As an independent consultant, earning a living by helping organizations improve software development processes, I am blessed with a wonderful life where I get to experience a variety of places with the good and bad behaviors that make each one unique. Something that I’ve noticed in my work seems to validate an interesting paradox &endash; the individuals who display the most incongruent behaviors, those who really need a “reality check”, are the one’s who never, or seldom, have their behaviors challenged. This is especially true when the dysfunctional individual has risen to a position of authority/power in the organization.

Dysfunctional individuals who have succeeded (for whatever good or bad reason) often see their success as validating their behaviors and, when left unchecked, tend to overuse their coping mechanisms to the extreme. Then, what I frequently see in these situations mirrors a type of dysfunctional family behavior. The authority figure is “addicted” (to power, control, and whatever coping mechanisms have succeeded) and others in the organization are either codependent (for success) or enabling the authority figure’s behavior because it is just not worth the grief and horror to confront it. So here we have some of the most needy individuals in organizations never getting the “help” they need to change from peers or other co-workers.

To illustrate with an example, I was doing an appraisal of a division of a large corporation that had decided to implement an improvement program using the Capability Maturity Model as a guide. One particular division manager very publicly requested that his division be appraised. During our initial meeting, he demanded that I provide his division with a high rating of process maturity for two reasons:

a. He had already told customers and others in the organization that his division was an exemplar of disciplined software development practices.
b. His division did very, VERY important work.

This guy also had several other fascinating artifacts in his office that indicated I was dealing with someone very special but space doesn’t permit to go into details. I explained that I didn’t unilaterally provide process ratings but would be leading the team that he had (indirectly) selected to interview dozens of people in the organization, look at project documentation, and reach a team consensus on what we had learned from our data gathering. The results of our learning would be given to him (and anyone else he desired) but there would be no guarantees other than fairness, accuracy, and consensus from a team that included six software professionals from his own division.

The team from this division was a hard working, honest group of individuals (they almost always are, despite bizarre leadership). We discovered during the course of the appraisal that the organization was quite far from what the division manager expected to see. Everyone was very nervous about the outcome although they recognized the validity of the results. The results were “dry run” with the individuals we interviewed, who agreed with them but essentially said, “Wait ’til the boss sees this!”

As we briefed the results, the division manger stewed over findings related to how requirements and projects were managed. But on a “General Observations” slide toward the end of the briefing, there was a bullet that stated:

“Vertical communication is perceived to be inadequate”
The division manager took this as the only item in the results that actually criticized his own behavior and exploded in rage. I watched in horror as he spun around and angrily pointed to various individuals demanding to know, “Did YOU say this?” After watching his people shaking like the Tin Man before the Wizard of Oz, I realized that only the lessons in congruence that I had learned would get me out of this. I took a deep breath and presented myself as the most disposable person in the room (as an outsider), trying to keep self/other/context in mind. I explained that the way I felt when he was given bad news gave me even greater insight into why anyone would be uncomfortable doing so. He was happy to redirect his rage at me. (After all, I had “done” this to them!) I consciously kept track of my breathing to control my voice level, trying to be firm without appearing angry. We discussed who said this (more than one individual, all sources are confidential), the meaning of “inadequate” (Him: “totally ineffective”, Me: Merely not adequate to conduct the complex nature of their business as effectively as possible.), “truth” versus “perception”, and the bidirectional responsibilities of effective communication.

After a few minutes of this (which seemed like an eternity), the division manager began to realize two things:

a. His temper tantrum was not going to change the finding.
b. The rest of the people in the room looked like deer in the headlights as they watched the two of us.

He calmed down and explained, “See, I get upset but I still like you and would be happy to continue this discussion over a beer, sometime.” The week following my visit, the division manager called an organization meeting to change the results without “that consultant on his high horse.” The event turned out to be a pivotal epiphany for the organization. Within weeks, the division manager was “kicked upstairs” to a non-supervisory staff position and his much more rational deputy was given the helm.

Remember, when you are in a toxic environment, you have many choices (limiting your choices to complex situations can be a trap of incongruent behavior!). At least three choices that I can think of when you have seriously dysfunctional leadership:

1 As Tom DeMarco says, “Vote with your feet.” Leave the organization. Advantage &endash; you’re free! Disadvantage &endash; you’ve lost friends, may be viewed as a quitter or not a “team player.”
2 Remember that dysfunctional persons can be difficult and even hurtful. But because dysfunctional individuals are actually limiting their responses to external events, they are also more predictable. You can “play” the organization like a complex chess game, manipulating the means to achieve the desirable end. Advantage &endash; you get very adept at playing politics. Disadvantage &endash; you have to monitor you own behavior very carefully. When do you become part of the problem instead of part of the solution? A benevolent dictator is a still a dictator and power corrupts.

3 Be conscious of your own behavior and always try to behave congruently, even (especially!) in incongruent situations. (Keep this in mind for item #2 above, please.) Advantage &endash; you will be doing the best job you can do for given confrontational situations. Disadvantage &endash; congruent behavior never guarantees reciprocity. Protect your ethics and integrity. Be true to your principles. But recognize that world is not always a fair place (at least in the short term) and you can’t always win (see #1 above).

Live your life so you can look back and genuinely enjoy your decisions in retrospect. Time doesn’t make you old, raising a new generation doesn’t make you old, REGRETS make you old.

© Mark Manduke, 1999