I have been captured by two stories this week.
The first is the moral debacle unraveling at Penn State University where a work culture that focused on hierarchy and protecting profits and reputation at all costs led apparently normal human beings to protect a child rapist for 10 years.
The second is this article in The Guardian, which points out that our current economic woes are in large part due to the rewarding and celebration of psychopathic behaviors in the workplace.
What these two stories have in common is a focus on a morally bankrupt definition of "success" that, in turn, values and rewards character traits that would normally be considered pathological. Consider this from the Guardian article:
In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses. They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated. On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses's scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients. In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders.
The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for. Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people. Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects in many corporations (my emphasis).
It would be easy for us to dismiss stories like what happened at Penn State as the moral failings of particular individuals. In fact, many of us will do so. It allows us to say "well I would never do something like that."
In doing this, however, we miss the larger lesson we need to consider--how our organizational systems and notions of success create an environment that actually breeds this type of behavior.
Put a good person in a bad system and I guarantee you that eventually the person will crack. The forces are too large to resist for most people. And our normally unconscious way of moving through the world often means we aren't even aware of how the system is influencing us. We begin to behave in ways we don't even recognize.
We need to take a careful look at what REALLY goes on in our workplaces. Not the platitudes we spout about "teams" and "caring for our workers," but what our actions and rewards tell us about who we are at work. A searching moral inventory (as they say in AA) must be conducted for us to be clear about what actually happens vs. what we tell ourselves is happening.
When money and profits are our Gods, we will inevitably develop a culture that rewards those who "do what it takes" to keep the profits going. The problem is, at work we often pretend that it isn't about profits so we can ignore the ways in which the profit motive is shaping our behavior. Don't get me wrong--I think we need to pay attention to money. But when we create a cult of success that is defined by money and profits, it inevitably creates a culture that leads us down the wrong path.
I also am concerned about the culture of fear that permeates many of our workplaces, particularly since the recession began. When people are worried about losing their jobs and their livelihoods, how does this shape the decisions they make at work. How often do they look the other way?
We can take the easy way out here--reading these stories and judging the people involved as being different from ourselves. But I would challenge us to go deeper than that. To ask ourselves how the systems we create and live in cause us to make decisions and engage in behavior that goes against what we think we believe.
Some questions to consider along these lines. . .
- How often do you cringe when you see or hear of a decision or action at work that feels morally wrong to you?
- How often do you talk yourself out of your interpretation, arguing to yourself that there must be reasons you aren't aware of for the decision?
- How many conversations do you participate in where you later ask yourself, "why did I say that?" because you recognize that words came out of your mouth that don't sound like who you really want to be?
- How often do you see managers and higher-ups saying one thing and doing another? Or saying that the company values certain behaviors and then someone is rewarded for doing the opposite?
It is critical that we ask these questions about ourselves and the organizations in which we work. It is critical that we engage in conversations about the cultures we are creating, the behaviors we are rewarding and the reality of who we become in our environments.
Are we creating cultures that support and reward the best in people--or are we creating monsters?
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