A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 21st, 2014 by William

Hakuna Matata

Hakuna Matata; what a wonderful phrase
Hakuna Matata; It ain’t no passing craze
It means no worries, for the rest of your days
It’s our problem free, philosophy

So goes the words from the signature song Hakuna Matata from the 1994 Walt Disney movie The Lion King. The movie helped bring the phrase “Hakuna Matata” into public recognition, featuring it prominently in the plot. In the movie a meerkat and a warthog, named Timon and Pumbaa respectively, teach the main character, a lion cub named Simba, that he should forget his troubled past and live in the present. The song, Hakuna Matata was written by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), who found the term in a Swahili phrase book. The term “Hakuna Matata” can be translated literally as “no worries” or “no problem” and is akin to “don’t worry, be happy.”

And for those of us old enough to remember the Hogan’s Heroes TV series, which ran from 1965 to 1971, a catch-phrase was born that I still sometimes hear today. Hogan’s Heroes takes place in a World War II German prison camp–a Stalag. In the show, Sergeant Hans Georg Schultz, was Commandant Col. Klink’s bumbling, inept and a bit dimwitted, Sergeant of the Guard who was forever being overly friendly with the inmates. Due to the inept oversight by Klink and Schultz, Hogan and his fellow inmates virtually got away with anything. When the prisoners did something that was prohibited, Schultz, not wanting to deal with the situation, would simply look the other way, repeating “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing!” Hogan’s Heroes provides a good metaphor for some modern management teams.

The past few weeks I’ve written about optimistic, pessimistic, realistic and opportunistic (aka proactive) people and the differences between them. The optimists and pessimists are the foxes, and the realists and opportunists hedgehogs. However, in the corporate management environment they all have one thing in common. Just about everyone, whether optimistic, pessimistic, realist or opportunist, have a tendency to believe that when something negative happens it’s not their fault but caused by some external force, or person. We’re all like that to a certain extent−its human nature−it’s the path our society is on−nobody likes to take personal responsibility for their actions. We just can’t internalize fault. Everything is someone else’s screw up or negligence. We all have a little Sergeant Schultz in us.

This leads us to the concept of “plausible deniability,” a term coined by the CIA in the early 1960s to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that illegal or unpopular activities of the agency became public knowledge. Plausible deniability is how the societal norm of “nothing is my own fault” takes shape in the workplace environment.

The term most often refers to the tendency of senior management to deny knowledge of and/or responsibility for any screw-ups committed by the lower ranks. Management will tend to deny culpability for problems and screw-ups because typically there’s no hard path of evidence leading to them. The lack of evidence to the contrary ostensibly makes the denial plausible, that is, credible. Because of this lack of evidence that proves their direct participation, management can claim full ignorance of the cause of any problems, i.e., it’s not their problem−Hakuna Matata. It’s “no worries,” or “I know nothing” to them but all hell will unleash for those who will ultimately be blamed. That’s because, despite it being acceptable for management to deny responsibility, the typical management mentality, i.e., command and control, still requires that someone take the responsibility−that’s human nature also. This is why the buzzword: “accountability” is so popular these days.

This happens in all hierarchical organizations−when the stuff hits the fan high-ranking management types deny any awareness of the causes of the particular screw up and insulate themselves from responsibility. They then go on a witch-hunt to find the culprit(s).

That said, plausible deniability, in and of itself, really isn’t that bad. We all do it–point a finger toward someone else when something doesn’t go according to plan. However, it’s that “search for the guilty and punishment of the innocent” phase what necessarily happens after management denies culpability that makes it such a dastardly and cowardly deed. Typically management will shift blame progressively down the management pyramid until it ultimately lays at the feet of the people in the trenches−those who were closest to the problem. A typical damnation is that they weren’t proactive enough to see the problem coming and do something about it beforehand.

The key to successful plausible deniability is the fact that doubters will be unable to prove otherwise and people who are blamed will have no defense as all the evidence will point to them. Plausible deniability only works when a screw up leaves little or no physical evidence of wrongdoing.

Management teams will work hard to ensure that’s always the case, which leads us to the aspect of plausible deniability which implies there is forethought, i.e., management intentionally has set up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for their actions or knowledge. That’s the active form of plausible deniability. In some organizations, the command and control culture exists solely to hold subordinates responsible for the actions of management. Thus plausible deniability is active in these type organizations. That’s one of the prime purposes for having an entourage of sycophants–to take the blame. As I noted above, it’s management’s job to search for the guilty and punish the innocent.

However, many times the use of plausible deniability is passive, i.e., just dumb luck on the part of management, because management really has no clue what’s going on in the organization and thus can accurately claim ignorance. Col. Klink and his bumbling sycophantic Sergeant are the perfect metaphor for management with no clue. Actually Sergeant Schultz knew full well what was going on just elected to ignore the situation. However, the end result is the same–the ability to not have to answer for any screw-up. I firmly believe that the passive management style is more prevalent than you might think.

Plausible deniability also exists outside the corporate environment. In politics, deniability refers to the ability of a powerful person, or organization, to avoid the finger being pointed at them by arranging for an action to be taken on their behalf by a third party ostensibly unconnected with the major player. Political Action Committees that run all those “dirty” politics TV ads are an example. This allows the candidates to stay “clean.” It doesn’t stop there either. Congress is a perfect example. Critical issues to the American people never get solved yet both parties in Congress will plead that it’s not their fault.

Unfortunately in today’s business environment plausible deniability will not go away−the stakes for upper management types are just too high. The only time that plausible deniability does not work and the truly guilty may be punished is when it reaches the criminal level. Recently the head of the VA Health System claimed plausible deniability in regard to the recent scandalous treatment of veterans needing health care. It wasn’t until the news media and of course Congress beat the issue to death did Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki finally resign. Resigning is the typical way that culpability is admitted without ever having to really say, “I screwed up.” Up until the end he pleaded he knew nothing about how vets were truly being treated−Hakuna Matata–He knew nothing.


3 Responses to “Hakuna Matata”
  1. Anonymous says

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  2. Anonymous says

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