This book discussion guide for The Dysfunctional Workplace: Theory, Stories, and Practice includes an introduction, biographical information about the authors, Seth Allcorn and Howard Stein, discussion questions, a Q & A with the authors, and information about the University of Missouri Press’s Advances in Organizational Psychodynamics series.
About the Book
Allcorn and Stein use a psychoanalytically informed perspective to help readers understand why a leader, colleague or friend behaves in ways that are destructive of others. This understanding can provide the basis for organizations to survive and thrive despite structural or individual dysfunction. Topics covered in the first section include the value of storytelling, an overview of competing paradigms in analysis, and the value of psychoanalysis and its explanatory power. This is followed by illustrative stories organized by theme, and a conclusion that explores the implications of the research and analytic practice.
About the Authors
Seth Allcorn is the former Vice President for Business and Finance at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. He has served as a financial and administrative Assistant Dean at the Texas Tech School of Medicine and Associate Dean for the Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola–Chicago. He now lives in Columbia, Missouri.
Howard F. Stein is a facilitator at the American Indian Diabetes Prevention Center and Professor Emeritus of the Department of Family and Preventative Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. He lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
- What is a psychodynamic approach and why do the authors find this approach the most useful method for studying organizational dysfunction? Do you find this approach useful?
- In what ways does storytelling benefit the storyteller and the listener?
- The book’s illustrative stories are followed by a set of questions and a discussion and analysis section. Did you find this useful? Could it help in solving dysfunctional problems in your workplace?
- Were there particular stories from the book that you could relate to? Do you have a story from your own experiences in the workplace to tell?
- What do you think about the theme, “You can’t make this up”? Did you find these stories believable even though they are so outrageous?
- How do you see rationality and irrationality functioning in the workplace? In what ways is your workplace rational and in what ways is it irrational?
- What role do the stories show leaders have in causing or reducing workplace dysfunction? Does this correspond to your own experience?
- What do you think of the authors’ description of the “good-enough” leader? Are these traits you would like in a boss? How could these traits benefit a company?
- Have you experienced dysfunction in organizations outside the workplace? Do you think all organizations experience dysfunction in similar ways, or do you think workplace dysfunction is particular?
- What do you think this book says about the American workplace in general?
A Conversation with the Authors
- How did you get into the field of organizational studies? You refer to your own work experiences in the book. Did a particular early work experience influence your decision to go into this field?
Seth Allcorn: I became interested in better understanding how people behave in large organizations when early in my management career I began to notice that organizations did not particularly seem to operate in rational, calculated, well studied, thoughtful, efficient and effective ways. In sum, things happened you could not make up. The question I began to try to answer was, Why? This led me through a lot of research in the 1970s that included sociology, social psychology, organizational psychology, abnormal psychology and even philosophy. Very often there were very good descriptions of the problems but still no good answers to why. Eventually I became interested in the contributions psychoanalytic theory made to understanding why. This theory and approach to understanding human nature began to answer the question that I and of course others have been pursing it since the 1980s when the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, of which I was a founding member, was formed.
Howard Stein: I stumbled into studying and consulting with organizations by observing my own workplaces back in the 1970s and early 1980s. My work in psychoanalytic anthropology helped me see beneath the crust of organizational culture. Much of my own workplace life did not make sense, was filled with bullying, disparagement, and Jew-baiting. I began observing the psychological brutality of downsizing, narrowly escaped it myself, and served as a consultant to try to “humanize” a hospital’s downsizing. Early in a new job, my supervisor described my job as, “Fifty percent of the time, your ass is mine,” hardly a way of rationally introducing one to the time apportionment of work. I began to pay close attention to the language of the workplace and found metaphor, symbol, sadism, and psychological abuse behind official mission statements and strategic plans.
2. You include questions and a brief discussion after each workplace story. Do you see this book as a sort of guide that managers can use to help solve workplace problems?
SA: As a manager and executive and given my pursuit of Why, applying the theory to the workplace has been my top priority, although I have written and developed a lot of theory along with my colleagues Michael Diamond and Howard Stein. Our main focus has been trying to write accessible theory and applying it in practice which has been facilitated by working as management and organizational consultants since the early 1980s. Theory and practice are interdependent and inform each other. We have, I think, provided useful theoretically informed perspectives for other academics as well as trainers and even executives to apply in practice.
HS: This book addresses many facets of workplaces in which “You couldn’t make this up.” The book is a kind of applied psychoanalysis in that we sought to make the book useful in real life to the reader. While we hope that the book also made theoretical and methodological contributions to several fields, we wanted the reader to understand his/her workplace better, and perhaps work toward making life at work more humane as a result of having read the book. As in many fields, there has long been a dichotomy in anthropology (in which I was trained) between high status academic anthropology, which is supposedly pure, and low status applied anthropology, which actually helps people to change their lives for the better.
3. The value of storytelling itself (rather than simply the stories) – including its healing properties – is obviously important to the book and your practices. How did you come to this methodology?
SA: Howard and I have, I suspect for over 3 decades, gradually moved from writing complex and abstract theory that offers an answer to why toward making the theory more accessible by grounding what is clearly a psychologically based perspective in the psychology of our readers. We hope that the readers think: Yes, I know that. Yes, I have had that experience. Yes, I have seen that happen. Yes, I have had those thoughts and feelings. Yes, I have lived that. By promoting self-awareness and reflectivity and providing what I sometimes call a cognitive map (a way to think about one’s experiences) we are not only educating others, we are also helping them to understand that they are not alone in their experience. There are ways that one can understand what is going on, including being able to process some of the damage organizational and leader toxicity creates. Restating, we are grounding the theory in the self of the reader so that it is not an abstract, out-there experience but a present-in-their-lived experience. Without doing this, we think learning is not likely to take place.
HS: The word “stumbling” again comes to mind. I did not set out to study storytelling through something called story listening. I simply listened and observed my own workplaces and places where I consulted. I noticed that whatever else I was doing as an employee, teacher, consultant, etc., people would tell me and each other stories about their experience of work, past and present. If only I would pay attention and listen, people were eager to tell me stories about “what it’s like to work here.”
4. Do you see this type of organizational dysfunction in all kinds of organizations, or is there something particular about workplace dysfunction?
SA: We are writing about organizational dynamics and the attendant dysfunctions. There are, of course, a great many family based organizations (the Trump organization comes to mind) where serious organizational, interpersonal and family (as an organization) dysfunctions clearly exist. And, since we discuss leader-follower, interpersonal and group dynamics, our work also applies to how people relate to each other, everywhere, all of the time. For example, I wrote a book on codependency in the workplace. In sum, our work applies very broadly to the world wherever there is human nature with its bright and noble qualities and, unfortunately, all too often dark, toxic and destructive qualities.
HS: Yes, all organizations perform work of some kind. There can be dysfunctional churches and synagogues, just as there are dysfunctional corporations.
5. A majority of these stories are set in corporate or large organizations. Do you think some of the dysfunction might be about giving meaning to a job that could otherwise be seen as meaningless? I’m thinking particularly of stories like “War in the Workplace” (p. 58).
SA: Yes, but more. For example, I wrote a book, Death of the Spirit in the American Workplace. The Dysfunctional Workplace and its stories individually and collectively speak to a vast array of workplace dysfunctions that involve leaders, followers, interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, inter-group dynamics, and organization as a whole dynamics. Also to be included here is the relationship of our organizations to local, national and international society. In yet another book, I explore levels of analysis – intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, organizational and societal. There are then many aspects of work life to be considered and the meanings (good or bad) that one acquires in the workplace are important but not our exclusive concern. We might, for example, speak of sweeping organizational changes such as downsizing, restructuring and even massive budget cuts as potentially soul-deadening in addition to creating work overloads, a sense of not being valued, potentially disposable and so on. So – Yes, but more.
HS: Human beings are meaning-making (and meaning-losing) animals. People create and share stories to give meaning to meaning-destroying workplaces. This, however, is no guarantee of greater reality-testing or compassion. Meanings can be driven by projection, splitting, denial, hatred, etc.
6. I have read that extroverts, who are generally seen as preferable to introverts in America, are perceived to be more effective leaders and tend to rise up the corporate ladder faster than introverts, but that introverts actually perform better and have more of the qualities that you describe “good-enough” leaders as having. How do you see cultural biases like this one affecting the workplace?
SA: Some of this content promotes reflectivity, which is good, although it oversimplifies the reality of human nature and organizational dynamics. In order for things to sell, the ideas have to be oversimplified and rendered into entertainment (Dr. Phil comes to mind). This can lead to ill-considered insights and, unfortunately, organizational interventions (see The Witch Doctors, Micklethwait &Wooldridge, 1996). The book Reengineering the Corporation (Hammer & Champy, 1993) and its derivative downsizing is another example of a highly destructive management fad later discarded by Hammer (see Beyond Reengineering, 1996). So we would have to caution others that if it seems simple and easy, whatever the content is, it is not reflective of the complex and ever-changing nature of individual, group and organizational dynamics.
Having said that, the notion you express seems to be partly true. However, if we attend to the resident complexity in the idea, we would appreciate that the two labels (extrovert and introvert) are on a range where they anchor either end. There are an infinite number of points in between indicating an individual is not a pure type. The range would have to be on a time line indicating change from moment to moment along the range. And the range and time line would have to be inside a circle that speaks to the context of the movement for the individual and his or her unique proclivities to respond (along the range).
From a psychodynamic perspective, Howard and I would prefer notions like narcissism where the individual has an expansive sense of self (it’s always about them) which attracts a lot of attention to them, making them appear to be bigger than life and therefore a leader (sound familiar given our current president?). In the book we describe object relations theory that also helps to explain how the narcissist pulls particular projections as well as projects onto others (who are known to be inferior of course).
HS: This question and the next two questions are, to me, closely related. Cultural ideologies and folk psychology like these (introvert/extrovert) have far less explanatory power than psychodynamic models. The touted “transformational leader” who is outwardly boisterous, aggressive, and seemingly sure of him/herself, may mask an inner sense of inadequacy and emptiness.
7. Do you see business schools and business thought (I’m thinking, for example, of the buzzword “disruption”) as having a role in workplace dysfunction?
SA: Business schools do not address most or even any of this in their curricula. There is a well-established and enduring gap dating back to post-WWII when business education became a big deal. When large organizations are surveyed they rate interpersonal skills as highly desirable. They rate business school graduates as lacking them. Business schools resemble technical schools, no different than welding or HVAC. They are about skills training and may, in fact, promote a set of interpersonal skills that are win-lose and antithetical to good working conditions.
There are of course a vast array of buzzwords and ideas that are constantly being generated as fads because they are, as mentioned above, simple and easily sold to relatively uninformed others who are not particularly thoughtful or aware of the harm using them creates (Wells Fargo and their use of perverse incentives is an example). The outcomes are of course one basis of the book – things happen you could not possibly make up and are often driven by quick-fix, self-help ideas and fads that are often adopted by leaders because they fit the leader’s unique pathological proclivities such as wanting to always be seen to be macho – You’re Fired.
HS: Somewhat similar to your previous question, business schools and business thought (if I may generalize) are rife with culturally-shared myths and folklore that are pseudo-scientific. They mask organizational reality in the guise of explaining business reality. They prescribe for their students the “correct” type of business thought and contribute to workplace pathology.
8. The idea of rationality and the fact that so many organizations (or individuals) do not behave rationally is important to your book. One way you describe rational behavior is working to efficiently make a profit or working in one’s own economic interest. You also point out that it is difficult to have people’s emotional needs met in the workplace. Could the goal of making a profit be an unsatisfying goal? Could you see capitalism itself as contributing to dysfunction?
SA: The book focuses on trying to understanding a vast array of dysfunctions (35 stories) from the perspective of psychology or more specifically a psychoanalytically informed perspective. Organizations actually do not do anything – people do. And people often only do what they are told by the CEO types. Sometimes, as in recent events, loyalty is considered to be very high value – submission to the CEO must preferably be complete. Given this perspective that people in the workplace make decisions and take actions then we might say words like capitalism, corporatism, communism, Catholicism and so on are meaningless until people operationalize them. So given this appreciation, capitalism does not do anything and neither does a hydrogen bomb sitting on the top of a missile. Someone has to pull the trigger and someone has to give an order to do so. The book then encourages us to not look to reification (the organization did something) as an explanation but rather that the leader and the employees did something – people are responsible. From this perspective capitalism or the bomb merely exist as potentialities and are not per se good or bad until leaders and followers make them that way.
HS: The business ideology of rationality serves as a defense against realizing how irrational, unconsciously-driven workplace thought, feeling, and behavior are. There are many forms of capitalism; not all are as soul-destroying as the form that has prevailed since the 1980s with “managed social/organizational change.”
9. The current presidential administration has been described by some as dysfunctional. Part of this appears to stem from the fact that Trump comes from the business world. Do you think dysfunction could have some sort of advantages in business that doesn’t translate to other organizations?
SA: This is in part a public versus private sector question. It also arises in part, when set inside the context circle mentioned above, from the extreme polarization that has been created in our society and politics at least in some part made possible by the cable news channels that sell advertising by providing propaganda in the form of news-entertainment to lock in audiences with pre-existing biases to think and feel one way or the other. The larger context matters.
Some organization leadership pathology as well as group pathologies (a lynch mob) can be used to advantage. For example, an anxious and paranoid individual may become so agitated as to start yelling that the enemy is over there, let’s attack. And of course we then have mothers being deported and their children left with no caretakers.
This same dynamic applies equally well in business and nonprofit organizations as well as government. Bill Gates at Microsoft often had a paranoid edge to his leadership where he was always afraid a competitor would gain an advantage. Steve Jobs is another example. So – the idea of psychopathology being adaptive has merit. Bill Gates and many others are also examples of how stable pathological leadership can often span decades. I personally was hired to replace two executives who were highly pathological who had been in place 20 years and 30 years respectively. They keep their position because they are dangerous, willing to attack and fire anyone who is not loyal or a threat, and willing to use organizational resources to control and manipulate including the information everyone else has (a state news channel like Fox is becoming).
In sum it is a fair question with a somewhat complex response. Yes, psychopathology and group pathology can be used to advantage. However, you can’t always turn it down or off as is clearly the case with Trump and it can get out of control and destructive as a result. The organization may be a long-range success or at least not fail (governments are an example or a major university) but the employees may feel alienated and disrespected and morale may be very low for a long time.
HS: If you think of it, I believe that you will see that the type of emotional world characterized by Trump and his followers is echoed in perhaps all American institutions, including workplace/business organizations. This can be thought of as a pervasive cultural ethos or group-fantasy that is shared in every institution. Further, a dysfunctional corporate leader (brutal, abusive, degrading, and bombastic) may produce dazzling quarterly reports in the short run, but run the corporation into the ground in the long run. What may seem up-close like business advantages, when seen from an airplane, look like business catastrophes.
University of Missouri Press’s book series Advances in Organizational Psychodynamics
This book series is interested in analytic depth that advances our understanding and assessment of human organization by reviewing, addressing, and applying contemporary organizational theory and psychoanalysis to organizational behavior and culture. Interdisciplinary in scope, this series will advance knowledge of organizational culture and dynamics through immersion, participant-observation, narrative and storytelling, fieldwork, and ethnography and is intended to fill a void in the literature and offer new insights and frameworks for studying and understanding organizations and organizational participants.
Michael A. Diamond is the series editor. He is Professor Emeritus of Public Affairs and Organization Studies, and Director Emeritus, Center for the Study of Organizational Change, Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is a recipient of the Levinson Award for Excellence in Consulting awarded by the American Psychological Association. He lives in New York.
Other titles in this new series:
Discovering Organizational Identity: Dynamics of Relational Attachment
Michael A. Diamond
Hardcover: 978-0-8262-2098-1 • $45.00
Listening Deeply: An Approach to Understanding and Consulting in Organizational Culture Second Edition
Howard F. Stein
Hardcover: 978-0-8262-2124-7 • $45.00
All books are available at Amazon.com, IndieBooks.org, or by calling the Chicago Distribution Center at 800-621-2736.