The moral betrayal of corporate dysfunction

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The previous post on careerism sparked some thoughts about my past employment.

My own recent employment was as a researcher within a corporation that did not understand research, but wanted at least to feel like it was doing research, or failing that, wanted to be seen to be doing research.  By the time my employers decided to make their entire research staff redundant, they had, by my estimation, achieved merely the even lesser goal of being seen to want to be involved in someone else’s research.

In the previous post I quoted Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, suggesting that careerism takes hold when an employer cannot tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better.  In my experience this problem was magnified a hundred fold as what was considered ‘good enough research’ from a business perspective would not have been considered ‘good enough’ in a genuine research context.  To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t even have been considered ‘research’, and I joked with my colleagues that at best it could merely be described as ‘search‘.

It reminds me of an excerpt I read from a book about PTSD: ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character‘ by Dr Jonathan Shay.  In it he explains that the roots of trauma lie in the subversion of the soldier’s moral world, as when in the Illiad “Agamemnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops.” Shay illustrates his point through the story of a patrol team during the Vietnam War that opened fire on three boats that were suspected of unloading weapons.  When morning came, they found that the boats were merely fishing vessels, and in one veteran’s words: “we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.”

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head.

[…] So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know?

[…] They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation – them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

The circumstances could not be more different, but the underlying psycho-social dynamics are remarkably similar.  In my case, I and my fellow researchers were given tasks that turned out to be dismally below standard in research terms, but we were told by our manager and senior colleagues “this is part of business”, “we’re kicking goals”, “we’re putting runs on the board”.

Despite knowing on a deeper level that this was not the way to do serious research, it is true that such talk from one’s superiors starts working on one’s head.  Maybe they have different standards? Maybe this is good enough on a business level?  Maybe we really are doing a good job from their point of view?  And in the end, you find yourself standing there like an idiot while the CEO or some other senior executive offers a glowing endorsement of all the ‘ground-breaking research’ our team had been involved in.

By that stage, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel – as I did at the time – that an organisation which rewards such incompetence is beyond help.  In particular it is beyond, and would most likely be antagonistic to, correction by a junior member of staff who just happens to bear the misfortune of knowing what real research looks like.  Like the veteran in Shay’s book, these experiences of moral dysfunction within an organisational hierarchy leave many subordinates bitter, cynical and disenfranchised, while less scrupulous employees choose to cling to the facade of success and achievement for their own ends.

The more I learn of others’ experiences, the more I am inclined to appreciate the peculiarities of my corporate experience: being a specialist in an organisation incapable and perhaps even unwilling to make use of my specialist skills.  It’s like a person who signs up for an expensive gym membership, uses it once or twice ineffectually, and then lets it lapse.

No doubt it’s bad enough being a corporate stooge in a dysfunctional corporate world, but being a philosopher and researcher – a veritable fish out of water – made the dysfunctional corporate experience all the more painful.  While my colleagues and I have each lamented the lost opportunity and squandered potential of our prior employment, I’m increasingly sure that in terms of corporate culture and dysfunction our experience was, to borrow from World War II military slang, SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.

The ethics of management: hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is defined as:

the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.

In ‘The Prince’ Machiavelli argues that it is much better to be seen to be virtuous than to actually have virtue”

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

In my experience, a corporate environment encourages the same duplicity. The values may differ – more popular keywords like ‘communication’, ‘connectedness’, and ‘creativity’ replacing traditional ones – but the pressure to keep up appearances is as real in business as it is in politics. It is not necessary for a manager to have these corporate qualities, but it is necessary for a manager to appear to have them.

Sometimes there’s an aspect of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ at play. No one has the courage (or rather, the disregard for their own career prospects) to tell a seemingly enthusiastic superior “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. But the difference is that the emperor believed in his clothes, whereas a hypocritical manager merely pays them lip-service.

Nonetheless, lip-service is powerful. Studies such as the Asch Conformity Experiment have shown that most people will change either their belief or their external behaviour to conform with majority opinion; how much more so when majority opinion is reinforced with financial and career considerations and the authority of a corporate hierarchy?

Hypocrisy in a superior is demoralising. The problem with a manager who is adept at “claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case”, is not that such a facade actually convinces people, but that it hides the truth, coerces conformity, and prohibits genuine communication. A manager who likes to gush gratuitously about how “I love my team!” is either a simpleton, on the verge of a mental breakdown, or very clearly demonstrating the tone of discourse she expects from her subordinates.

I once had a manager who was put in charge of a research department despite having no research qualifications or experience. In this context, hypocrisy translated into publicly talking up the supposed research goals and achievements, with liberal use of terms such as “world’s best practice”, “evidence based”, “rigorous”, and “validated”, while at the same time lowering the bar in terms of actual standards of evidence and methodologies employed, under the guise of ‘business priorities’ and the need to ‘kick some goals’.

Such was the magnitude of this hypocrisy that we, the researchers, mistook it for ignorance. Surely no one in their right mind would falsely claim such objective research standards? Surely the manager was just naive or confused? It took a long time, given our minimal one-way communication with our manager, to confirm that she had never intended for us to do real research in the first place, and though ignorance of research had clearly played a role in claiming such high standards, the gap between PR and reality was seemingly of no real consequence to our manager, the business, or the supposed mission of the ‘research’ enterprise of which we were a part.

By the time we confirmed this, no less than the Chairman of the Board had already publicly described as ‘ground breaking research’ a piece of work so hamstrung and hobbled by a ‘business’ mindset that it hardly warranted the label ‘research’, let alone the embarrassing hyperbole of ‘ground breaking’.

Yet this vindicates management hypocrisy: it was indeed beneficial for our manager to be seen to have presided over ‘ground breaking research’ without the uncomfortable necessity of having to actually facilitate such research, with its impractically indefinite timeframes, dangerously uncertain outcomes, and awkwardly un-businesslike ethos. Much safer to initiate a project with predetermined outcomes and just tell everyone how ground-breaking it was. The Chairman of the Board might be right at the top of the corporate pecking-order, but when it comes to assessing the merits of alleged research he was, ironically, as susceptible to the hypocrisy of middle-management as we, the researchers.

Last I heard, our former manager was still in charge of a research department with dedicated admin support and business development personnel, but no actual researchers. The irony is delightful, and entirely appropriate to the business ethos of style over substance.

In the end Machiavelli was right, hypocrisy is indeed of great advantage to the Prince. But in embracing hypocrisy the Prince becomes a contemptible creature without moral or intellectual integrity.