Posted by: chrismaser | November 12, 2010


To break the cycle of a malfunctional agency, we must deal with all of the pieces in context with the whole, which is something we seldom do. We try instead to fix individual pieces symptomatically in intellectual isolation, which cannot work. An agency can be restructured, for example. I survived several restructurings, but that didn’t fix the cause of the dysfunction in that it didn’t heal the people who made up the agency—beginning at the top.

An agency can be given a new charter, but that doesn’t fix the malfunction, which once again is caused by the people who make up the agency. If the basic structure of an agency—such as a corporation—is not remodeled from the top down by inner executive choice, it will revert to its original malfunction within six months to a year because the agency’s culture is in it’s walls, so to speak.

I could go on and on, because we are the agency. Therefore, we are the problem, the dysfunctional components. Therefore, we are also the solution.

The main problem I see is the constant struggle to retain one’s dignity and integrity in an agency that’s become a machine intent primarily on its own survival by maintaining the status quo through putting out “crisis fires.” Such an agency is indifferent not only to its real mission of serving the people but also to those who want to carry it forward as it was originally intended.

It’s up to the individual to learn how to work within the agency while, at the same time, maintaining personal and professional integrity. We cannot blame externals for our failure to maintain our integrity, and we must beware of using statements that seem to absolve us of our responsibility for our personal behavior, because they can only lead us into the pit of personal powerlessness. Whatever the external obstacles, it’s our personal responsibility to face them and retain our empowerment.

Any kind of professional impotence is a self-reinforcing feedback loop. When we, as professionals, as public servants, abdicate our own power, we assume the role of victims and develop the cynical attitude that “we can’t fight the system.” We thus justify the prophecy that all our efforts are doomed and that nothing we do matters or makes a difference. How often I’ve heard this refrain! And herein lies the seed of the problem.

When we surrender our power by placing all the responsibility for the failures of our efforts outside of ourselves, we’re in jeopardy of having our work devitalize us. If, on the other hand, in spite of the obstacle, we assume responsibility for the professionalism of our work, it can vitalize us.

We simply can’t get away from ourselves as individuals. We’ve all brought ourselves—as the extensions of our familial backgrounds—into the agency or local organization. We must therefore recognize that, in a sense, we’ve become part of an “extended family” filled with “relatives” both “near” and “distant,” all of whom are doing their best to cope with their ever-changing experiences of themselves and of one another.

To break any cycle, we must first be aware of it and how it functions. Admitting, owning, and accepting the problem brings it into the light of consciousness, where it can be recognized and dealt with. The first step of recovery for an alcoholic, for example, is the conscious admission, “I’m an alcoholic.” The same dynamic applies to other dysfunctional coping mechanisms.

Thus one of the keys to unlocking the dysfunction of an agency is understanding our dysfunctional coping mechanisms on an individual basis, perhaps by participating in a series of seminars or workshops that help us to: (1) see our relationships with co-workers as possibly similar to those existing in their own families, (2) gain an insight into the workings of our dysfunctional coping mechanisms, (3) be encouraged to examine our coping mechanisms and allow them to fade away in an atmosphere of mutual revelation and exploration, (4) have opportunities to learn about ourselves and one another, (5) learn it’s okay to have and express intense feelings we may have repressed, (6) be encouraged to join with our co-workers to recreate our past so we can become liberated from the restricting influences of our early childhood, which we have brought with us into the agency, and (7) experience the support of others in discovering the universality of our struggles, which will help us to become our own person.

Another key to unlocking the dysfunction of an agency is to understand the dynamics of job descriptions and how they’re used to control individuals. A malfunctional agency seeks to control its employees, because commodity production to satisfy the industrial/political bosses has become more important than the process of cementing human relationships. Yet we must ask ourselves: Is not human dignity more important than commercial products? What’s an agency, if it’s not people? How can we rectify the problem?

We can rectify the problem by having the courage to take responsibility for our own thoughts and actions while working within our job descriptions. And rather than being functionaries for the corporate/political machine, we can question the validity of what we do for the good of society beyond a few special-interest groups.

We are our family, and we are the agency. We joined the agency to serve people through our professional expertise. Human dignity must therefore be the foundation and primary product of an agency—especially an agency of public service. But as it now stands, to get any kind of “real” attention in a dysfunctional agency, as in a dysfunctional family, a person must somehow threaten the homeostasis.

I think there are two reasons for this. One is that we no longer know for whom or for what we’re working, or so we’re told anyway. In the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, I was told by a high-ranking laboratory official that I worked for the Bush Administration and therefore had to comply with the Bush Administration’s wishes.

“No,” I said, “I don’t work for the [first] Bush Administration. You may, but not I. I work for the public; in fact, I work for the children.” The other reason for this sad state of affairs is that we’re lacking—sorely lacking—leadership and are overrun with managerialship.

Leadership is of the heart and deals intimately with human values, with human dignity, because one must lead by example, as noted by Francis Bacon when he said: “He that gives good advice, builds with one hand; he that gives good counsel and example, builds with both.”

A leader knows and does what is right with a moral conviction, usually expressed as justified enthusiasm, which causes people to want to follow with action. Essentially, a leader is one who gives people value and can motivate people by sensitive negotiation so that a perceived need is raised to strong desire. A leader leads from the heart as though human dignity matters. The irony is that such leadership is perceived as interfering with homeostatic control of any politically oriented agency geared to maximizing the of production of an economically desired product. Consequently, we have few leaders today.

Managerialship, on the other hand, is of the intellect and pays minute attention to detail, to the letter of the law, doing the thing “right” even if it isn’t the “right” thing to do. A manager relies on the external, intellectual promise of new techniques to solve problems and is concerned that all the pieces of the machine’s procedure are properly accounted for, hence the epithet “bean counter.”

Good managers are thus placed at a disadvantage when put in positions of leadership, because all such people can do is rise to their level of incompetence and then remain there, in which case an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance. Similarly, a leader placed in the position of managerialship is equally likely to be a dismal failure because the two positions require vastly different skills.

We need excellent leaders who have excellent managers to support them in a team effort, and both are in exceedingly short supply. What we therefore have is primarily agency-oriented, careerist managers, who often are in over their heads in leadership positions—and no leaders.

I my experience at least, a malfunctional agency carefully, and for the most part unconsciously, screens all candidates and selects careerist managers who lack vision and will do as they’re told with little interference from their feelings of right and wrong. If, however, a misjudgment occurs, and the person chosen by the machine does, in fact, have vision and the courage to follow it, the person is soon shunned and thereby rendered powerless—as only the machine can do. I’ve watched this process many times. It’s called “dehumanization,” which is just another form of terrorism!

An additional point to consider in breaking the cycle of a dysfunctional agency is that we must ask new, morally-right, future-oriented questions, which means that public agencies must restate their visions and missions for the future. To accomplish this, we must clearly define the professional boundaries of expertise in a functionally integrated way—and adhere to them—if we’re to have a sustainable planet for human society, present and future.

Although it can be and often is argued that new people entering an agency bring new thoughts and ways with them as older people leaving the agency take once pioneering thoughts and ways with them, this influx of “new blood” doesn’t absolve us, as individuals, from the responsibility of so changing ourselves that we can and will honor the dignity of each and every person with whom we work, whether we agree with them or not. In the end, it’s you and I who must learn to value one another and to live by one, simple principle—to accept responsibility for our own feelings, thoughts, and actions. We must learn to be kind and respectful to ourselves and to one another without forfeiting our principles. And each agency must have a clearly stated vision and mission, as well as clearly stated goals and objectives, that honor both the intent and the heart of the highest principles embodied in the laws of the land if we’re to replace our malfunctional agencies with appropriately functional ones.


Series on Resistance to Change:

• Our Institutionalized Resistance To Change

• My Introduction To An Agency

• The Inception Of An Agency

• Stages In The Cycle Of An Agency

• When Dysfunction/Malfunction Creeps In

• Homeostatic Defense

• Coping Mechanisms

• Coping Mechanisms: Anger And Aggression

• Coping Mechanisms: Appraisal

• Coping Mechanisms: Defensiveness

• Coping Mechanisms: Denial

• Coping Mechanisms: Displacement

• Coping Mechanisms: Filters

• Coping Mechanisms: Projection

• Coping Mechanisms: Rationalization

• Coping Mechanisms: Repression

• Coping Mechanisms: Resistance

• From Where I Stand

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1994 book, Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL. 373 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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