Most of us have been part of both healthy and dysfunctional work settings. The healthy ones are personally rewarding and we feel we are contributing and growing, and challenged and respected. The dysfunctional ones on the other hand drain us, stealing our time, focus, effectiveness, and even our emotional and physical health.
This month we return to the crucial subject of promoting organizational health in mission/aid by skillfully dealing with dysfunction. Part one presents five “tasks” of dysfunction and part two lists 10 guidelines for handling dysfunction.
The materials in this Update are based on Part Two of Global Member Care: The Pearls and Perils of Good Practice. We strongly recommend getting this book and reviewing Part Two in particular (Promoting Health in Mission/Aid) individually, as a group, and as an organization. See also Wise as Doves and Innocent as Serpents--a practical article on dysfunction/conflict management that is available in 12 languages on the Reality DOSE website
Warm greetings from Geneva,
Kelly and Michèle O’Donnell
Dysfunction is a consistent pattern of relating to others that is hurtful or “toxic.” It is characterized by authoritarianism, closed/secretive communication, high control, blaming/shaming others, covering up/pretending to be healthy, and the denial of reality.
Dysfunction is compounded when no one sees it clearly, when it is embedded in more functional behaviors, and when no one wants to, tries to, or can do anything about it. When push comes to shove, we tend to first protect our own persons as well as the people closest to us, then our positions and possessions, then our purposes, and eventually our principles, often in that order. But of course we convince ourselves and others that we are acting primarily in a highly “principled” manner.
There is nothing too noble about the default practice for self-protection here, although it may actually serve the adaptive function of keeping us relatively safe in order to live and work another day. When is such pragmatism the most sensible way forward and allowing perhaps the “greater good?” And when is it a fatal flaw? As Barak Obama has observed, “the blood of slaves reminds me that sometimes our pragmatism can be moral cowardice (Audacity of Hope, 2008, p. 98).The sad fact is that many times we can be seriously duped and disabled by both personal and systemic dysfunction. No one is immune. Here is a grid to help us recognize it better though, described in terms of the “tasks” of dysfunction.
Five Tasks of Dysfunction
- Deny. The first task of dysfunction is to conceal itself. “Don't ask about problems, don’t tell about problems” is a pervasive, core, unwritten rule. In short, deny reality.
- Downplay. If that does not work, then the second task becomes getting folks to minimise it by downplaying its negative impact, stating that the group/person is going through a ‘normal’ stage of adjustment; or simply changing the subject. Relational unity/conformity takes precedence over relational truth/connection.
- Distract. If that does not work then the third task is to distract from the real issues, ‘feign pain’ and get sympathy, or admit that something in a fuzzy way is ‘not exactly right’ and perhaps refer to problems as being largely a matter of having different perspectives/preferences. There is little commitment to acknowledge real issues and little capacity to address them.
- Discredit. If that does not work, then the fourth task, which can actually occur simultaneously with the previous three, is to discredit those who point it out, no matter how sensitively they try to do so. An atmosphere of fear and subtle intimidation are usually part of dysfunctional/authoritarian systems. Fear of reprisal prevents people from speaking up and advocating for healthy change.
- Destroy. If none of the above are effective then demolish people’s reputations, work contributions, relationships, and wellbeing by false accusations, rumors, threats, harassment, spin, lies, and dismissals. Cover up and do all that is possible to maintain secrecy, control, positions of influence, respect, the status quo, and in some cases revenue streams.
It is not easy to adequately deal with and at times even identify dysfunction (including the dysfunction in us all!). This is true whether it is subtle or more explicit such as with major deviance like fraud and major organizational misconduct. Serious dysfunction in particular (including organizational and leadership corruption) can be just too hard to believe, too disconcerting to imagine, too upsetting to our worldview, and too inconvenient for our lifestyles—and revenue streams.
Here are ten recommendations for dealing with dysfunction, influenced by our Christian values and backgrounds in clinical psychology. We recommend that they be reviewed and discussed in depth within one’s mission/aid setting. Keep in mind that when significant dysfunction is present, we strongly encourage consultation with professionals experienced in organizational development and psychopathology, plus good personal support, as per points 4 and 8 below. For organizations, putting these suggestions into practice is a significant part of promoting health and good governance.
Ten Suggestions for Dealing with Dysfunction
1. There is a continuum of responses to carefully consider. It ranges from prudently withdrawing and protecting oneself (Prov. 27:12) to prudently confronting and holding one’s ground (Prov.25:26). Act with integrity, without wavering, based on your convictions and wise advice.
2. Confrontation of serious dysfunction is done as a group, with solidarity, not by oneself. Get ongoing, experienced, outside consultation, at times including legal advice. Well-intentioned colleagues wanting to help, yet with limited understanding of dysfunction/discipline, can create even greater problems. Refer to any organisational policies for conflict resolution, grievances, and whistle-blowing.
3. Confrontation is usually a necessary step (e.g., clinical/recovery interventions) prior to or as part of mediation and reconciliation approaches. This assumes though that there are people willing to take some risks and that there is an authority structure in place for leverage and accountability. Always include a historical review to help identify pervasive patterns. In mercy, focus on truth and justice, and don’t get side-tracked or duped simply with anyone’s real, embellished, or contrived ‘pain’.
4. Core parts of the reconciliation process in dysfunction/toxic situations include truth, justice, contrition, forgiveness, restitution, and discipline. Prematurely seeking for reconciliation is never helpful. In certain situations, the reconciliation process takes years. And without verifiable contrition and change, sometimes all we can do is ‘cut our losses’, move on, and entrust ourselves to our faithful Creator (1Pet.4:19). Forgiveness though, is a command in Scripture to intentionally pursue (Matt.18:21,22).
5. Impartiality and objectivity do not necessarily imply neutrality. Don’t be afraid to take a stand. But beware of seeing any party as being ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’. Truth, packaged diplomatically, is usually a good way forward. Talking in terms of behaviour patterns rather than personality problems, and situational influences rather than dispositional inadequacies, may help make the input/process more acceptable. But be realistic: certain pervasive and ongoing character/systemic issues are not amenable to change.
6. Make room for cultural, generational, gender, and organisational variation. Difference is not deviance. Preferences are not usually pathogens. In many cultures, direct approaches may not be appreciated, no matter how diplomatic or respectful one is.
7. Expect there to be diverging accounts of ‘truth’ and deflecting responsibility, plus being misunderstood, manipulated, and blamed. It is a messy process. One must be willing to live with compromise, incomplete closure on important issues, minimal contrition, and partial justice.
8. True trust is earned and not assumed. One needs good reasons, over time, to deeply trust others where there is a history of dysfunction. Trust is slowly built, easily broken, and slowly rebuilt.
9. If you think you are going crazy as you deal with toxicity, you probably are. Dealing with toxicity takes a high toll on our sanity. Get outside reality checks and support. Don’t overestimate your ability to repel toxicity or to avoid becoming toxic yourself. Bitterness defiles. Resist it! (Heb.12:15).
10. Maintain a solid Biblical perspective: Our Lord cares for us often by refining us through desert experiences and through injustices. He zealously loves others, even dysfunctional people, as much as He loves us; and we are all major debtors in need of unmerited mercy (Matt.18:23-35).
A Personal Word from Kelly and Michèle
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. (Rms. 12:9)
Love does no wrong to a neighbour. Love therefore is the fulfilment of the law. (Rms. 13:10)
We really appreciate a Middle-Eastern proverb which says. “The greatest crime in the desert is to find water, and remain silent.” We would like to suggest a rejoinder to this proverb: “The second greatest crime in the desert is to find poisoned water and remain silent” (see also Prov. 25:26). Metaphorically, sharing water with others and sharing about poisoned water with others, are both expected moral duties. Sacrificially sharing water and taking risks to share about poisoned water, are acts of more selfless duty—they are acts of love.
Sometimes mission/aid workers at all levels of organizations can get into trouble by blowing a whistle and confronting the poisoned water of dysfunction. This is not easy to do as we have said repeatedly. Neither is it easy to do well, nor to do well by oneself. It is often scary, risky and easy to make mistakes in spite of good intentions. There is often a high cost to pay when advocating for personal and organizational health, People need integrity and skill (Ps. 78:72) to consistently and resolutely act with moral courage both publicly and privately. We hope that the materials outlined and recommended in this Update will be of much help to you.
More MCA Resources
Global Portal for Good Practice (website)
Reflections, Research, and Resources for Good Practice (weblog)
Global Mental Health: A Global Map for a Global Movement (website)
Global Integration: Ideas for Connecting and Contributing (overview materials)
Global Member Care: (volume one): The Pearls and Perils of Good Practice (2011)
NEW: Global Member Care (volume two): Crossing Sectors for Serving Humanity (2013)
E-book version available on Amazon