Dysfunctional Cultures



          Organizational dysfunctionality contributes to ethical dysfunctionality which fosters wrongdoing.  “The structure of an organization predisposes in large part whether it is itself conducive or prohibitive to unethical acts(Jurkiewicz and Giacalone.  “Organizational Determinants of Ethical Dysfunctionality”.  Journal of Business Ethics.  10 Sept. 2014). 

          Organizational behaviorists assert that there are three elements which contribute to ethical dysfunction - structure, leadership and culture. 

          Structure, as in a strict vertical hierarchy, inhibits communication and leaves a whistleblower with few options, particularly when there is top-down unethicality.

          Leadership has a powerful influence on the organizational culture.  Leaders’ behaviors send important messages about what is important and what is not, how they respond to crises, what they reward and punish, and who they hire and fire.

          The culture of an organization or how people behave and treat each other takes its cues from leaders.   

          Organizations and others with an interest in determining the level of ethical dysfunctionality in an organization can use the following list of organizational characteristics as a starting point for planning, assessing and identifying the need for intervention to prevent unethicality developing:


The Dysfunctional Dozen

Organizational Characteristic



Entails behavior that is imposturous, expedient, artificial, shallow, and politically manipulative.  Also can include outright lying or more subtly “unbounded impression management” internally and externally. Such behavior likely modeled by leaders and replicated by subordinates.


Strong ties and identification with leader.  Psychological and fiscal dependence on leader leading to strong desire to please to gain approval.  Leader requires obedience and self-determination is punished.  Groupthink reinforced and lack of critical analysis.


Employees assume hidden agendas, rumor mill runs rampant, and ulterior motives suspected of each other.  Dysfunctional reporting on each other, surreptitious observation and almost paranoid questioning of motives and intentions.


Focus on self, irrespective and disdainful of others’ efforts.  View others as means to an end, and associations dictated by utility rather than personal regard.  Focus on short term personal gain rather than collective sense of accomplishment.


Focus on immediate reward without regard for long-term consequences and accountability is way down the road.  Rewards for expediency toward goal attainment.  Desired ends justify any means, and Machiavellianism prevails.  Manipulation of data and spin of interpretation to enhance performance and discount consequences.


Demonstrated disesteem and contempt for employees.  Uncivil and discourteous tone of interactions.  Sense that organization is more important than its members.  Employees bullied and harassed.  Competition for attention rather than direction toward production.


Lack of accountability and blaming others.  Procedural issues cited to deflect blame and protect from responsibility.  Pathological form of favoritism and existence of character, truth, keeping obligations and promises are malleable and exercised at individual’s discretion and by personal preference.  Influence tactics and rewards based on who in best position to return favors.


Sense of injustice and loyalty not in best interest of individual.  Disparity and unfairness in treatment.  Output minimized, discouragement abounds and diversity not valued.


Lack mercy or kindness.  Employees and management cruel to each other and often to stakeholders.  Impersonal and cold environment and lack of concern with needs of employees as human beings.


Management enforces only one right way to do things.  Questioning is discouraged, innovation and critical thinking are suppressed; proactive thinking, creativity, and effective problem-solving are dissuaded either overtly or tacitly. Behaviour outside established norm punished.  Can lead to pursuing aberrant goals with great yet unwarranted zeal.


Tendency to selfishness and exploiting others, self-aggrandizement, brutish disregard for those who distract attention from oneself.


Harsh, inflexible, unyielding mindsets.  Information that counters held beliefs and attitudes not allowed.  Decisions made to maintain status quo.  Unwillingness to change creates a threshold for ethical dysfunctionality.


Source:  Adapted from Jurkiewicz and Giacalone.  “Organizational Determinants of Ethical Dysfunctionality,” Journal of Business Ethics, Sept. 10, 2014, 1-12.

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