Is Your Office Like a Dysfunctional Family? What to Do

Shelly Reese


September 11, 2013

In This Article


Whether you work in private practice, a hospital, or a clinic, one thing is universal: You work with other human beings and are subject to the peculiarities of human behavior and interaction.

While some workplaces eat, sleep, and breathe teamwork and a common purpose, it's safe to say that others fall short of the mark. Those shortcomings may be benign or even comedic, but in some cases they can have far more serious implications for you, your coworkers, and your patients.

The Dysfunctional Workplace

"What does a dysfunctional workplace look like? Like a family, you've got all sorts of things going on," says Ken Hertz, a principal with MGMA Health Care Consulting Group. "You've got different age groups -- the kids convinced that they know more than mom and dad do. The disengaged teen. The brother and sister who play he-said-she-said. I've run into all of that, and it will make you nuts."

Dysfunctional workplaces have unwritten rules, says Albert J. Bernstein, PhD, a Portland, Oregon-based clinical psychologist and author of Emotional Vampires at Work. In a dysfunctional family, there's a core problem: an elephant in the room, such as alcoholism, abuse, mental health problems, or infidelity. Whatever the problem, it's verboten to discuss it.

Similarly, a dysfunctional workplace is characterized by unspoken rules. "In a medical setting, the written rules emphasize that we're here to deliver the highest-quality medical care, but the unwritten rules may emphasize profitability, protecting reputations, and billing for as many services as possible," he says.

To function in such an environment, people adopt coping strategies such as passive aggression, backstabbing, and one-upmanship that further undermine the team.

"Dysfunction -- and the inability to deal with it -- is the silent killer of healthcare clinics," says Melissa Stratman, CEO of Coleman Associates, a Boulder, Colorado-based practice consultancy. "I see clinics that don't have enough supplies or are nearly empty. They wither away and become places where patients are dissatisfied, employees aren't productive, and quality slips. They're places where the really good people leave."


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