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Want to eliminate workplace dysfunction? Get ticked off!

These tiny parasites are annoying and spread dangerous disease. The same can happen in your organization if you allow it.

It’s tick season. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t find at least one tick on Grace. Finding and removing these rather troublesome parasites gives us a lesson for how to better handle difficult colleagues and eliminate workplace dysfunction.  

Ticks are more than annoying, they carry real health dangers to dogs and humans. Part of the challenge is how hard they are to find, given their size and ability to linger around with few signs. Unlike other warm weather bugs — like mosquitoes who let their presence be known with a sharp, buzzing sound that drills into your ear or the black flies that swarm you — ticks attach themselves quietly and hang around indefinitely, taking as much as they can from you while offering you nothing. This scenario is the same in our workplaces. It is very unhealthy and you have to be alert to recognize the trouble. 

Workplace dysfunction can often be subtle and insidious

Ever feel like someone in your organization sucks the life out of you? Sometimes the drain is so slight, that you don’t even know its happening until you get a break from it and only then become aware of how overpowering it is.

Recently, I was talking with a very talented and competent executive who shared her story with me, a perfect illustration of that scenario. She has worked in the same organization for several years, and over that time, has consistently dealt with peers and the top leader who — in my words not hers — acted like parasites. After her return from a short medical leave of absence that allowed her a fresh perspective, she could more easily see how they had been feeding off her ability to get things done, without offering any encouragement, direction, or leadership in return. They have used her expertise as their own fuel, providing nothing productive to support her. She has been able to accomplish major initiatives, in spite of the relationship being one-sided. Now that she sees the situation for what it is, she’s ready to tackle it constructively.

One of the dictionary definitions of a parasite is someone who receives support or advantage from another without giving any useful or proper return. In our workplaces, these relationships don’t build the organizational trust and respect that is needed in order to reach any kind of sustainable success.

Whatever our position is, our work will always impact another person, team, or department. I believe that everyone needs to be aware of the impact we are having on others. Are you the parasite? Or perhaps the host that allows the parasite to exist? It takes two to tango, as they say.

Constructive ways to remove the tick

That’s why I recommend that you get ticked off, so to speak. If you’re feeling that someone is taking advantage of a situation, you have a responsibility to address the situation. There are constructive ways to do so, and the earlier you catch it, the easier it is to solve. Ever tried to remove a tick after it’s gorged itself? Not fun!

Grace is a role model for dealing with this early. My husband and I have witnessed her pick many ticks off herself without any assistance. She is alert to the sensation of the tick as he crawls over her body. Once she’s located it, she starts to lick it, pulls it away from her skin, and then she chews it or tosses it aside. She’s found her own way to say, “Stop free-loading off me, you annoying nuisance, you.” And she does this early, not after it has laid into a cozy situation and becomes hard to deal with.

Keep these steps in mind to constructively address workplace dysfunction: 

  • First recognize there is an imbalance in the relationship. If you are constantly feeling that you’re carrying more of the workload than others, pause, and examine why.
  • Find ways to discuss the situation openly and respectfully. Ask about obstacles the other person may be experiencing. Maybe it’s lack of training or time. Those are easier to resolve. If the person lacks interest to resolve, be clear on your own boundaries and expectations and hold to them.

Just as Grace has removed her own ticks, I think you should remove yours. Can you think of situations where you’ve been faced with a parasite hanging on you? What are constructive ways that you have changed the dynamic?

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  1. Laurie Bartolo on May 24, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Great post Robin! Workplace ticks are everywhere – from those people who take credit for your ideas, to those who dump work on you that they should be doing themselves. This often happens in low-accountability work environments. Worse, it is usually the smart, hard-working person who becomes the victim, because of their capabilities and work ethic. I coached someone who was in this situation, and she ultimately decided to leave the company (it was irreparable because this was coming from the top down, and the behavior of those above her was being enabled by senior management). The sad outcome is that a high-potential employee was lost, and the company was left with a bunch of ticks who had to wait until their next “host” arrived so they could be vicariously productive again. I’m guessing the next person didn’t stick around long either. It’s a shameful waste of talent and company resources and we should all be ticked off about it! (Also, I’m amazed that Grace has been removing her own ticks! I’ve never heard of a dog doing that – good for her!)

    • Robin on May 25, 2012 at 7:40 am

      Great point about this happening in low-accountability work environments, Laurie. I do think management is unaware of the toll ticks play on others, not seeing that slow drain as tough as it really is on the organization. It is a shame that people like the person you knew felt compelled to leave, but it is often the case isn’t it? (And yes, we were amazed at Grace removing her own ticks, too! She doesn’t get them all, but she’s become really alert about them. Good for her!) Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. Kathy on May 24, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Touche, right on yet again. I always say “sometimes a subtraction is an addition!” And…you owe it to your staff to part ways with people like this…..avoiding the issues causes real resentment by the team members who are contributing and NOT sucking the life out of everyone around them.


    • Robin on May 25, 2012 at 7:42 am

      Absolutely love your data analogy, Kathy. (By the way, I was talking to someone who attended your recent workshop and she said she found it to be one of the useful sessions she’s ever attended. You are masterful at teaching people how to present healthcare data well!). Thanks for stopping here.

  3. Pepi Noble on May 24, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Great post Robin – it brought me back to a job I loved at a company I loved with one of the BIGGEST TICS ever. This was one of those quiet ones, where you didn’t notice at first all the bloodsucking going on – gossip and innuendo that hurt so many people. The person was always careful to blame someone else but finally when I became the target the spotlight finally fell on her and she left. But that was only after many people quit or were so unhappy. I think that no one wanted to be singled out as a non team player. Back then that was the watchword. I think smart people today need to step up and shine a light on those tics. Hi to Grace

    • Robin on May 25, 2012 at 7:45 am

      Grace says hello to you, too, Pepi! Your reference to ‘one of the BIGGEST TICS’ ever made me laugh. Though I know it’s not funny, but it is incredible how these individuals leave such a deep impression on us. Wouldn’t it be so much better if, as you say, the smart people stepped up and took care of these ticks?

  4. Bill on May 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Spot on. I’ve been in those corporate situations before where a person is soured on the company and is on the way out. Those are the worst ticks, they attach to you and work hard to get you to see their frustrated and negative view of the company. They’ve got nothing to offer that is constructive or beneficial anymore and if you let them get’ll take a blow torch to get them off. Great blog!

    • Robin on May 25, 2012 at 7:46 am

      Great idea — bring on the blow torches! We should all be armed with them. Thanks for your comment, Bill!

  5. LeeAnn on May 26, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Wonderful advice Robin on the workplace ticks! It really makes me think about the ones in our organization and how I can better handle them. To go back to the actual ticks, I get furious when I find them on my Gracie. We have a real problem with them down here lately. With Gracie’s short hair, I can usually see them crawling on her, before they sink into her. I am so impressed that Grace takes them off of herself!

    • Robin on May 30, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Ticks have definitely been a problem here this year, too, since the winter was warmer than usual and didn’t kill them off. I found one on Grace’s chin yesterday — that was one she missed, but I got it for her. We all need to help each other out when pruning for those ticks!

  6. Kas on May 26, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Ugh … If I never saw a tick again, I would be one happy camper. We find at least two on every dog every single day and I have pulled three out of my very own head (gross!). And I love how you always relate everyday things to the workplace — very insightful! 🙂

    • Robin on May 30, 2012 at 10:45 am

      Glad you found those ticks, Kas! With all your dogs, it must be quite an ongoing job!

  7. zenmaiden on May 30, 2012 at 9:52 am

    I like the analogy of the tick in the workplace. Very clever. It seems a good grounded way to perceive what could become an unhealthy work environment. Its no fun to be a host.

    • Robin on May 30, 2012 at 10:47 am

      Unhealthy is a good word to use, zenmaiden. And definitely no fun to be the host. That could be a very useful trigger to know if you have a tick hanging on: asking the question, ‘are you having fun?’ If not, maybe a tick is to blame! Thanks so much for being here.

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