A taxonomy of organizational distress

From multiple years of experience working with leaders across scores of organizations, I have devised this taxonomy of organizational distress.

I. O.A.D.D. – Organizational Attention Deficit Disorder

Symptoms: People have so many projects on their plate they can’t keep up. People are asked to take on more and more and more before they have finished current work. Indecision.

Causes: Ineffective strategy. Unfocused leadership. Competition between upper level leaders for turf. No ‘air traffic controller’ at the executive level assessing the amount of new programs being generated and sent to front-line managers. Overload.

Impact: People lose focus and become indecisive. Energy is diluted. Projects are done ineffectively. Cognitive overload. Burnout. Customer complaints. Profit loss.

Treatment: Leadership must refocus the organization

  1. Choose the critical few initiatives from strategy and ignoring the rest.
  2. Get rid of breathing dinosaurs (projects with no future).
  3. Be deliberate about where to focus energy.

II. Organizational Amnesia – forgetting what people have done.

Symptoms: Performance reviews do not acknowledge achievement. Selective memory loss impacts people who have achieved much but recognized for little.

Causes: Managerial jealousy of underlings who are rising stars. Busy organizations often forget simply due to the speed of the operation.

Impact: When achievements are unnoticed or unrecognized, people lose desire to achieve more. The concept is called “learned helplessness“.


Organizational and individual achievements must be heralded. Improve the quality of performance reviews. Understand that achievements are a source of efficacy – building strength for the next challenge.

III. Organizational Schizophrenia – having separate minds.

Schizophrenia comes from schizein and phren – two Greek words – meaning, literally, a split mind.

Symptoms: Organizational uncertainty, team infighting, ineffective and diluted distribution of resources.

Causes: Strategic uncertainty. Leadership ego gets in the way of a clear path. Too many cooks in the kitchen setting direction — generally an effect of a dysfunctional executive team.

Impact: Although similar to O.A.D.D., this is a more deliberate and intentional form of organizational distress, caused by leadership intentionally going in different directions due to competing goals and strategies.


Discover the disconnect. Who is uncommitted to the organizational direction? Why? If there is a high level team member who is traveling in a direction that diminishes the effectiveness of the organization – remove them.

IV. Organizational Co-Dependency

Symptoms: Consultants become a crutch.

Causes: Executive relationships from a former consulting company. Executive insecurity. Excessive reliance on outside sources of information.

Impact: Executives spend excessive amounts of money and time deferring to outside consultants, asking for advice and direction. Consultants rarely live with the results of their recommendations, btw.


Ask whether the consultant has truly helped your organization over the long haul. If not, fire the consultant.

V. Organizational Narcissism

Symptoms: Hubris. Business is losing ground but executives are so proud of their past achievements that they cannot see how fast the future is moving toward them. This is especially true of self-made entrepreneurs who have been wildly successful for decades but have lost sight of what is happening around them. They believe they can turn their business quickly as if the Exxon Valdeez could be turned like a sailboat.

Causes: Overestimation of skills; underestimation of market forces, wilful blindness to employee calls for action. Ignoring customer complaints.

Impact: Executives discover too late that they were wrong about their long-held assumptions that their business or product will endure forever. Employee turnover. Loss of business. Customer complaints.


Listen to front-line people and customers! Do some serious talent search to get some new blood on board. Hire people intentionally from the outside to bring in fresh ideas and (effectively) shake things up.

VI. Recognition Anorexia

I once spoke at a conference and asked about 100 managers why they didn’t recognize people. One guy shouted out “We don’t need to do that stuff, we pay them for what they do.” This is not an uncommon sentiment from leaders I have met in my travels.

Recognition anorexia is the purposeful or unthinking withholding restraining of legitimate recognition. Organizations talk a lot about recognition, but do very little because they’re worried “people will slow down or stop working because we gave them recognition.”

Symptoms: Managers rarely complement people for work well done. Performance reviews do not cite achievements. People feel like their work does not matter.

Causes: Inaccurate fear that recognition will lead to a slowing down of the workforce. Recognition takes effort that managers may choose to avoid. Fear that recognition will be unjust, so no one gets recognized.

Impact: The very thing people need to thrive in the workplace (validation through recognition) is being withheld from them. People spend a third of their lifetimes in the workplace, and the workplace may be the only place they get life validation. People who have worked hard will sense inequity and injustice leading to turnover or, worse, they will stay and do the minimum until they can find another job.


Find an enlightened leader who can change the culture to one of gratitude for peoples’ efforts. Ensure the recognition is earned, but if it has been, reward appropriately.

VII. Anxiety Disorder leading to Panic Attacks

Symptoms: People are unable to think clearly. They demonstrate frustration with each other and are sensitive to things that would normally not be an issue.

Causes: Excessive growth in a short period of time. Failed organizational initiatives that are burning out people with no one willing to call out the failure. Product quality.

Impact: Burnout, employee frustration, loss of quality, turnover, formation of cliques who support each other during times of stress.


Find the things that can be controlled and manage them quickly, including communication about what is being done (to reduce immediate anxiety). Hire temporary members and staff up as needed – and have managers/leaders step in to fill orders or whatever must be done to get through the crisis.

If the problem is a failed organizational initiative, stop it dead in it’s tracks. No need to persist in a failed mission.

In the case of a failed product or safety mishap, get the help of an expert PR person and follow their advice.

VIII. Organizational Depression:

Symptoms: People are listless, not generating new ideas. Social loafing.

The sources of Organizational Depression vary, but the most likely issue is one of inconsistent direction causing people to feel like their time and effort is wasted.

Causes: Depression in people is anger turned inward because of injustice or frustration with a situation. So true of organizations. When ineffective managers are in place, the organization suffers from a despair of ever getting things right.

The sources of Organizational Depression vary, but the most likely issue is one of inconsistent direction causing people to feel like their time and effort is wasted. Incompetent managers in high positions are also a common source of Organizational Depression because people cannot alleviate the chronic and constant stress of someone making bad or inconsistent decisions with no follow-through.

Impact: Loss of interest in new strategies coming down from executives, minimal effort on projects, limited personal initiative to try new things.

Treatment: Do a honest appraisal of employee engagement or other survey scores. Don’t just check the box. If there’s an ineffective manager or leader with a track record of employee complaints – get them to move on.

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