The Workplace Community: Why is it so dysfunctional?

We spend a third of our days at work. For many of us we see more of our work colleagues than we do our family and friends. The workplace represents a complex network of daily interactions and relationships. It is a social environment as well as a work environment and represents a community of people focussed on performing tasks, aiming for a successful outcome. It forms an important part of our lives. But why do so many of us find it a difficult if not toxic experience.

I have spent the best part of three decades working in an office environment. This work has been in the government sector at Federal, State and Local government environments. During this time I’ve witnessed and experienced both great communities and dysfunctional communities. Today, I want to randomly explore why some work environments are so dysfunctional and how they can be so much better.

The Best of all Worlds, the Worst of all Worlds

I’ve worked in places that had a fantastic sense of community with teams where people were respected and valued. Teams where colleagues became more than coworkers. These are strong teams. Some of these teams had rich relationships outside of the work environment but others where team members maintained a bigger separation between the work community and the home community. The common feature was the sense of belonging that was the hallmark of each team and workplace. From these workplaces lasting friendships have resulted and leaving the team came with some degree of sadness.

I’ve also worked for organisations and teams where a sense of belonging and community were absent. Often the work was the same or similar but something was just not right. These were not enjoyable places to work. They were competitive workplaces where people didn’t develop trusting relationships, where people were afraid their actions would result in some type of social or administrative punishment. They were places of high staff turnover and the accompanying low productivity. Leaving these places was always a relief with a period of reflection and healing needed following departure.

Why the Dysfunction?

Why do some places lack a sense of community and exhibit such high dysfunction?

The Changing Workplace

Over the years I’ve seen considerable change in the workplace.

We’ve moved from workplaces with strong and active trade unions. From almost 100% union membership to now roughly 30% of workers are in unions.

The idea of a “job for life” is long gone. The security of employment replaced by contracts of varying length and quality. Even public sector employment is now much less stable than in the past.

Workplaces are now more highly regulated, if not by safety regulation then by code of conduct or some other mechanism to control behaviour.

The government and corporate world has moved from the concept of providing services to being more regulated by a free market model of user pays. Neo liberal policy allied to economic rationalism has radically changed the workplace

Although, the workplace has changed great communities still exist. The changing work environment has not destroyed the need for people to be connected. It may make it harder but community is stronger than this.

Sociopaths, Workplace Psychopaths, Narcissists and Bullies

Where do I start with this?

The modern workplace seems to attract people exhibiting these personality types. Often finding their home in management, where they can do maximum damage to both the organisation or individuals, but they will also be amongst subordinate staff and work colleagues. They are deadly. A destructive presence in any workplace. They destroy teams, damage those around them and severely damage the reputation of an organisation.

Just how and why they survive is the question. Perhaps, they are viewed as “doers”. Getting things done. This can often mean as Managers getting rid of the “deadwood” and under performers, but more often this is removing those seen as threats. Or perhaps they simply are good at passing blame onto unwitting targets.

Others have written extensively on this problematic area. Suffice it to say any organisation that enables, empowers or accommodates staff exhibiting these behaviours or continually ignores the evidence of their actions will suffer damage to reputation and financial damage.

Bad Managers

Micro managers, insecure managers, those promoted above their ability, largely untrained in contemporary management practice etc. Bad managers destroy morale and are poison to community. Like bullies and sociopaths they lead teams with a revolving door for recruitment. People leave organisations because of them.

Power and Hierarchy

Workplaces are places of power and a hierarchical structure. Certainly this power imbalance exists outside places of employment but the workplace is about power. Unless it is used in a compassionate and measured way it will not engender a sense of community.

Building Workplace Community

So, with these and other, contributions to dysfunction how do we build a workplace culture that builds a sense of belonging, trust and community?

You’ll be surprised how simple it is.

Strengths and Gifts

Focus on strengths. What assets, strengths, passions and interests do those around you have?

Make it easy. Use the ABCD Institute’s simple three gifts tool ie the gifts of the head, heart and mind. Add stories from the workplace and the individual and you have a great basis to build community on. The gifts of the individual, both personal and corporate, provide a great basis to build on. It can also show what is missing from the toolkit of the team. The aim is to develop these strengths, maximise their power and build both individual and corporate capacity in other areas. To quote Cormac Russell “ Build on what’s Strong, not wrong” at the same time rephrase what is missing into opportunity and build on that.

Respect for Each Other

A key to workplace community is respect. By this I mean respecting people for who they are and respect for the work they do and what they bring to the organisation. It doesn’t matter what level of authority and power a person holds in the organisation respect of the person is essential.

I’ve often found those most overlooked are the most important. For example, so many high functioning teams are held together by the most lowly paid team member – the administration officer. A good administration officer can anchor a team. It is easy to show respect for a skilled practitioner with university qualifications but also easy to overlook others. Respect builds a healthy base for community.

Support People

People are complex beings with a great deal happening in their lives. There are times when everyone will need support in one form or another. Build community by showing empathy, utilising listening skills and by being open to support each other.

Find the Connectors

As in community building anywhere it is those who naturally connect with others or who know how to connect people with each other. The networkers, those with historical knowledge or who just know who to contact and how to approach them. Keep an eye out for these people and use this extraordinary gift of connection.

Lead by Stepping Back

If you are a leader set the direction and step back allowing people to do their job. Be ready to help when needed or support where appropriate. Let the skills and gifts of others be used

Have Fun- Celebrate

Finally, celebrate with each other. Celebration is an essential element in building community. By this I mean not only birthdays and achievements but celebrate the every day. Getting together for fun builds any community, builds workplace environments and achieves results. As Jim Diers says “ why have a meeting when you can have a party?”

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