Organizational evil

image: IG Farben headquarters

A number of posts have confronted the historical realities of atrocities, genocide, and cruelty on a massive scale. The general question tying these discussions together has to do with individual human beings: “How could a normal human being with normal social emotions commit these atrocious acts?” And the individual question can be posed at a variety of levels of activity — the “ordinary men” whom Christopher Browning considers in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland who directly killed thousands of men, women, and children; the mid-level commanders who did not themselves conduct the killings but ordered and organized them; the bureaucrats like Eichmann or Speer who oversaw the massive organizations needed to carry out mass genocide; and the dictators like Hitler and Stalin who deliberately ordered these actions. Concerning each of these men (and occasionally women) we can ask the question, “how could they have done this?”. This is a good question, and one that needs serious and extended study.

But there is another dimension of the evil of genocide: the role that organizations play in carrying out mass acts of atrocity against the innocent. Armies, governments, corporations, religious orders — organizations at many levels of scope were an essential part of the evils of the twentieth century. So it is important to ask the question of evil about organizations as well as about individuals; and the remedies we might consider are not likely to be the same. For example, it might have been effective in attempting to quell murderous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to attempt to trigger the impulses of compassion, pity, and fellow feeling among the ordinary people whom Michael Mann describes in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing who were readily recruited into killing teams and paramilitary groups that carried out murderous ethnic cleansing of Muslim neighbors; but this strategy is patently impossible with regard to organizations. Organizations do not feel sympathy, pity, or fellow feeling; rather, they carry out the tasks that have been set for them without moral appraisal. Organizations aren’t persons; there is no essential “humanity” in an organization. Organizations are more like machines than they are like individual human beings.

There is a field of research in organizational studies that is dedicated to the examination of “organizational evil,” and much of the content of this field is represented in the very interesting and challenging book edited by Carole Jurkiewicz, The Foundations of Organizational Evil. Jurkiewicz describes the concept of organizational evil in these terms in chapter 1 of the volume:

“Organizational evil” is used here to signify the institutionalization of a set of principles whose purpose is knowingly to harm individuals, with disregard for consequences beyond those that would cause immediate repercussions to the evil-doer. Whereas unethical behavior is episodic and individualistic in nature, evil is systemic and embedded in the culture of the organization. Programs, policies, practices, reward systems, hiring and training, external and internal relations—all are designed with the intention to seek immediate advantage through the deliberate harm of others.

It is noteworthy that contributors to this field are somewhat beguiled by the analogy between individual human beings and “corporate individuals”. This analogy shows up in several forms in the volume, including the application of Kohlberg’s theory of stages of moral development and the application of individual-level theories of psychopathology and the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to organizations. Both analogies are put forward in Chapter 1. For example: 

While the original research was focused on the individual level, it can be extrapolated to the organizational level as well being that organizations are defined as legal persons, as addressed later in this chapter. (chapter 1)

This is a surprising lapse, given the reality that organizations are fundamentally different from individuals in their forms of intentionality, purposiveness, and normativity (link). In particular, the Kohlberg theory of stages of moral reasoning seems to have no real relevance to corporate “persons”.

More convincing is the analysis that Jurkiewicz and Grossman give of the influence that organizations wield on the motivations, emotions, and behavior of the individuals who work within them. The “normalization” of killing documented by Christopher Browning is a relevant example: the validation by the organization and its leaders of the atrocious actions of killing the innocent offers participants part of the motivation needed to carry out their horrific tasks. Jurkiewicz and Grossman put the point in these terms:

As employees identify with the organization, a stable social system develops that perpetuates the culture while, at the same time, being defined by it. The stronger the culture, the more deeply employees share the value system, the greater the employee commitment, and the more willing employees are to submit to behavioral controls imposed by the organization. (chapter 1)

They also argue that, once established, a pattern of organizational imperatives to commit atrocities and compliance by subordinates creates a “leader-to-peer bonding” that makes further atrocity easier. They summarize this line of thought in these terms:

Organizational culture exerts powerful influence over individual behavior, because of both the reward structure and humans’ need to belong, but also significantly because the individual looks to those around him or her to determine what is right and what is wrong. (chapter 1)

Significantly, the authors emphasize that these dynamics can support “extreme evil” (killing squads) as well as more mundane forms of unethical organizational behavior (taking advantage of gullible elderly clients). 

In their contribution to the volume Guy Adams and Danny Balfour provide more detail about how organizations contribute to largescale evil-doing (“The Dynamics of Administrative Evil in Organizations”): 

What distinguishes administrative evil from other forms of evil is that its consequences are masked within the ethos of technical rationality. Ordinary people might simply be acting appropriately in their organizational role, just doing what is expected of them while participating in what a critical observer (usually well after the fact) would call evil. (chapter 2)

With diffuse and scattered information, literally no one in the organization might have a complete enough picture to adequately comprehend the destructive activity to try to reverse course. Those who have enough of a picture to perceive that something is wrong might well assume that higher management must be aware of the problem and has chosen to do nothing about it. (chapter 2).

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While the psychological incentive to deny and cover up are clearly powerful, individuals in the organization have made a fundamental shift at the turning point from engaging in harmful or evil activities unknowingly to doing so knowingly. This has been termed the “evil turn” (Darley, 1996). It is evident that the incentives to cover up are socially powerful, if not indeed overwhelming, because it is widely known that a cover-up is highly unlikely to succeed and often results in the complete disclosure of the harmful or evil activities. (chapter 2)

These points all concern the social psychology, incentives, and motivation that exist for participants within an organization. 

As compliance accounts of human behavior suggest, social structures and organizational roles are far more powerful in shaping our behavior than we typically think. Within a culture of technical rationality, a model of professionalism that drives out ethics and moral reasoning offers all too fertile soil for administrative evil to emerge. (chapter 2)

But these authors do not appear to address the most fundamental question: are there features of organizations themselves that facilitate and encourage evil actions and policies in the world, quite apart from the intentions of the leaders of the organization? Are there organizational tendencies or dynamics that facilitate the capture of an organization by individuals or groups for evil purposes? Do evil-doers create organizations, or do organizations create evil-doers?

These points raise a number of important unanswered questions about organizations and the doing of evil. Do organizations sometimes create novel evils, or are they simply inexact tools for the goals of evil leaders and executives — transmission belts rather than motors? Do organizations amplify the willingness of individuals to engage in atrocious actions, or are they merely one relatively small source of influence on individual behavior? Does “organizational behavior” amount to more than an application of the Milgram results or the Stanford Prison Experiment results about the ways in which individual behavior is influenced by peers and authority figures (link)? Can we be at all precise about the role that organizations played in the carrying out of the Holocaust or the Holodomor? What is the connection between ordinary organizational functioning and the “banality of evil”? Are all organizations vulnerable to evil-doing, on a small scale or a large scale?

(See earlier posts on organizational culture and corruption for relevant material from Edgar Schein, Robert Klitgaard, and David Hess.)

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