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Are You Enabling Dysfunction?

Julie's picture
When there’s dysfunction on a unit or in a team, it’s convenient to single out one individual as being the sole source of the problem, but my experience has taught me that dysfunction ripples out beyond one person.   Dysfunction often starts with one person, perhaps a bully, but when workarounds are developed to “manage” this person and the dysfunctional behavior is allowed to continue, then the person is enabled to continue with a pattern of dysfunctional behavior that impedes a healthy work environment.

Let’s consider a hypothetical bully named Tim, a nurse on an ICU unit who routinely makes life difficult for his colleagues. Most people steer clear of Tim.  Tim has a problem with his manager, Laurie, and sees her as incompetent and too inexperienced to be in the nurse manager position for the ICU.  Tim is resentful that he wasn’t chosen for the position.  In fact, he has more seniority and more experience than Laurie.  What Tim doesn’t realize is that his attitude and inability to see multiple perspectives held him back from getting the promotion.  This was never conveyed to him.  He’s been resentful ever since and takes every opportunity to undermine Laurie.  He routinely bypasses Laurie and goes to Laurie’s boss, the director of the ICU instead of working through Laurie;  whereas, every other nurse on in the ICU always works through Laurie.  The Director has reinforced Tim’s behavior by allowing Tim to continue bypassing Laurie. 

When we don’t confront dysfunctional behavior head-on, addressing it swiftly and clearly, we create inconsistency with all staff and compromise the health and performance of our team.   In fact, we quite inadvertently allow a new system to develop that enables the bully to continue in dysfunctional behavior and we set a precedent for what is considered acceptable behavior for all. 

My work focuses on developing “new systems of behavior” through the creation of new habits, new behaviors, and new ways of thinking about one’s work or one’s self.  Enabling systems, like the one created in Tim’s case are not new to me--and they are probably not new to you.  In fact, we see them everywhere.  When we don’t clearly set expectations for behavior and performance, we create a vacuum that invariably results in suboptimal or marginal performance by our team.  However, when we establish clear communication, clear expectations for behavior, and accountability, we support healthy, vibrant work environments.

The work of improvement requires that we seek out and identify enabling systems so we can consciously disable them and build up in their place new systems that support high performance.  Like water flowing in a small stream that encounters a huge bolder, very little improvement will get through until we confront and disable dysfunction and the enabling systems that support it.