How lousy organizations treat institutional history

How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?

OK, so “lousy” is not exactly a professorially precise term. But most regular readers of this blog know what I mean. And many who have toiled in such organizations will recognize items on this list:

  • No accountability — Bad organizations avoid accountability by labeling any unjust, unethical, illegal, or simply inept behavior as part of the past. Those who seek discussions of, or explanations for, such actions or behaviors are criticized for dwelling upon the past, even if that past is a relatively recent occurrence.
  • Unpersons — Lousy organizations turn departed critics (and present ones, too) into unpersons, eliminating their contributions from organizational memory.
  • Good excuses bad — To borrow from Marianne Jennings’s The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies…Before It’s Too Late (2006), bad organizations believe that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others and use that rationale to deflect criticism.
  • Faux heroes — Lousy organizations valorize “insider” leaders who are/were less-than-wonderful or even personally corrupt, in hopes that the excess praise will make people forget the rank incompetence or bad acts. Sometimes they succeed.
  • Rose-colored memories — If the bad organization publishes a book, pamphlet, or webpage describing its history, it will be a hagiography — a fancy term for a “biography that idealizes or idolizes its subject” — with any negative episodes missing or minimized.

I submit that these practices are fairly widespread and help to explain why so many workers “in the know” harbor cynicism toward current and former employers.

3 responses

  1. My old organization not only turns former critics into “unpersons” they rewrite history to marginalize what very often are major accomplishments. They did this and more to a retired employee who had won praise for a program by a national association. The history rewrite makes it appear that the program and the manager were both incompetent. The “new manager” gutted the program and put a poor one in its place — which the organizaiton is praising ot the hilt. We used to joke that going throught the gates was like going down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

    • And it’s not just the bullies, thugs, and harassers who are elevated. Get along/go along mediocrities are prime beneficiaries as well! Twilight Zone stuff.

  2. I find this, as usual, pretty interesting. One particular example you may wish to consider is: Government. Basically, all levels of Government allow nothing but hagiography about themselves and their subunits, because they do not want to admit any mistakes going into an election. They are usually willing, indeed anxious, to admit mistakes by their predecessors, especially of another party or, worst of all, independent.

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