Dysfunctional Retail Workplaces

Dysfunctional Retail Workplaces

Dysfunctional Retail Workplaces have three things in abundance:

(1) Chaos & Confusion
(2) Apathy
(3) Sheep

In my retail career, as I suspect is similar to everyone’s story, I have worked in very organized and deliberate organizations that found value in bringing in smart, innovative, emotionally mature employees. I have also worked in extremely dysfunctional environments. These were environments where I had to create my own little culture bubble for my team and be courageous enough to take control of the business for the best results we could achieve.

When I recollect my workplace cultures that the organizations executives created/allowed, I have two that I can honestly say were truly and absolutely dysfunctional. According to Merriem-Webster the definition for dysfunction is (a) impaired or abnormal functioning and (b) abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group.

In both cases I can absolutely say it was the senior executives that drove these cultures. In both of these cases there was a toxic level of egocentrism and, I suspect, some sort of unfortunate personality disorder that was evident in these leaders to thrive upon and encourage such a counterproductive environment.

Chaos & Confusion

Unfortunately, there is an actual principal for controlling people under this chaos and confusion umbrella of dysfunction. It is called the “Confusion Principal”. Basically, the goal is to overload a person until you “break” them and they just, simply, acquiesce.

Innovation and creativity come when people understand processes and can identify ways to improve upon them. But people (I cannot, in good conscience call them leaders) who thrive on surrounding themselves with sheep are intimidated by smart, ambitious people. They use various forms of psychological manipulation to ensure their employees follow their direction.

These are people that demand performance results and then overwhelm employees with low-value tasks and frequent changes in direction. They will use intimidation through raising their voices, using excessive profanity, and insults to bully their team into submission. They are incapable of delivering any value in their feedback or direction and will rarely articulate the big picture (because they have no idea how to achieve it) but by holding the team down they have people to blame for their failure.


Merriem-Webster defines apathy as (a) lack of feeling or emotion (impassiveness) and (b) lack of interest or concern.

Most of the time you find that these are employees that need the paycheck so they stay with a retail organization that is this damaging. They also rarely, if ever, receive any recognition for contribution. Their mistakes and missteps are frequently pointed out to them (and broadcast to the team) to the point that they are unable to identify their value. This accomplishes two things for the dysfunctional “leader” – they keep their employees because their employees don’t think they are employable anywhere else and two they create people who don’t take any initiative. Again, if people are broken and apathetic…they won’t take risks, they won’t be creative. They will just simply “do”.


These are the people that do as they are told, they can follow direction but require supervision to ensure effective execution. They will never deliver greatness but will consistently under-deliver and they will follow their “leader” by blaming circumstances on weather, customers, what they don’t have that they had last year, etc. They are easily manipulated and frequently end up bullied because of their lack of moxie.

It’s difficult to reflect on these cultures without becoming overly agitated because it is such a terrible and detrimental environment for people. It’s damaging to the self-esteem of the employees and creates self-doubt and critical levels of disengagement. Not to mention that in such an environment creating fun or positive customer experiences will be pretty impossible. People who are “sheep” in this environment are made to feel trapped and without value. Yes, they allow that to occur because they don’t stand up for themselves or exit that environment. But the “leaders” of these dysfunctional workplaces prey upon these personalities. They are also very good at, if someone shows a moment of clarity and expresses that they are at their at their rope’s end, making someone feel like they are being heard until they feel pacified and re-sheep themselves.

Heading into 2016, if you are unfortunately involved in one of these environments I hope you will come to learn that the grass is greener in other retail organizations. If you can produce results and contribute positively to productivity, profitability, and culture – another retailer will be thrilled to have you on their team. Here are some links that, hopefully, provide support to determine if you are ready for a change:

From Bloomberg Business: Quiz: How Dysfunctional Is Your Workplace?

From Forbes: Knowing When It’s Time To Quit Your Dysfunctional Workplace

From Rose Coaching: A Leader Among Followers

From Harvard Business Review: Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

From About (dot) com: What Is The Bystander Effect?

From Yours Truly: Secrets To Being Successful In #Retail

And here is a link for when you land great interviews in with healthy retail organization. One that is capable of recognizing and appreciating contribution. Healthy retailers will, actually, invest in your growth and development and not hold you down or back from reaching your career goals:

From, again, Yours Truly: How To “Wow” In A #Retail Interview

From About (dot) com: Best U.S. Retail Companies To Work For

From Forbes: The 10 Happiest Retailers To Work For This Year

From Great Place To Work: 2015 Best Workplaces In Retail

Added 12/9/15 – From Glassdoor: Best Places To Work 2016

With the arrival of the New Year, we all have an opportunity to improve our circumstances and our workplace cultures. If you feel like there is opportunity for improvement, it is your responsibility to initiate change whether inside your current retail organization or at a new one.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | beth@excellencein-retail.com [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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