Don't Encourage the Dysfunctional Defenders

These are the folks who are convinced that if it weren’t for their dedicated work, the place would fall apart.

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Michael Wade
You have probably met a dysfunctional defender or two in your career.

These are the folks who are convinced that their coworkers and management are giving away the store, and if it weren’t for their dedicated work, the place would fall apart. They believe that they are the defenders of high standards and models of solid performance.

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Dysfunctional defenders possess formidable technical ability combined with terrible people skills. Although usually bright, they are also abrasive, impatient, tactless, and oblivious to the feelings of others. Not surprisingly, they define successful job performance as technical proficiency and deride soft skills as wimpy.

Managers often reinforce that misperception by giving high performance evaluations to these flawed workers, instead of clearly showing them where and how their conduct harms the team. A fear of confrontation with an already unpleasant person may cause a manager to keep a dysfunctional defender around for years, causing others to work around the person so they can avoid humiliation, irritation, or harassment. A sizable amount of the manager’s time can be devoted to sweeping up the broken china.

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The harm these people do is hard to overestimate. Dysfunctional defenders are litigation-breeders. Their stunts can cost organizations millions of dollars. Even if a lawsuit never arises, they can lower morale, generate stress, and drain productivity. Valued coworkers may transfer or resign to get away from the daily volleys of poisonous barbs that are thrown by this vocal minority.

There is a term from New Guinea – "mokita" – which refers to a truth that everyone knows but no one speaks. In the case of the dysfunctional defenders, they may be the last people to know that they are poor, rather than stellar, performers and that the standards they defend are lethal to teamwork and trust.

Michael Wade writes, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.