A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 31st, 2013 by William

Trickle Down Evil

Since the subtitle of my book, Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw is “A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace Environments They Create,” I’ve been asked why I used the somewhat harsh term “Evil” to describe the workplace environments created by many dysfunctional management teams. In response I thought I’d delve into why that term is both appropriate and accurate.

Merriam-Webster defines evil as: morally bad; causing harm or injury to someone. and; marked by bad luck or bad events (I suppose if you’re the victim of evil you could say you have bad luck). F. E. Katz, in his book Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil defines it from a human behavior perspective. He tells us evil is: “Behavior that deprives innocent people of their humanity, from small scale assaults on a person’s dignity to outright murder. Evil is about how people behave toward one another, where the behavior of one person, or an aggregate of persons, is destructive to others.” Katz’s second pointhow people behave toward one another−of course is the single most important premise of my book and the focus of this post.

This is the type of evil that University of Missouri Professor Guy Adams and Grand Valley State University Professor Danny Balfour call “Administrative Evil.” In their book Unmasking Administrative Evil, ©2004, they tell us what they mean by administrative evil: “We name as evil the actions of human beings that unjustly or needlessly inflict pain and suffering on other human beings.” Adams and Balfour admit that the term “evil” may be too strong for some as they acknowledge: “Others who acknowledge negative interaction in human affairs, prefer the more modern terminology: ‘dysfunctional behavior.’”

As such “Administrative Evil” and “Dysfunctional Behavior” become one and the same.

Adams and Balfour go on to tell us: “Administrative evil has been, and remains, a central feature of both public and private organizations in the modern era. Administrative evil is unlikely to disappear from a society that depends so heavily on organizations and professions that systematically reproduce it. Administrative evil is a social phenomenon and as such is ubiquitous in complex organizations of all kinds.”

They also make another important point: “Administrative evil may be masked in many different ways, but the common characteristic is that people can engage in acts of evil without being aware that they are, in fact, doing anything wrong.” This is important to note as it tends to explain why bullies get away with bullying. Bullying (and all other aberrant behavior) becomes masked in the everyday behaviors of management and thus by default becomes sanctioned. Once sanctioned it becomes very difficult to dislodge.

To explain this sanctioning of Evil, Adams and Balfour use the economic notion of “sunk costs:”  “Each step along the way in which such activity is not halted becomes an additional commitment to that trajectory. This dynamic can be described as ‘successive ratification.’ As a consequence, bringing such activity to a halt requires extraordinarily decisive action.” This “decisive action” is what most dysfunctional management teams are not capable of doing−especially when addressing their own behavior. This explains why changing an evil organizational culture is so hard to do.

So what causes “administrative evil” (or dysfunctional behavior)? Adams and Balfour offer the reason in what they call “Technical Rationality,” a natural consequence and outcome of the way modern organizations function. They tell us: “Technical rationality is a way of thinking and living (a culture) that emphasizes the scientific analytic mindset and the belief in technological progress. [This] diffuses individual responsibility and requires the compartmentalized accomplishment of role expectations in order to perform work on a daily basis.” In other words, our technical-based business culture begets the individualistic “me” attitudes and accompanying behaviors; what they call a “defensive organizational culture.” Also, the “compartmentalized accomplishment of role expectations” is what forms the basis for our heavy reliance on organizational charts as the key to efficient management and pseudo leadership.

Adams and Balfour claim that a “defensive organizational culture can trigger the potential for these destructive dynamics.” We’ve all probably worked in an organization such as this where fear is the order of the day. They also point out that our typical “competitive” and “must win” business attitudes and environments make the perfect breeding ground for administrative evil, and thus dysfunction to be the rule of the day. This then becomes what they call the “organizational identity,” which they describe as: “the totality of repetitive patterns of individual behavior and interpersonal relationships that taken together comprise the unacknowledged meaning of organizational life.”

Browne, Kubasek and Giampetro-Meyer in their 1995 article “The Seductive Danger of Craft Ethics for Business Organizations” expand on this and tell us: “[A] kind of corporate cultural relativism exists in firms today. It is relativism whereby what is right and wrong is determined by what those at the upper reaches of the corporate hierarchy say is right or wrong. And in most corporations, it could be summed up by the phrase, ‘whatever it takes to get the job done.’” And, as agents for upper management, “the [middle] manager’s overriding responsibility is to interpret and follow the corporate culture.” This is what I call “trickle-down evil.”

“Whatever it takes to get the job done” are dangerous words for management to be expounding too often. Sure at times there are pressing tasks or problems that need solutions right away–to be solved at any cost–but those instances are really minimal unless the organization is teetering on the edge of extinction. The problem with this “get ur done” mentality is that management, without ever even saying it (i.e., it’s masked) sets up a cultural environment in which employee mistakes are demonized. Thus, because perfection is really difficult to produce, if at all, this causes employees to start camouflaging their mistakes as a means to survive. This means employees will tell managers what they want to hear−which is further reinforced by the typical “no surprises” management mentality.

Thus when things do go wrong, as they inevitably will, the management thought process is that these organizational failures were not the fault of their own policies, procedures, or, heaven forbid, their behavior, but because someone didn’t follow procedure or the plan−i.e., someone is to blame. If events did not turn out as planned, the problem is never with a faulty management plan, or bad leadership, but with the fact that someone deviated from the plan.

Management’s reaction is never “we need more and better planning, and more efficient, controlled systems that will preclude any mistakes and get things under control.” What’s needed instead is that someone needs to be blamed and punished. This then strengthens the mechanisms of dysfunction−the essence of evil.

In her 2010 article in Forbes Magazine, “The Sociopath In The Office Next Door,” Davia Temin reinforces the notion of evil in the workplace: “Science now is questioning whether there is any difference at all between sociopaths and psychopaths, and that those with narcissistic personality disorder also have some of the same characteristics (an inability to care about anyone but themselves) as psychopaths. [I]t means that ‘evil’ is all around us, even at work.”

Alas, as Aldous Huxley reminds us: “One of the many reasons for the bewildering and tragic character of human existence is the fact that social organization is at once necessary and fatal. Men are forever creating such organizations for their own convenience and forever finding themselves the victims of their home-made monsters.”

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