Company Kool-Aid, Misconduct and a Misfiring Corporate Culture

We all know (and repeat every day) that corporate cultures reflect social trends and pressures.  Companies face extraordinary political and social pressures, and this translates into its corporate workforce.

Without being overly dramatic, we are witnessing a fundamental social decay in belief in our institutions.  This is not a recent phenomenon – it has accelerated over the last twenty years, and interestingly, has fluctuated over our country’s history.  For some reason, however, this recent trend appears to be more significant – challenging basic norms surrounding our government, science and other common beliefs.

In this era of political and social cults, organizations should be sensitive to employee beliefs and trends.  Some companies have observed an increase in employee “group-think,” adoption and adherence to a common understanding among senior leadership, management and employees. 

What am I getting at? 

Sometimes corporate cultures can result in a blurring of lines between right and wrong.  Common explanations for questionable behavior can be adopted that eventually suppress an employee’s individual concern or willingness to question a specific action.  As these occurrences continue, sometimes with repetition of “incorrect” explanations or justifications, eventually a corporate culture can be dominated by this so-called group think.  Everyone is engaged in questionable behavior, no one believes the behavior is questionable, and when asked about the behavior, everyone denies that it is wrong or that they did anything wrong.

This is a cult of “wrongdoing” without blame, responsibility or accountability.  When confronted with an email that clearly evidences wrongdoing, the employee may acknowledge the writing but say, “I see my words in black and white, but I did not intend to do anything wrong.” 

Let’s dig a little deeper into this phenomenon.  The employee asked questions from his/her boss about a specific action.  The asking of the question itself reflects that the employee has a concern and needs guidance.  The boss responds, instructs the employee to take the “wrong” action, and the employee relying on the boss’ direction and explanation follows the direction.  As the pattern is repeated, the employee eventually does not raise the question again because the employee is now following the supervisor’s “group-think” direction and believes what he or she is doing is correct.

The cynical approach to this same pattern, however, is much more damning.  The employee’s question itself relflects the employee’s understanding that the conduct may be wrong.  By asking his/her supervisor for direction, the employee is engaging in a classic “CYA” email communication to eliminate, in the employee’s mind, any responsibility for the action.  The email communication and chain provides an out for the employee.

Frankly, I have seen both situations occur.  I have observed the “group think” especially when it comes to issues where discretion is involved.  Such schemes, however, often collapse on themselves because the group think stretches beyond any rational justification to the point where any person assembling the facts can see what happened – a group rationalized its behavior while knowing that the conduct was questionable (if not illegal).

The second scenario is more common – actors know what they are doing is wrong but they find a way to CYA themselves in the false belief of “deniability.”  In both cases, the actors engaged in misconduct with the requisite state of mind – but beware of the “cult of group-think wrongdoing.”  It may be occurring more often than we know.

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