Everything is Dysfunctional: Applying Psychological Flexibility to Organisations

But every organisation is dysfunctional!”

I was describing the frustrations of running a small business to a friend who works in venture capital.  In my mind I felt like the kind of dysfunction I was describing would shock her.  Far from it – she seemed surprised at my surprise.

What’s odd is that as an ACT practitioner I am used to the idea that our own thoughts and emotions can frequently be unhelpful.  Yet somehow I’d allowed myself to believe that organisations – built by dysfunctional humans like me – should be run in an entirely functional way.

The Dysfunctional Beatles

In early 1967 the greatest band in the world were in trouble.

John was behaving even more cynically than ever, only really coming alive when working on his own material.  His relationship with Yoko was also causing resentment among the others.

Ringo was convinced he was surplus to requirements and considering his options in other careers – photography and furniture making.  George was also feeling cut adrift, thinking that the others were deliberately excluding his songs.

Whilst Paul may have appeared the happiest, he was himself only a couple of years from his own breakdown.  The author of Yesterday aged 26, was beginning to doubt himself.  The Beatles were pulling apart.

The Dysfunctions of World-Leading Companies

In 1982 Tom Peters wrote his seminal book In Search of Excellence, looking at some of the best run companies in the world.

It’s a compelling read, until you realise that nearly all of the companies chosen as ‘excellent’ have since either underperformed or gone bust (think Atari).

Phil Rosenzweigh called this the “delusion of connecting the winning dots“.  Yet we still do this.  We pick the most successful organisations and then buy the myth that their success is down to their culture and leadership.  Think Laszlo Bock from Google, pretending their success is to do with culture; Sheryl Sandberg lecturing on work-life balance, or anything to do with Steve Jobs.

Yet look harder and it is easy to find stories of Google’s dysfunctional working practices (actually, this article did not appear in Google searches but did appear on Duck Duck Go).  Facebook’s total lack of work life balance for its actual employees.  Steve Jobs being an unbelievable jerk.

Take a look at this clip of Microsoft in 1995 and ask yourself if that can possibly have been a functional place to work:

Think of investment banks, family-run businesses, the NHS…pretty much everything is dysfunctional.

It’s funny how the idea of acceptance – particularly accepting my own difficult thought and emotions  – has freed me so much in my own personal life, yet when it comes to the places I work I expect organisations to work exactly as I think they should.

I’m not suggesting that working in dysfunctional organisations is easy or that we shouldn’t try to fix them.  But I am suggesting it’s not the only way of assessing whether our jobs or careers are right for us.

The Dysfunctional Beatles (2)

In May 1967, amidst their heightening dysfunctions, the Beatles released Sgt Pepper. 

It was a staggering achievement, made all the more remarkable by releasing Stawberry Fields and Penny Lane earlier that year, neither of which made the album.

The Beatles were overflowing with creativity and inspiration whilst growing increasingly frustrated with each other.

The following year, with relations at an all-time low, they released the incredible White Album, having earlier released Hey Jude, which was also not on the album (!)

Finally, in 1969 they released the mighty Abbey Road and in the death throes of the band, Let it Be (which was released after they had split).

In other words, some of the greatest music of all time was recorded amidst some of the most stressful and dysfunctional working relationships.

It’s the same everywhere.  Dysfunctional companies run the world; they power things, finance things, change the way we work and live, and in the case of the NHS they save lives and give dignity to people when they need it most.

What Are You Building Amidst Dysfunction?

In ACT, one of the key ideas is that we can move towards our values and goals in the presence of difficult thoughts and emotions.

The test with our own careers, therefore, is not just how dysfunctional something feels, or how frustrating your colleagues are, or how undervalued you feel.  (Of course, this is not an argument to just put up with these things – that is not what acceptance means).  It is just not the sole measure.

The other part of the equation is what are you building in return?  How often do you get to move towards your most important values and goals, amidst the dysfunction?

When I was a management consultant the answer to that was ‘almost never’.  But as a psychologist, it is every day – my most meaningful contribution to the world ever.

In the same way that mental health is more than an absence of disease, your job’s worth is more than an absence of dysfunction.

Instead of buying the story that dysfunctional organisations leave us helpless to make a difference, we can learn to hold our stories lightly, and find room to create something of value, amidst the dysfunction.

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