top of page

All organizations are dysfunctional, but is yours actually toxic?

When I say all organizations are dysfunctional, I mean that they all do things that actually impede their ability to achieve their mission. Much like, as individuals, we have habits and behaviours that we know actually hurt us (too much sugar, caffeine, social media, television, etc.) organizations do things that are in some sense pathological. Leadership is about working within the organization to help people at all levels of the organizational hierarchy grow out of these patterns. Often these are wicked problems and they are difficult to resolve without creating new problems (this is especially true when it is relationships with funders at the root of the problem). What makes this not just a Sisyphean task is that in an organization that is healthy overall, great work still gets done despite the areas of dysfunction. The organization matures into different, less serious dysfunction, and becomes more effective over time. Or else it's time for dissolution and reinvention, another natural part of the cycle of organizations.

Staff who have chafed at the dysfunction within an organization often discover that, as they rise in the organizational hierarchy, problems that seemed easy to resolve before now seem not so easy to resolve with a wider view of the organization's situation. Having some empathy for leaders is part of a healthy organizational culture. Leaders don't earn this empathy unless they are willing to take staff concerns and perspectives seriously. Empathy is a two-way street. Finding ways to democratize your work culture is often part of the organizational maturation process.

Gracefully learning to work with the dysfunction is a necessary part of the challenge of doing social change work in an organizational context. But there are also times when an organization has crossed the line into being a toxic environment. Three key indicators of toxicity are:

1. There is more competition for resources internally than there is collaboration to get the work done.

2. There's a culture of backbiting - not just gossip (i.e. spreading information, sometimes appropriately, often not) but harsh critiques shared of others and their work behind their backs. This is almost always accompanied by passive-aggressive forms of communication between people.

3. There is no open communication about power within the organization - people don't feel allowed to directly discuss and clarify who has (and should have) decision-making authority.

This distinction between dysfunctional and toxic is important because, first of all, it allows us to be more fair-minded about our organizations. Is the problem that seems intolerable actually a dysfunction that needs to be approached with some grace? Do we risk actually creating toxicity that wasn't there previously through the way we handle back-channel critiques related to the dysfunction? A first step in being fair to the staff is to ensure we've done our work to not be defensive and truly allow open discussion about our leadership, and to let staff make decisions that affect their work wherever possible. A first step in being fair to the leadership is to bring dissent into the open in the form of requests that are as clear as possible.

If you know an organization that you're confident isn't dysfunctional, I hope you're shouting your/their lessons from the rooftops.

I chose a peacock feather as the image for this post, as peacocks have a mythical ability to eat poison and turn it into their magical feathers.


bottom of page