Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm

Have you ever worked at a place where, well, it just seems that typical work-related pronouncements and conversations are big on lies and short on truth?

You’re certainly not alone in that experience, and now management consultant Ron Carucci is sharing a research study that identifies four institutional factors that contribute to lying becoming normal organizational behavior. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Carucci explains that his research team conducted a 15-year study, incorporating 3,200 interviews drawn from 210 organizational assessments, “to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company will be honest.”

With an emphasis on organizational measures, rather than individual personalities, their study identified four factors that contribute to a propensity to engage in frequent lies. From Carucci’s HBR piece:

  • A lack of strategic clarity. When there isn’t consistency between an organization’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace, we found it is 2.83 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information.”
  • Unjust accountability systems. When an organization’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair or unjust, we found it is 3.77 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Poor organizational governance. When there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues, truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors and gossip. . . . We found that when effective governance is missing, organizations are 3.03 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Weak cross-functional collaboration. . . . When cross-functional rivalry or unhealthy conflict is left unaddressed, an organization is 5.82 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. . . . Divisional loyalties paint those outside the team as an enemy to be feared, resented, or blamed.”

Taken together, these characteristics can be deadly for organizational integrity, but Carucci emphasizes that positive change is possible:

Because the factors are cumulative, an organization afflicted with all four is 15 times more likely to end up in an integrity catastrophe than those who have none. But that doesn’t have to be the case. By taking aim at these four issues, you can make it far more likely that your company will create the culture of honesty you, your employees, and your customers eagerly want.

Integrity catastrophe. I like that term. It says a lot.

Human impacts

As a consultant, Carucci’s focus is understandably on company performance, so his emphasis isn’t so much on how an organizational culture of dishonesty affects workers on the ground level. But we know that in its more toxic manifestations, that experience can be demoralizing, stressful, and head-spinning. It also promotes more of the same.

At the more extreme end, we have the practice of gaslighting, a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. In “Gaslighting at work” (revised 2018), I wrote this about managerial pronouncements:

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant), and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When the human resources office announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

Lose-lose

When I talk about workplace bullying, I often invoke the term “lose-lose.” In organizations rife with bullying behaviors, workers suffer, and the organizational performance suffers. The same goes for organizational cultures of dishonesty, which breed distrust, cynicism, fear, and anger. Cheers to Ron Carucci and his team for highlighting key institutional factors that fuel habitual lying, and for suggesting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Can abused workers turn out to be great bosses? (Some good news here)

Let’s start the New Year with some good news. A study led by University of Central Florida researchers suggests that workers who have been subjected to workplace bullying and abuse are more likely to treat subordinates with decency when they are elevated to managerial positions. Science Daily reports:

A new University of Central Florida study suggests abuse and mistreatment by those at the top of an organization do not necessarily lead to abusive behavior by lower-level leaders. When offered leadership opportunities, prior victims of workplace abuse are more likely to treat their own subordinates better by learning from the bad behavior of their bosses.

UCF College of Business professors Shannon Taylor and Robert Folger, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” Taylor said. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn’t reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders.”

This study is welcomed news. Those who research and analyze interpersonal abuse in any context are familiar with the unfortunate and sometimes tragic dynamic of the abused becoming the abusers. We see it in workplace, spousal and intimate partner, and parental relationships. Abuse can beget abuse; it can create a vicious cycle.

But we’ve all seen instances where, for example, people who suffered abuse as children became very good parents and partners. The UCF study suggests that this positive dynamic can occur in the workplace as well. Abused workers can channel their empathy and understanding of their own experiences into a desire to be different when they get a chance to serve in a leadership or managerial capacity. In all such instances, the cycle of abuse is stopped cold.

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Hat tip: Society for Occupational Health Psychology

BBC reports: Do-nothing self-promoters still get ahead at work

A study by researchers at the Hult International Business School in the U.K. has identified a certain type of self-promoter at work who doesn’t do much but manages to get ahead while dragging down the morale of others. The BBC’s Sean Coughlan reports:

You might have seen their strategically self-regarding emails or watched their self-inflating egos in work meetings.

But business school researchers have identified a type of employee who manages to look busy and successful, without actually doing anything useful.

The productivity study examined 28 UK workplaces and found staff who appeared to be “highly engaged”.

But on closer inspection they were found to be “self-promoters” whose lack of effort pushed down overall output.

The research, from the Ashridge at Hult International Business School, examined the engagement levels of teams of workers, across seven different employment sectors, such as health, government, transport and not-for-profits.

It found some very motivated workers – and some who were plainly disgruntled and disaffected.

I’m shocked, simply shocked.

No, just kidding. I’ve seen these folks in many professional workplaces. They are masters of their craft, that is, if we define “craft” as relentless self-touting, bloviating, credit-grabbing, and exaggerating — and not doing a lot of work to go with it.

Self-promoters in academe

This brand of self-promoter is especially prevalent in academic circles. Said individuals manage to devote the lion’s share of their energies to networking in and out of the building. In meetings they bray, posture, and pontificate ceaselessly (or so it seems to those of us who must listen to them). If scholarly output is part of their expected workload, then they do the minimal amount, while presenting themselves as learned intellectuals.

They often manage to talk and kiss their way up to promotions (with accompanying raises), and they’re very good at aggrandizing power within the institution. Some will bully those who are critical of them, and the more telling the criticism, the more virulent the bullying. They manage to be evaluated by a different, seemingly tailor-made set of rules, rather than being held accountable for the work they should be doing. In the meantime, others are watching and resentful toward what’s going on.

Management, values, and culture

In that sense, it once again comes down to management practices, institutional values, and organizational culture. This brand of self-promoter is enabled by the organization itself. By contrast, in workplaces that expect quality work and reward those who do it, there is no room for such an individual to flourish.

When diversity issues emerge, bullying often lurks underneath

Last week, NBC News cancelled the “Megyn Kelly Today” show days after Kelly made racially insensitive remarks about wearing blackface for Halloween. As reported by Megan McCluskey for Time magazine:

Amid growing controversy over Megyn Kelly’s racially insensitive comments about blackface, NBC News has announced that it has canceled Kelly‘s 9 a.m. hour of the Today Show, Megyn Kelly Today.

. . . Kelly came under fire earlier this week for saying that she doesn’t understand why blackface Halloween costumes are racist during a roundtable discussion on offensive costumes on her talk show, Megyn Kelly Today.

“What is racist?” she asked a panel that included Jenna Bush Hager, Jacob Soboroff and Melissa Rivers. “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay just as long as you were dressing as a character.”

One can make a plausible claim that cancellation was a harsh consequence for one badly misinformed and ignorant remark. After all, Kelly’s transgression paled next to virulently mean-spirited statements tweeted out by Donald Trump on a regular basis. However, many news reports have suggested that this may have been simply a tipping point preceded by other concerns about her show. Among other things, while Kelly has become a strong voice for women’s interests during the #MeToo era, she also has a history of stirring up controversy on matters related to race.

In any event, as I searched around to learn more about Kelly’s situation, I found an earlier news report that reminded me once again that when diversity-related concerns publicly emerge out of a given workplace, allegations of bullying behaviors often aren’t far behind. From January of this year, here is Emily Smith’s Page Six account of a “Megyn Kelly Today” writer who lost his job after complaining of alleged bullying behaviors faced by staffers: 

A top staffer on Megyn Kelly’s show has been fired after claiming there is a “toxic and demeaning” environment on set, rife with bullying and “abusive treatment.”

Kevin Bleyer was fired as a writer from “Megyn Kelly Today” this week after complaining that Kelly’s two top execs, Jackie Levin and Christine Cataldi, were bullying lower-level members of staff.

. . . Bleyer — a multiple Emmy-winning former writer for “The Daily Show” and speechwriter for President Barack Obama — on Tuesday sent the email to NBC News human resources, and was fired shortly after.

He wrote in the memo, revealed by the Daily Mail,“I’m sad to say … the executive incompetence continues — as does the dysfunctional management, abusive treatment, maddening hypocrisy, staggering inefficiencies, acidic and deficient communication, and relentless scapegoating. Jackie Levin persists in creating a toxic and demeaning environment, and Christine Cataldi enables and reinforces it.”

He claims Cataldi regularly calls her assistant “an idiot,” and when he offered suggestions for the show, Levin called him a “f–king whiner.”

At times there’s a more direct connection between the diversity-related behaviors and workplace bullying. As I reported earlier this year, Tom Ashbrook, a popular public radio program host here in Boston, was fired for engaging in bullying behaviors after initially being accused of sexual harassment. In the same piece, I wrote about how Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, an accused serial sexual harasser, has also been tagged as a bullying boss.

Skipping Bible study? Ordering a deli platter? You may be violating company rules

Prepping for my WeWork interview

Periodically the media treats us to stories that illustrate the power of employers to control workers’ lives in ways that may have little to do with the actual product or service they are providing. This summer I spotted a couple of stories that fall into this category.

Thou shalt not skip Bible study

NPR’s Sasha Ingber reports on an Oregon construction company worker, Ryan Coleman, who filed a religious discrimination lawsuit after being fired for no longer attending Christian Bible study sessions, as required by his employer, Dahled Up Construction:

According to the complaint, he was hired as a painter in October 2017 and discovered on the job that he was required to attend Christian Bible study as part of his employment.

Coleman, who is half-Native American (Cherokee and Blackfoot), wasn’t comfortable with those terms, his attorney, Corinne Schram, told NPR. “He says his church is a sweat lodge, his bible is a drum, and that’s his form of worship to the creator,” Schram said.

According to the document, Coleman expressed his discomfort with attending the Bible study meetings and said the requirement was illegal, but business owner Joel Dahl insisted that he go anyway.

. . . After several months, Coleman finally refused to go to the religious sessions and was fired from the job, according to the filing.

Of sprouts and spinach leaves

WeWork is a company that rents co-working space to entrepreneurs and start-up business ventures. It has grown by leaps and bounds in cities where office real estate is expensive. As David Gelles reports for the New York Times, it also now limits company food and catering orders to vegetarian selections only:

WeWork is no longer a safe space for carnivores.

Earlier this month, the co-working juggernaut announced that it was essentially going vegetarian. The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.

In a memo to employees announcing the new policy, Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and chief culture officer, said the decision was driven largely by concerns for the environment, and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare.

Legal restrictions and management practices

Generally speaking, private sector employers enjoy wide leeway in setting company hiring and work policies, so long as they do not violate discrimination laws and similar protections.

The Bible study requirement directly implicates an employee’s right to be free of religious discrimination by an employer. The vegetarian food order requirement, however, does not appear to run afoul of any employment laws.

Legal distinctions aside, I think there’s a strong case for removing the company mandates in both situations. I respect that a business owner may want to create a company that embraces certain values. However, I also think that we need to give workers room to be themselves in their everyday choices.

It’s about getting the balance right.

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers

If you’re interested in whistleblowing and gaslighting behaviors, then I strongly recommend a piece by Retraction Watch, “How institutions gaslight whistleblowers — and what can be done.” It features an interview with Dr. Kathy Ahern (U. New South Wales, Australia), author of a new journal article on how whistleblowers are traumatized by institutional betrayal and gaslighting.

I’m going to share some snippets of the Retraction Watch interview with Dr. Ahern here, but it’s definitely worth a full look:

Whistleblower gaslighting entails officers of an institution using their authority to deceive a whistleblower so that he stays engaged in a process designed to harm him.  Employees have an expectation of support derived from social norms regarding workplace interactions and formal policies. Whistleblower reprisals have a sting of betrayal that is largely imperceptible to outsiders because gaslighting institutions use deception to exploit the employee’s trust in his employing institutions.  

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One gaslighting strategy is to use this trust to force the whistleblower to repeatedly defend himself against bogus disciplinary charges presented as genuine complaints.  Eric Westervelt describes whistleblowers at the U.S. VA who were subjected to investigations of unspecified charges such as “creating a hostile work environment” or “abuse of authority”, although subsequent FOI requests yielded no details of the charges.  As a gaslighting strategy, the dual purpose of false charges is to both discredit and exhaust the whistleblower.

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Descriptions of whistleblower experiences and outcomes in the literature show a constellation of symptoms that are very similar to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) typically found in survivors of child abuse.  It is hypothesized that the abuse by a trusted, more powerful adult leads to a general distrust of self and others. Adults with C-PTSD have trouble regulating intense negative emotions, and feel disconnected to other people. 

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The other symptom I see in targets of whistleblower gaslighting is a desperate urgency to be believed.  This looks a lot like an “obsession,” but as with the “paranoia,” it is not the result of a mental disorder.  It is more like the normal response of someone who spent 10 years in jail for crime he didn’t commit. Such a person is indefatigable in pursuit of having his name cleared, as are targets of whistleblower gaslighting who also are intent upon clearing their names and reputations. 

Folks, there’s so much here that will resonate with individuals who have experienced or witnessed institutional responses to whistleblowing. For those who want to read Dr. Ahern’s scholarly take on this, please look at her journal article, “Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting: Why Whistle-Blowers Are So Traumatized.”

In short, this is very important work.

If you’d like to read more about gaslighting behaviors generally, Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro) is the best general treatment of the topic.

And here are some of my previous entries on gaslighting:

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

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Hat tip to Dr. Kenneth Pope for the Retraction Watch piece.

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