Dysfunction Wanted

“Before we start, I want you to know that you’ve never worked with an organization like ours…”

This statement, or one like it, generally marks the start of my work with any organization. Global enterprise, mid-sized regional player or single shingle start-up – clients want me to understand the unique nature of who they are and how they operate.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that statement and why clients are universally compelled to establish that they are one-of-a-kind.


For many years, I took the comments at face value; believing that I’d soon see the operational or cultural unicorns, of which my clients warned. Inevitably, each organization came to resemble every other organization; a group of people just trying to make sense of a business world that doesn’t come with a manual.


Later, I began to wonder if claims of uniqueness sprung from pride. Were they bragging? Were my clients calling attention to some hyper-successful operational cultural aspect of their organization? The idea didn’t last long, as I soon realized the warnings were almost always about bracing me to witness some dysfunction.


Often, we distance ourselves from our work, openly promoting the precedence of our personal life over our professional life. We say, “I work to live. I don’t live to work!”

But that’s not really the case, is it. Our work lives generally include high-value, family-like relationships we cherish. Most people can name their work spouse and may have even discussed the title openly. Many bosses mistake leadership for parent-like oversight; making an office atmosphere resonate with the tension normally produced when real parents interact with unwilling teenagers.

I came to realize the warnings were a form of vulnerability and a show of trust.


I was getting the business version of the talk we give our partners before they meet our parents for the first time. “Ok, this is what you are about to walk into…”

People often ask me how I define organizational culture. In the end, culture is simple – the sum of the interactions of the people comprise the organization. Organizational culture is sort of the same dynamic as when our families get together for the holidays.


Are you hiring for capability and competency or are you really looking for someone to play the role of weird uncle Fred?

It may sound crazy at first, but ask yourself, what’s the dysfunction your organization keeps hiring? Look around, whatever it is, that’s your organizational culture.

As always, I invite you to share your comments and experiences directly at jeff@jeffkaplan.com

Until next time. Stay connected.