The Perverse Organisation and its Deadly Sins

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There is evidence of a movement from 'a culture of narcissism' toward elements of a perverse culture. This book brings forth and examines the evidence as it reveals itself through one of the major institutions of our time: the work organisation. Corporations and organisations for work are major centers of social activity. In many senses they provide a critical source of identity for their members, just as do families and religions.The examination of corporations and organisations gives access to most of the dynamics operating within our society and reveals some of the deeper assumptions upon which our lives are based. To call them simply a reflection of human social organisation and proclivity, perhaps is to underrate the importance of themselves shaping today's psyche. To look at the formation of perverse practice, structure and culture within organisations is also to look at that development in society more broadly. The book first examines the nature of perversity and its presence in corporate and organisational life. Then, four chapters examine the 'corporate sins' of perverse pride, greed, envy and sloth, each taking case studies from major organisations suffering their effects. Finally, the book enquires into the nature of the consumer/provider pair as a centerpiece of the perverse cultural dynamics of current organisational life.The emphasis in the book is on perversity displayed by the organisation as such, rather than simply by its leaders, or other members, even though they may embody and manifest perverse primary symptoms to the extent that they at times engage in corrupt or criminal behaviours. What is explored is a group and organisation dynamic, more deeply embedded than conscious corruption. Within the perverese structure some roles become required to take up corrupt positions. They become part and parcel of the way things work. The person may condemn certain practices, but the role requires them. Tensions between person and role may mean that the person in role acts as they would not while in other roles. Such tensions may lead to the dynamics of perversity.This book is important reading for managers, consultants, and all who are interested in the dynamics propelling what seem to be the out-of-control dynamics within contemporary organisational life. It helps us understand how many people in positions of trust may end up abusing those positions. It looks at how we may be collectively perverse despite our individual attempts to be otherwise.

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1 The Perverse Organisation

ePub

The idea of perversion conjures up many images of dark and sinister practices; evil and sadistic; masochistic and filled with secret lust; trespass into forbidden places, dungeons and hidden lairs; not a part of everyday life. Yet, small perverse acts and intentions are a constant part of the social psychological landscape. There is the sadism of the office bully who gains pleasure from the discomfort of others; the fetishistic attraction of consumerism and commodification, with their endless quest for more, never quite satisfying so rapaciously creating new and better markets; the suicidal backdrop of substance abuse and workaholism, out of control; and the voyeuristic pleasures found in the culture of celebrity which acts as a substitute for real intimacy. Good and bad, the presence and effects of perverse dynamics are an integral part of our culture and imbued within our working lives. This book will examine the nature of perversity and its presence in collective corporate and organisational life.

 

2 Understanding the Perverse State of Mind

ePub

There are five points that will be consistently emphasised throughout this book. They are the basic indicators of a perverse state of mind.1 Derived from a study of perversion in individuals, they will first be explored in terms of individuals, later to be extrapolated to a social level of analysis.

The five indicators are first listed in their bare essentials.2

1. The perverse state of mind is not simply a deviation from normative morality. It has to do with individual pleasure at the expense of a more general good, often to the extent of not recognising the existence of others or their rights. It reflects a state of primary narcissism.3

2. The perverse state of mind acknowledges reality, but at the same time, denies it. This leads to a state of fixed ideation and fantasy to protect against the pain of seeing and not seeing at the same time.

3. The perverse state of mind engages others as accomplices in the perversion.

4. The perverse state of mind may flourish where instrumental relations have dominance in the society. This is because instrumentality ignores the rights of others to have an independent existence. This in itself is abusive. The perverse state of mind turns a blind eye.

 

3 Perverse Pride

ePub

We are working with a hypothetical; a “what if”. What if an organisation were like a person? Or, better put: what if the system that is the “organisation” or “corporation” has processes in common with the system that is “person”? That is, human systems, both person and organisation, may have dynamics in common arising from a common systemic root; especially the nature of their emotional content. Or, put in yet another way, the person may be a system where social dynamics are at play on an internal stage, and the organisation a system where emotions are at play on a large collective scale.

The “what if” of this chapter looks at pride. The social nature of pride lies in the recognition of one's qualities or accomplishments by others and an assertion of them by self. A certain amount of pride in one's accomplishments provides a foundation for creative and collaborative work with others. Collective pride provides a strong social glue. But when does pride become arrogance and a sense of self-worth become self-aggrandisement? What makes pride perverse? To review the idea of perversity, I remind you:

 

4 Perverse Greed

ePub

When thinking of big multinational corporations and corruption the idea of greed is often foremost in our minds. Media stories of Enron, Worldcorp (in USA), Parmalat (in Italy) and HIH (in Australia) for instance, often focus on what seems to be the intent of senior executives who have huge salaries plus shares and other financial interests in the company or its future. Stories of fraud, lies and cover-ups, where the company's true financial status is hidden from the market, abound and confirm our cynicism about big business being a potential breeding ground for greedy and exploitative executives and board members.

Of course, the stories are more complex than the image that “pure greed” conveys. Issues of pride and arrogance are present. A blind eye is turned, at times, to obvious incompetence in people with power and influence and to information that runs counter to what is desired.1 Checks and balances in risk assessment are overstepped and ignored in a flush of confidence and single mindedness. There is a belief in being right; even in being righteous.2 Hubristic decisions are made that over-reach or over-extend the resources of the company. Then, when mistakes are gradually recognised because the reality of their effects can no longer be ignored, frantic attempts to bail out or cover-up come into play. Greed is but one factor in the whole picture.

 

5 Envy

ePub

As has been stressed in previous chapters, perversion is exemplified by a series of indicators: individual pleasure at the expense of mutuality (or, in broad social terms, a more general good); the paradoxical dynamic of denial of reality, where what is known is at the same time not known (or, as an example in corporate terms, disparate and contradictory public and private images exist in parallel); the use of accomplices in an instrumental social relation; and the self perpetuation or closedness of the perverse dynamic. The perverse culture makes itself evident in many business organisations and contemporary corporations. What of other forms of organisation?

This chapter will examine the perverse dynamic and its relation to the different structural forms of hierarchy and association. While hierarchy is the form taken by organisations to delineate and structure accountability1 it institutes dependency and stimulates envy. Competition as well as subservience is naturally stimulated by the accompanying counterdependent rivalrous climate of “superiors” and “inferiors”, “bosses” and “subordinates”, where the imperative is to climb the promotions ladder and supercede one's previous masters. Many times, the competitive climate leads to envy. Take the example where a person is promoted and previous peers are now accountable to that person. Envy surrounding the promotion must be contended with and may cause problems. Association, by contrast is a form of equalisation—democratic but structured as a defence against envious rivalry. Its danger is that it may render difference as equivalence and hence stymie creativity.

 

6 Sloth and Neglect

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Acompany board is the group that makes the most important strategic decisions for the company, or at least is responsible for such decisions. It is a body required to be most vigilant about corporate behaviour—a veritable Argus. But what happens when multiple eyes are closed, lulled into a false sense of security? I begin this chapter examining the nature of boards, and then move to some of the more interesting psychodynamic aspects of the way they work. Into this will be woven the story of Heath International Holdings (HIH) insurance and its disasters because the board played a major role in the HIH story; and this story was the Australian equivalent of Enron.

When HIH collapsed in early 2001, it had losses estimated at $5.3 billion. HIH was Australia's second biggest general insurer, had a big range of insurance policies covering a range of different industries and activities, but the loss was catastrophic for many people, many organisations, led to a significant bail-out by the federal government. We saw people effectively lose their livelihoods…If I was to give just one example, HIH had extensive insurance policies covering builders, but of course when those builders couldn't get insurance because HIH had collapsed and it was very difficult to get replacement insurance, we saw enormous losses in the building industry itself. People were left with half-built homes, unable to complete these half-built homes. So in other words, although HIH itself was a $5.3 billion loss, the losses spread throughout the Australian community.1

 

7 Perverse Wrath

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On the second of February 2003 a reportedly friendly, supportive and good natured 20-year-old army trainee at the Singleton Trainee School of Infantry, Australia, hanged himself shortly after midnight. Two weeks previously, only one week into his infantry training course he had injured his leg in a training exercise. Following the accident, after several tests, “he was diagnosed with a stress-related condition, but was cleared of stress fractures. On 28 Jan 03 he was removed from training and transferred to Rehabilitation and Discharge Platoon (R&DPl) in order to recuperate.”1

This period of recuperation proved to be the beginning of the road towards his suicide. During the investigation it was found that on the evening before his death he had altercations with two other trainees. In addition, he had become depressed and had drunk heavily. He was found hanging from a tree behind the R&D lines early the next morning. What would drive this young man to such an action?

The investigation reports several allegations brought against the army by Private Williams’ family. Among these were allegations about a culture of denigration at the army recruit training centre, a culture of bullying and denigration at the School of Infantry and a widespread usage of abusive and offensive language. These allegations were upheld. It was also found that the rehabilitation facility where he had been sent after his injury was inadequately staffed and that there was inadequate medical treatment and rehabilitation support. The rehabilitation centre was located close to the training facility and those “recuperating” were thus in close contact with the prevailing training culture, training officers and trainees. Little real respite from the culture was available. There were also allegations of threats of physical violence, intimidation and standover tactics by both staff and trainees against other trainees. Some staff were said to be specifically targetting individual trainees, marking them for failure. Although this allegation was not found by the investigating officer to be commonplace in the culture, individual instances were found. How many reported instances it would take for a judgement of “commonplace” to occur was not discussed.

 

8 The Consumer-Provider Pair

ePub

The argument in this book has been to demonstrate the presence of perverse dynamics within organisations and corporations. These dynamics are not simply the result of the presence of perverse individuals, that is, corrupt leaders who would despoil the organisation out of individual greed, pride or envy. There may well be such individuals, although the picture of such localised evil accounts for but a minuscule element of the phenomena described. The dynamics here refer to broader systemic perversity.

The role of a final chapter is normally to help the reader find a positive and hopeful way out from the difficult and rather depressing scenes that have been revealed. For, should not Eros triumph over Thanatos and should not scholarship work towards creative outcomes? The chapter should then address such questions as: How might our corporations become less perverse? How might the more creative and life sustaining forces of organisational life be supported? Moreover, the book has not addressed those impulses within companies and other organisations that reflect appropriate pride, generosity, gratitude and creative endeavour despite the fact that many such instances can be found. But, this was not my intent and there are a plethora of books that provoke the reader to become more creative, work collaboratively and make it more enjoyable, and that demonstrate the positive capacities of success and corporate responsibility.1 I am intent on exploring perversity within organisations: to know its form and shape before grasping at any quick solution or method of reparation for unintentional ills. There is always attraction in destructivity and its place within and alongside the life forces, if only the attraction of the hope that we might get a better grip on knowing its nature and understanding its insidious grasp; its jouissance as the Lacanians would say.

 

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