How are you contributing to the rising occurrence of dysfunctional employees?

Dysfunctional behavior is a part of everyday life in the workplace. In most cases, it is enabled by leaders and managers who are not sure of how to handle employees when they don’t behave the way the leader thinks they should. Most of us have worked with dysfunctional peers or employees, you know, those people who compete, are envious of, undermine, or even make up negative stories about you. And most have seen this dysfunctional behavior enabled by the permissive leadership style of their leaders. Employee behavior that violates the expected and written norms at the workplace is enabled because it happens without correction or consequence.  

The word dysfunctional contains the prefix “dys” – from the Greek meaning “bad”, “abnormal”, “difficult”, or “impaired”. We can say that any behavior of managers or employees is dysfunctional when it is not aligned with the role expectations, behaviors, and values of the organization. In many cases, it is not just undesirable, it’s offensive and destructive behavior that negatively impacts others.

As leaders and managers, if we accept that dysfunction is a normal and natural part of organizational life, we are more likely to deal with it. When the dysfunctional behavior of employees shocks or distresses us in some way, we are more likely to go into flight mode, withdrawing and avoiding dealing with it. This then sends the message that the behavior is okay, thereby enabling and contributing to its continued use. For example, the employee whose work is constantly late or substandard may be enabled by their permissive leader who doesn’t correct the performance. This leads to resentment on the team as other team members who strive for quality and timeliness see their peer get a free pass, while being paid the same.

Common Ways that Leaders and Managers Enable Employees

The following are a few of the most common ways of enabling dysfunctional employee behavior:

Fail to Take Charge  

Some leaders have difficulty with exercising their role authority to get employees to perform to expectations. Those leaders who have difficulty asserting themselves will seek to involve everyone in decision making for fear of offending anyone. This enables employees, giving them an inflated sense of their importance while getting in the way of timely decision making. Leaders who are afraid of hurting employees’ feelings or making others angry, fail to effectively manage their performance and reduce productivity.  

Trying to Be a “Good” Guy or Gal

Trying to be a “nice” guy or gal gets in the way of leaders being effective. It also creates other issues that can consume time and energy. Leaders end up feeling overly responsible for taking care of the emotions of their employees. They wind up doing parts of their employees’ jobs for them because they don’t know how to identify issues or it’s easier than tolerating their emotions. Trying to be what employees want them to be so they will be happy, or so they won’t quit is enabling, permissive behavior that needs to be addressed and changed.  

Failure to Define Expectations

Leaders enable employees when they fail to deliver expectations because they don’t want to be thought of as micromanagers or bossy. While believing they are empowering them, they are actually enabling employees’ inflated senses of their own competence. They will act more like mentors, allowing employees to make mistakes so they can learn from them. Employees who don’t know what they are supposed to do end up having their confidence eroded by this “swim or sink” approach. Researchers have found that this is generally the leadership style that leads to the lowest productivity among group members.

Let the Kids Run the Candy Store

Enabling employee behavior happens when a leader agrees with and defers to the opinions of employees and what they want just to keep them happy. It’s also when they react to complaints employees have about how things are done at the business by changing things for them without determining whether it’s in the best interest of the business. We see employees openly criticizing their leaders or telling them that they don’t want to do something, and the leaders accepting this behavior without comment. We hear leaders complaining that they cannot get their employees to do something that needs to be done without considering that they are part of the issue.

Allowing Dysfunctional Employee Behavior

Some leaders enable dysfunctional employee behavior by allowing them to let their personal problems undermine their productivity and effectiveness. They also allow what we like to call “good old-fashioned bad behavior” like pouting or yelling when an employee doesn’t get their own way. And despite knowing power struggles exist, they allow backstabbing, gossiping and complaining about others, sometimes participating in it themselves instead of seeing themselves as responsible for dismantling and addressing the dysfunctional behavior. 

What to do?

Leaders need to develop people skills, emotional self-awareness, and emotional management. Because of the increased expectation for leaders and managers to be skillful with employee engagement, difficult conversations, and conflict resolution with little training and development, they resort to avoidance and enabling behaviors, while being permissive and self-protective. Employees get away with their dysfunctional behavior because their bosses are afraid of correcting them and holding them accountable. The employees then believe they are entitled to behave the way they do, thus allowing the organization to fall into greater dysfunction.

What you can do:

Stop enabling dysfunctional behavior by facing your fears, assessing your development needs, and practicing new skills. You have to own how you’re contributing to employee dysfunction through enabling bad behavior and being permissive. Without development, leaders and managers are at the mercy of their weaknesses—or less developed functions of their personality/brain—which will undermine our approach to leading people. We often see CEO clients, whose natural strengths are to be in control and decisive, being passive and powerless when it comes to managing the performance of their direct reports or resolving interpersonal issues. The inability to do so is the result of not having developed the skills and confidence required to use the relational functions of their brains effectively, so they just avoid the discomfort and feelings of incompetence they might feel, by not addressing these issues and performance gaps.

Learn how you can lead with authority. Get a copy of So You Think You Can Lead? on Amazon. 


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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