Our everyday dark side

Constantin Jurcut

Constantin Jurcut

The “dark side” of organizations has long served as an analogy for any behavior considered as a deviation from a “normal” work environment: moral and sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, abuse of power, stress, corruption, theft. In a special issue of Organization Studies devoted to the subject, the organizers make a compilation of articles that show, on the contrary, that the dark side is not only in the exception, in unhealthy situations, but also in the everyday accepted as “natural” in organizations. That is, we live daily in the gray area, most often without admitting that our actions are darker than they appear.

The two articles on “the dark side” of leadership in Organization Studies are superb. In the first, Russ Vince, from British University of Bath, and Abdelmagid Mazen, from American Suffolk University, develop the concept of “violent innocence.” Innocence, because everyone wishes to follow manuals that say that a good leader knows how to listen, to inspire confidence, to promote justice and to “empower” subordinates. But as relations within organizations are complex and full of contradictions, leaders pretend to themselves that they are innocent and blame others for their failures and fears, counting, most often, with the unconscious support of subordinates. Continue reading

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The organization of the Holocaust

Roman Halter Man on the Electrified Barbed Wire 1974-1977 oil, Imperial War Museum

Roman Halter
Man on the Electrified Barbed Wire
oil, Imperial War Museum

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions. Auschwitz survivor, Italian writer Primo Levi witnessed how extreme violence can become part of routine and looks legitimate to a society.

In an article recently published in Organization Studies, Ignasi Martí and Pablo Fernández, from the French Emlyon Business School, rescue the thoughts of Levi, and many others who have made organizational and sociological reflections on the Holocaust, as Hannah Arendt and Zygmunt Balman.

Martí and Fernández demonstrate in details the institutional mechanisms of oppression that took place in the concentration camps during the II World War. The massacre of Jews and other “undesirable elements ” by the Nazis was conducted in a planned, systematic and organized way, the authors argue. Therefore, it is possible to study the strategies that allowed the arising of the structures of extermination.

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Digital activism: good or bad?

Image: Flickr/Katie Tegtmeyer

Image: Flickr/Katie Tegtmeyer

When citizens use digital hardware and software to bring about social and political change, it is called digital activism. But is this new type of activism more or less effective than the analog activism that preceded it? Without empirical evidence, one is likely to answer this question based on one’s own temperament.

A pessimist is likely to be a cyber-pessimist; an optimist is likely to be a cyber-optimist. When anecdotal evidence is brought to bear, these categories tend to persist. Patrick Meier, Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, calls the debate between cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists “anecdotal ping-pong.”

An optimist is likely to reference examples of digital success, like the Arab Spring in Egypt or the fight against SOPA/PIPA. Pessimists note the failed 2009 uprising in Iran or instances of so-called ‘slacktivism’, like KONY 2012, a campaign centering around a massively popular video, but which had little to no effect on its target, the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.

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Who now rules Brazilian cities?

The protests that lead hordes to the streets of many cities across the country make it clear: Brazilian citizens no longer accept just to participate in politics by voting.

It will become increasingly difficult for an elected ruler, whatever his/her representation at polls, take important decisions consulting only his office.

Inhabitants want to contribute to the definition of the paths of their city not only in election time but also during the whole term of the mayor.

According to a study by Danielle Fiabane, Mário Aquino Alves and Gabriela Brelaz, from the Center for Studies in Public Administration and Government of Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, the representative democracy in which we live will have to gradually be complemented by mechanisms of participatory democracy.

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From social media to the streets

In January 2001, for the first time new technologies have emerged as the driving force for the overthrow of a national leader. After the Senate decided that there was insufficient evidence for the impeachment of then Philippine’s President Joseph Estrada, students began exchanging text messages by cell phone with the call “Go 2 EDSA. Wear black.” n one week, seven million messages were exchanged and hordes took Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (known as EDSA) in Manila. The Congress had to reverse its decision and depose President Joseph Estrada.

Not only leaders were overthrown with the help of mobile phones and even more powerfully, social networks, as various causes have become viral on Facebook and Twitter and took crowds to the streets – such as the protests in South Korea against the import of meat of poor quality from the U.S. in 2008 and the struggle for change in education in Chile in 2006 – including the adoption of a free transport pass to students.

Now it’s Brazil’s turn. A restricted demonstration against rising public transport fares in the city of São Paulo has become the largest protest of the Brazilian society of the past two decades. It is the typical movement powered by social networks, which takes place the first time in the country.

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About the Brazilian “little way”

A recent research by Fundaçao Getulio Vargas (FGV) Faculty of Law showed that 82% of Brazilians admit it is easy to disrespect the law in Brazil, while 79% agree that, whenever possible, Brazilian citizens find a way to solve their problems without the need to enforce the laws. However, 80% of respondents consider that someone who disobeys the law is poorly viewed by others.

It is a typically hypocritical behavior: although morally reprehensible, almost everyone has found a way to circumvent the rules for their own benefit. For example, to co-opt an acquaintance in order to jump a queue in a rock concert or in the emergency room of a hospital. Or when parking a car in a double row, just a minute, to get an order in a store, or the children in school. Or even to pay an overdue bill without penalty using sympathy, or drama.

A paper by Maria Cristina Ferreira, Ronald Fischer, Juliana Barreiros Porto, Ronaldo Pilati and Taciano L. Milfont, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, captures well this slippery concept of “Brazilian little way” – also translated to English as a “knack” or a “clever dodge” way of doing thing or achieving something. Individually, few admit practicing it. But, as a cultural symbol, it is tolerable – if some do so, all have the right to copy. For some it is even laudable, a sign that Brazilians are flexible and adaptable (!).

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The similarity between tipping and bribery

Countries where people are used to giving tips to waiters, cabdrivers, hairdressers, etc., tend to have the highest rate of corruption as well. Yes, Brazil is one of the leaders in the list, as well as Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, India, Egypt and Turkey. In the other extreme there are countries such as New Zealand, Island, Denmark and Sweden.

The finding is from a study published in the magazine Social Psychological and Personality Science by Magnus Thor Torfason and Francis J. Flynn, from Harvard University, with Daniella Kupor, from Standford University. The researchers tried to prove that tipping and bribery are not actions so distinct as it seems for many at first sight.

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It is giving that you take

Every time there comes a new wave to stimulate the creativity of employees, and, almost always, the results are inconsistent. Offering cool and challenging tasks, freedom to come and go and an office with charming furniture and with snooker and table tennis tables not necessarily make people more inventive and productive. Even less prizes and bonus, which, if misplaced, may lead to a work environment overly competitive and corrupt.

In the paper “The Necessity of others is the mother of invention: intrinsic and prosocial motivations, perspective taking, and creativity”, published at Academy of Management Journal, Adam M. Grant, from University of Pennsylvania, and James W. Berry, from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, say that nothing has really worked so far because the motivations for creativity do not come from within the individual, but from the outside. Only when we stop being selfish and become emphatic with other’s necessities is that we can visualize innovative solutions.

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The illusions of magical management

Researcher at Harvard Business School, Rakesh Kurana decided to investigate why organizations often make mistakes when choosing their CEOs, especially in most dramatic moments. In his book Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs, Kurana reveals that boards prefer outsiders when searching for a new CEO because they know too much about the insiders to consider them potential saviors.

It is an illusionary effect, but that attracts as much as a magician who takes the rabbit out of the hat. As long as we do not know – and do not want to know – exactly how was the trick, we will continue to go to the spectacle. The same way, as long as we do not know – and do not what to know – exactly how an organization reached certain results, we will continue to believe that its leader possesses a supernatural power.

In the May edition of Journal of Management, there is a curious study about the attribution of mystical talents to successful professionals, by Maia J. Young, from University of California, Michael W. Morris, from Columbia University, and Vicki M. Scherwin, from California State University. According to the authors, it is common that leaders are judged by what psychologists and anthropologists call “magical thinking”.

Intuition, talent and charisma are the mysterious powers that we think successful people have. Intuition, because the leader reaches answers spontaneously rather than through analytical processes. Talent, because it is an innate gift. Charisma, as it comes from Greek “divine favor”.

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The usefulness of useless expressions

Not a long time ago, reengineering and downsizing were fashionable expressions in management. Nowadays, we have resilience, benchmark, empowerment, core business, stakeholder, synergy, bottom line, think outside the box, brainstorm, entrepreneurship. Words like these have been demonized and ridiculed – target, for instance, of comic strips Dilbert, which satirize office life. However, it is impossible to find a business speech that does not employ at least one of them. If everybody is so critical, why do those terms continue to dominate business language?

The answer is in a paper by Robert Cluley, from British University of Nottingham, recently published at academic magazine Organization Studies. Cluley identified three functions of the called buzzwords: they help ones to show authority to others, they allow managers to seem not responsible for their acts and they serve as an euphemism to discussions about sensitive issues.
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