Dysfunctional organisations can turn a good person bad.

You may have heard the proverbif you sup with the devil you need a (very) long spoon”. The idea is that if you mix with bad people you should be careful not to be influenced by them and start behaving badly yourself. It’s a very old sentiment that was mentioned as far back as 1386 in Chaucer’s ‘The Squires Tale’.

This week I got a modern, evidence based example of this aspect of human behavior at a Leadership & Management Wales (LMW) seminar.

“Management behaving badly” was presented by Professor Ralph Fevre of Cardiff University on the findings of a huge piece of research work into ill-treatment at work. The report ‘Insight into ill-treatment in the workplace: patterns, causes and solutions’ summarises the research which involved almost 4000 interviews. The report is well worth reading for anyone interested in HR, employee engagement, organisational development or just being a more effective manager or leader. A few points I took from the seminar:


  • Small organisations tend to have less of a problem with ill-treatment;
  • Bigger organisations have a higher level of ill-treatment despite ‘proper’ policies (Dignity at work etc) and HR Departments which are supposed to prevent ill-treatment;
  • Many policies and subsequent interventions, to deal with ill-treatment, don’t seem to be effective;
  • Manager against subordinate was the most common form of ill-treatment; and
  • Managers themselves are highly likely to suffer ill-treatment.

Some solutions

  • Manage the managers. Supporting managers to develop their people skills is an essential part of treating people properly, and getting the most out of them. It’s disappointing that the archetype of the technical expert with poor people skills, promoted to a managerial position who then causes havoc was mentioned several times during the session. The evidence suggests that there are still plenty of them out there (have a look at the report case studies).
  • Manage sickness absence properly. The evidence points towards the inappropriate application of sickness absence policies, particularly against people with serious conditions. Implement the policies properly and fairly (train managers to do this), and you prevent some of the ill-treatment.

One finding did stand out for me. This was the importance of the overall culture of an organisation. It was summed up as, “if you have a dysfunctional organisation the levels of ill-treatment will be greater”. This issue around culture is linked to the issue of managers   being the source of ill-treatment against staff, and being the subject of ill-treatment themselves.  It seems like a case study of behavior begets behavior and an example of a ‘vicious circle’ that arises from ill-treatment from (and to) customers and service users. The role of leadership in addressing such a culture and reversing ill-treatment is fundamental, which is probably why LMW put on the seminar. Good choice.

Linking back to the idea at the top of this post….do be careful where you choose to work. If it’s a dysfunctional organisation where ill-treatment is commonplace there is a chance you’ll be on the receiving end of it. I wouldn’t want to crush anyone’s hope and desire to change organisations (or the world) but do be aware that “if you sup with the devil you need a very long spoon”.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Ill-treatment of staff does happen in organisations, but is more likely in big compared to small organisations (see the is 150 the magic number post).
  2. If you are a manager, you are likely to receive, as well as, dish out ill-treatment.
  3. Organisational culture has a huge influence on ill-treatment, as well as you, so be careful who you sup with.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

9 Responses

  1. Hmmnnn…lots of food for thought here.

    From what I’ve seen, dysfunctional orgs are especially good at helping people become – Woody Allen’s favourite description – ‘passive aggressive’. So people who start off working there as positive, initiative-taking, do-as-you-would-be-done-by types become resentful, always transactional and controlling in many minor ways.

    Often unconscious, we can’t blame them…..they’re just dumping off on soft targets what’s been done to them….

    And yes, if they can they should move on. Or at least relegate work to lesser importance. For the sake of their souls.

  2. Many thanks for your positive comments on our event. We were inspired by the delegates and their feedback. Anyone who arranges events like this can never really be sure that they have chosen a topic that interests/fires people up. I think that this one was always going to be worth attending as there probably will be very few people in the workplace who cannot look back at an instance where a manager/leader behaved poorly, In today’s society the results for employers of managers behaving badly can be disasterous on many levels, not the least of which is financial in these litigious days. The moral is…. get your managers & leaders to operate at their optimum level as a result of proper training & development. Training courses are cheaper than court appearances.
    Thanks for coming along and taking the time to write so positively.

  3. In my workplace mediation and conflict management work, it is very clear that a lack of management skill is a (if not the) causative effect. Statistics show that 60% of managers avoid conflict rather than manage it positively; as we all know that rarely works in practice.
    It is also clear that the costs to organisations and to the individuals wellbeing is huge and much greater than any potential tribunal award.
    I too was struck by the magic number of 150, I understand that Gortex deliberately build new factories rather than expand when capacity takes them beyond these numbers. Must be another research project here??

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