Dysfunctional is a funny word – particularly because it has the word “functional” in it. I love that irony, but I particularly think there is tremendous value in looking at the “functional” side of any dysfunction. While we can all agree that dysfunctions are destructive things, what is interesting about almost all dysfunctions is that they worked for us at some point in our lives. Dysfunctions are sneaky that way. They get us something (or at least the illusion of a pay-off), but eventually they cost us more than they get us down the road. So, I thought what better place to go to see the beginning of so many of our dysfunctions than the playground.

My kids are little (9, 6 and 4) so I am no stranger to the playground. We have all of our favorites around town, the one with giant dinosaur slide, the one down by the river, the church playground, etc… In just one hour of visiting one of our favorites, I had the pleasure of witnessing some of the most common dysfunctions we all experience at work.

The Bully

The first dysfunction was spotted almost immediately when we walked onto the playground. Over by the entrance sat one of those miniature cars perched on several oversized springs. Naturally, kids just love it. They can hop in, grab the steering wheel and bounce back and forth. The equivalent of the most popular work-out machine at the gym, this thing always has a line – until the bully shows up. In this case, the bully came disguised as a four year old girl with a singular pink bow in her hair. She marched right up to the car (bypassing the line), took a look at the rider and passenger in the car (there is only room for two) and began to push on the passenger to make room for herself. Eventually the ripple effect of the force caught up with the driver and he tumbled out of his side of the car. Ignoring the crying that was emanating from the ground, the bully looked quite content… until she realized she didn’t have full control of the steering wheel. Two more swift pushes and she was all alone in the car, a smug smile on her face and two crying victims next to her. She was bound and determined to get what she wanted regardless of who was in her way. Some bullies never grow up and take their bad behavior to work.

The Tattletale

Near the giant dinosaur slide, my 6 year old was playing contentedly. Deciding that it would be more fun and daring to climb up a slide rather than slide down it, he began the ascent. No sooner had he gotten a firm grip of the slide with both hands and began to push up, a little girl about his age came running over to him and the lecture began, “you can’t do that. You are not allowed… if you don’t stop right now I am going to go tell my mom.” He hopped down from the slide and began to re-evaluate his decision… or rather his approach. The funny thing was that the tattletale began to follow him. Every new approach he took, there she was with a new threat to get her mom if he didn’t do exactly what she said. She was going to make sure others followed the rules even though she had no direct authority. And if she busted them for not following the rules, she might just turn out to be the “good” one in the eyes of the “boss.”

The Spoiled Brat

Around the corner came the sound of carnival-style music. The sound was too familiar to all the ears that heard it – the ice cream truck. Kids were leaping off swings, slides and benches to line up. As they got their ice cream, one by one they walked back toward their parents. One child caught my eye. With a different flavor ice cream in each hand, this little boy of about 7 years old was absorbed with his treasures. He went and sat down next to his mother. After alternating bites on his two confections, his eye caught the ice cream sandwich a little girl was eating across from him. His mood turned. A frown appeared across his face.  He turned to his mother and spoke in a demanding tone declaring that he wanted one of “those.” As she resisted, his entire body began to shake in a violent tantrum. With the words “unfair” being repeated over and over again, mom eventually caved. Moments later he was enjoying his third ice cream. This same tactic works at work.  Complain enough about “unfair treatment” and one might just get rewarded with special considerations – whether earned or not – just to get them to shut up.  We call these people “complainers, whiners, and divas” amongst other things… 

Implications at Work

In each one of these cases, the dysfunction got the giver “something” (a lone seat on the bouncy car, power to influence the boss, more ice cream, etc…). However, in the end, as all dysfunctions do, they cost each of these kids playmates. No one wants to hang out with someone that is taking their stuff, threatening them, or always complaining that they didn’t get enough. Dysfunctions cost us healthy relationships.

So, the questions to you are simple:

  • Are you doing things at work that may be costing you “playmates”? If so, what could you be doing differently to “play nice” with those around you?
  • And if you encounter one of these dysfunctional patterns on your playground (at work), what do you do?

Tell them “No.”  They won’t like it, but they’ve got to learn eventually that real adults “share their toys” and play nice with others around them.