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Five Common Causes of Organizational Dysfunction

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Regardless of size, all human groups are subject to the same dynamics. Factors that hamper a small group can also cause a much larger structure to falter. In business, managers and employees alike suffer when an organization doesn't function optimally. Pat Brans points out what dysfunctional organizations have in common and how to spot the five biggest problems. Learn what you can do to turn your organization around.

I think it's safe to say that every one of us knows the frustration of belonging to a dysfunctional group. We put our all into a team project, only to see our efforts diluted by organizational inefficiencies. An organization might fall flat on its face, or just sputter along indefinitely. But there's good news! By understanding a few common reasons that groups lose their way, leaders can take steps to keep the team together—and better still, keep the group performing at optimal levels.

No matter what size it is, when an organization falls apart, it's usually from one or more of these five causes:

  1. Misunderstood mission
  2. Lack of consensus on the nature of problems facing the team
  3. Misunderstood strategy
  4. Lack of team cohesion
  5. Lack of resources
A good leader will watch out for all of these potential show-stoppers and work to prevent them—or remedy them quickly. Let's look at some examples.

Dysfunction Cause 1: Misunderstood Mission

Every individual in an organization must know that organization's raison d'être. When members know the values and principles of their group, they can make decisions on their own, simply by comparing any options with the group's mission.

The leaders are responsible for making sure that everyone knows the group's purpose. Consider these examples:

  • The organization is a social structure, helping individuals to meet other people with common views.
  • The organization works to save the lives of children in remote areas, by making crucial medicines available at reduced cost.
  • The organization designs the best computer games in the world.

If an organization doesn't understand its mission, most of the time it's because the leaders themselves don't have a clear vision of the organization's purpose. Leaders need to reevaluate the organization's mission constantly, knowing that the mission can (and should) evolve over time, as new leaders are chosen or external pressures change.

Another common reason that an organization might fail its mission is that the mission isn't adequately communicated. The leaders might agree on a purpose and try to explain it to the membership, but a poorly formulated message will give different people in the group different ideas. Purpose statements should be repeated often to help everybody know why the group exists and the values that hold it together.

The clearest mission can be expressed in a single-sentence mantra. Here are a few examples from well-known organizations:

  • Google: "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
  • Coca-Cola: "To refresh the world—in mind, body and spirit; to inspire moments of optimism—through our brands and actions; to create value and make a difference everywhere we engage."
  • Peace Corps: "To promote world peace and friendship by providing qualified volunteers to interested countries in need of trained manpower, by fostering a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served, and by fostering a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans."

Dysfunction Cause 2: Lack of Consensus

Team members need to share a common view of the problems the group has to solve. For example, if products aren't selling well, but only some of the team members recognize that situation, the team can't move in a unified direction to solve the problem.

Sometimes team members agree on symptoms, but disagree on their underlying causes. Some people might think products don't sell well because they're poorly marketed; others might think lack of quality is the issue. Brainstorming sessions across the organization can help to uncover the real issues and their root causes. Are clients providing unclear requirements? Is upper management assigning unreasonable deadlines for the rank and file? Is group image suffering in the marketplace?

Not only should the group share a view of problems and root causes; they must also come to a consensus on priorities. Sometimes people agree on a set of issues, but disagree on the relative importance of each. Some team members might think competition is the biggest problem, others may think limited resources are more troublesome, while still others focus on lack of vision.

Leaders have to make sure that all team members share a common view of the group's issues and their relative priorities. Without this consensus, the individuals making up the group can never work together to find solutions.

Dysfunction Cause 3: Misunderstood Strategy

Not only do team members need to know the group's strategy; they also have to believe in it and integrate it into their work. When each member of the group knows how the group will go about fulfilling its mission, people can work in unison. Is the team strategy to build products faster than anybody else? Will the team overcome a sales shortfall by picking up market share in a specific segment? Can the team provide vaccinations in remote areas by pressuring large pharmaceutical companies to lower their prices?

Once the strategy is understood, team members must grasp the group's tactics—that is, how the strategy will be implemented. If the strategy is to build products faster than anybody else, what approaches can they take to achieve that goal? Investing more money in tools? Training people to work better and faster?

Leaders must make sure all individuals understand the strategies that the group has targeted to meet its objectives. Once all the individuals understand and accept the group's strategies and tactics, they can function as a group to meet those goals.

Dysfunction Cause 4: Lack of Team Cohesion

People need a sense of identity and of belonging; above all, they need to be able to trust their leaders and other team members. Through experience, I have observed the following axiom:

All human structures exist only so long as the majority of the individuals in the group believe that the structure will continue to exist.

Furthermore, group members need to count on other group members to do what they say they'll do, and group members have to believe in team rules and procedures.

Building a cohesive team is also more difficult when the team is physically spread out. Some teams can meet no more than once a year. Effective leaders build team cohesion in such cases by using tools such as video conferencing. Establishing rules for interactions is also helpful; for example, some leaders insist that team members respond to all mail from teammates within 24 hours.

To build team cohesion, whether with co-located or remote teams, leaders have to set a good example. Good leaders promote trust within the group, and they ensure that each individual feels like part of the group. Above all, a leader first demonstrates that he or she is trustworthy.

Dysfunction Cause 5: Lack of Resources

Every organization needs resources in order to function—and those resources must be available on time. If the team can't get the tools and materials it needs to do the job, the job won't be done. Each team member will feel the frustration, and morale will suffer.

Does your group have everything you need? For example:

  • Do you have enough laptops to support your sales staff?
  • Do you have the right software to support your group's business processes?
  • Will your travel funds cover sending individuals where they need to go to get the job done?

Leaders must go outside the group as needed to ensure that the group gets everything it needs to do its work.

Summary

The most successful leaders watch for these five common causes of organizational dysfunction. When one cause or another rears its ugly head, the proactive leader heads off trouble before it occurs, keeping the team on track.

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