one or more departments; lip-service professional development, and mixed messages from senior management.

Arrogant president

For this discussion the focus will be on an arrogant president and a micro-managing chief operating officer -recognising that these two can be interchanged. In either case the result is dysfunctional functionality.

A president of a company is charged with being a leader. He is someone with a vision and the ability to articulate the vision for execution. The president has the ability to make tough decisions, motivate subordinates, bring consensus to problem solving, and know the limits to his ability, filling in the gaps with the required expertise.  

A president who is arrogant, not to be confused with confident, is anything but a leader. Arrogance is a demonstration of self-perceived superiority which in most instances demonstrates a lack of competence. When the 'leader' of a company comes across as arrogant, what messages does that send? I am smarter than you, I don’t need your help, I can do it all… Where is the motivation, the desire to perform and excel for those who work directly below him or others throughout all levels of the company?

Micro-managing chief executive officer

While the president is responsible for putting forth a vision for a company or organisation, it is the chief operating officer (COO) who is responsible for putting together a strategy for achieving the vision. Below the COO are the managers challenged to implement the strategy. Now, if a COO is so compelled that he feels the need to directly oversee his managers, then one has to wonder about the ability of the COO or the abilities of the managers.  COO’s are charged with delegating and holding accountabilities, not 'babysitting' direct reports.  

Micro-managing leads those subjected to it to question their abilities to manage, make decisions, and execute. It also trickles down to subordinates as they fear making mistakes. The micro-manager does not encourage creative thinking but rather stifles it through an insistence to do things their way or by the book. When this happens at a high level near the top of an organisation a stage is set for overall under performance.

Multiple levels of management

As with an arrogant president and a micro-managing COO (or vice-a-versa) a fat, multi-layered organisation is a demonstration of inefficiency and a poor use of manpower. Regardless of the size of a company, just how many layers of managers are required? The more there are, the more challenging it is to make a decision. If decisions can’t get made in a timely manner then confusion, lost opportunities and conflict result.

Inherent with multi-layering is the manifestation of company politics. Larger companies tend to come with more layers, and with more layers politics are more prevalent and complex. With politics comes the jockeying for the promotion to the next level, the backstabbing of co-workers, and the kissing-up to those who are thought of as being able to advance a career. In addition, those who have questionable abilities can 'hide' letting others pick up their slack.  

Depending on one’s personality and tolerance, one can excel in such a culture and play the games as presented, or drown as they get overwhelmed by the superficialness of it all. A real risk is very talented people getting lost in the maze, becoming discouraged and frustrated, and leaving, going to work for the competition.

Merry-go-round in a department

In a company of any size support departments like human resources, accounting, and safety for example can have a significant number of staff. While the man-count can be an issue in itself, a dysfunctionally functional company tends to play an ongoing game of musical chairs but without taking away any of the chairs. Every few months the department undergoes change with many of the employees within the department taking on new roles.

While reasoning behind such moves may be 'professional development' or realignment, the result typically is confusion. The person whom one worked or had a relationship with can one day find someone else in that role the next day.  

As for the employees within the department, they themselves are subjected to stress as they are not allowed to build a comfort level with the job. It takes time to learn jobs and build the relationships needed to succeed.  Changing every few months undercuts a department’s efficiency, demonstrating a dysfunctionally functional process.

Lip service professional development

It seems that every year the human resources department rolls out the latest and greatest program for professional development. Employees are 'encouraged' to fill out various forms, update CVs, job descriptions, and articulate accomplishments and future career objectives. They are then to meet with their immediate supervisor and come to a consensus, then meet with a manager once removed to carry out the process. All of this is done to give the appearance that professional development is important to a company.

Actual practice suggests otherwise. Usually a handful of 'select' management participate in an exercise of placing employees into various 'career development' buckets. Those few selected get labelled as the 'stars' of the company and actually do go through a professional development program and participate in the process. The overwhelming remaining majority of employees who are not looked upon as future leaders may participate in a much watered-down development program - enough that a dysfunctionally functional company’s management believes will maintain the interest of the rank-and-file.

Mixed messages from senior leadership

Mixed messages can run the spectrum of 'do as I say, not as I do', to unfounded knee-jerk reactions, to no action or response at all. Senior leadership is the beacon of light, the calm in the midst of a storm, the informed and the ones in control. When the vision constantly changes in response to certain political, social, or economic market conditions, what message is sent? What are employees to think? How are they to respond when they see uncertainty at the top?

In a dysfunctionally - functional company mixed messages make for a ripe and fertile ground for rumours. The more rumours and the more negative they are makes for a challenging work environment. While things do get done, efficiency is compromised and more workplace mistakes result from the distractions associated with the rumours.   Dysfunctional functionality is perpetuated.


So what does all of this mean? Is working in a dysfunctionally functional company bad?  Is a functionally-dysfunctional company on the track to failure or bankruptcy? Is a functionally-dysfunctional company one to avoid?  It’s hard to say. All companies have their cultures – some positive and some not so positive. Understanding the degree to which the functionally-dysfunctional company is combined with its position in its industry may be an indicator to the kind of short- and long-term success it will have.

Leonard Wolff is a principal advisor with a major mining company with over 25 years of experience in the engineering and management of various mining operations in the United States.


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