Are There Common Features of Dysfunctional Organizational Cultures? Corruption and Police Brutality

For the second time in the last several months, I’m finding it extremely difficult to blog about corruption due to a more urgent crisis. A few months ago, it was the Covid-19 pandemic, which is still very much with us. But now, in addition to the ongoing public health emergency, my home country (the United States) is in the midst of widespread social and political unrest triggered by the murder of an unarmed black citizen at the hands of police officers, as well as several other similar incidents. The underlying problems—systemic racism and misconduct by law enforcement agencies—are, sad to say, longstanding problems with deep roots. But the protests have given them new urgency and salience. And while there have been instances of rioting and looting—acts that the vast majority of peaceful protestors have roundly condemned—we have also seen what can only be described as a grossly disproportionate response by far too many law enforcement agencies and officers. In multiple cases, police have used unnecessary force not only against rioters and looters, but against peaceful protestors and members of the media who clearly identified themselves as such. And multiple senior elected officials, including President Trump and Senator Tom Cotton, have advocated the use of military force to suppress what they would characterize as civil unrest.

Suffice it to say that, given all this, it’s hard for me to think of something interesting or worthwhile to say about global corruption. But as I’ve been doing more to educate myself about the root causes of police misconduct (a mild term for a category that includes, among other things, brutality and racially discriminatory enforcement), I’ve noticed some intriguing similarities to some of the prevailing theories regarding the roots of organizational corruption (in both government agencies, including but not limited to police departments, and in private firms). Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising, because in both cases the ultimate issue concerns the reasons for widespread rule-breaking within an organization. To be clear, I don’t want to overstate the similarities, either with respect to the severity of the misconduct (I condemn bribery as strongly as anyone, but I wouldn’t dream of equating it with systemic racism or police brutality) or with respect to all of the causes and characteristics. I should also emphasize that I’m by no means an expert in police misconduct, and I suspect that many of my observations here will have already been made, or possibly already refuted, in the existing research literature with which I am not yet familiar. With those caveats, let me highlight some potentially intriguing similarities between the characteristics of police departments prone to racism and violence, on the one hand, and firms or divisions that engage in bribery, embezzlement, and other forms of financial malfeasance. These similarities may suggest some common features of ethically dysfunctional organizations.

  • Excessive In-Group Identification/Loyalty: One of the characteristics common in corrupt organizations is strong insider/outsider dichotomy, with great emphasis on loyalty to other insiders. To some extent, this sort of loyalty is a characteristic of functional, ethical organizations as well. Effective teams need to work together, to trust one another, to have each other’s back, etc. So it can be a bit tricky to describe how or when productive, appropriate in-group loyalty and solidarity tips over into dysfunctional, pathological insularity. Nonetheless, a couple of factors seem relevant. First, sometimes in-group loyalty (and group self-protection) becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to achieving the organization’s legitimate ends. Second, and relatedly, sometimes the in-group defines its identity in oppositional terms, through distrust of, or hostility to, an out-group. Corrupt organizations tend to cultivate this sort of dysfunctional in-group loyalty (or, perhaps, organizations with this sort of dysfunctional in-group loyalty tend to become corrupt—it’s hard to work out causation here). From what I’ve been reading about bad police departments, it seems similar tendencies are at work, perhaps even more strongly. When police view the citizens and neighborhoods they are supposed to protect, and they external actors who oversee the police, as adversaries rather than partners, and when the police treat loyalty to one’s fellow officers as a value that overrides other professional and ethical obligations, it seems that abusive police practices are much more likely to spread.
  • Realism as Rationalization. One of the psychological techniques that members of corrupt organizations often use to resolve the cognitive dissonance that they may experience between their self-conceptions (as essentially good people) and their behavior (which violates legal and ethical rules) is to cast themselves as pragmatic realists operating in an imperfect world, under constraints that outsiders don’t understand and can’t appreciate—a world in which nominally “unethical” behaviors are necessary to “get the job done.” A closely related version of this sort of “realism” is the notion that, with respect to some unethical behavior, “everybody does it.” This sort of rationalization connects to the previous point about in-group solidarity and hostility to outsiders, in that people part of a corrupt organization may come to see the formal ethical rules as impractical constraints imposed by naïve outsiders, which the “pragmatic” insiders—the people “in the trenches”—recognize as not worth taking seriously. This sort of rationalization, though understood by its practitioners as “realist,” is often, perhaps ironically, based on an unrealistic, and self-serving, characterization of the difficulty of accomplishing organizational goals while staying within ethical boundaries. The belief, for example, that it is “impossible” to do business in certain countries without paying bribes is often false, as is the belief that “everybody” in a certain position supplements their official salary with bribes or embezzled funds. Here too, there seems to be a parallel in dysfunctional law enforcement agencies—one that for me was captured by the adage, apparently repeated for decades in some police training programs, that it’s “better to be tried by 12 [jurors] than carried by 6 [pallbearers].” The message this appalling piece of advice is meant to convey is that, when in doubt, one should use deadly force and run the risk of being put on trial, because the alternative may be getting killed. More generally, what I’ve learned from reading about bad police departments is that cops in those departments seem to have an exaggerated sense of the danger of their (admittedly dangerous) jobs, and tend to view concerns with police violence and racism as the carping of naïve do-gooders who don’t really know what being a cop is like. I don’t doubt that it’s true that people like me have only a limited understanding of the realities of police work, in much the same way that people like me have only a limited understanding of the realities of marketing pharmaceutical products in China. The point isn’t that the people on the ground sometimes don’t sometimes know more than outsiders—they probably do. The point is that a certain kind of ostensibly “realist” or “pragmatic” worldview may often serve as a rationalization or pretext for serious (and unnecessary) misconduct.
  • Failure to Fully Integrate Ethics as an Organizational Priority: One interesting feature of corrupt organizations (such as private firms that pay bribes) is that, while in some corruption really was the firm’s business strategy, in many cases the firm has an ethics code on paper, conducts trainings, does and says all the right things, etc. But even for firms that undertake all those activities, sometimes the firm’s leadership sends, at best, mixed messages on ethics by treating ethical conduct as a kind of side constraint on the achievement of the organization’s main goals (sales growth, profits, etc.). Worse, sometimes the firm’s leadership, perhaps unwittingly, sets up its incentive systems in ways that reward those who engage in misconduct (so long as they don’t get caught). This gives the firm plausible deniability if someone does get caught—the firm can claim that it was a “rogue employee” acting against the firm’s official policy—even though the firm still bears significant responsibility for sending the tacit message that its employees are expected to do whatever they need to do to hit their sales targets. Firms that do a better job promoting ethical, non-corrupt activity often emphasize not only that ethical behavior is itself a core firm value (and back this up in various formal and informal ways), but also that ethical conduct also serves the firm’s long-term economic interests (say, by cultivating a good reputation, attracting top people, and giving firm employees more leverage to resist bribe demands.) I suspect, though I do not know for sure, that there may be similar phenomena in police departments. Even departments that say all the right things, publish ethics codes, punish police misconduct when incidents are too blatant to ignore, etc., may still treat good police conduct as a kind of constraint on officers’ pursuit of their “real” objectives (arrest and clearance rates, etc.). Other departments, I gather, may do a better job of conveying that appropriate behavior by officers (including the avoidance of unnecessary violence) is not only an end in itself, but also will further the department’s anti-crime goals (by fostering trust and legitimacy in the relevant communities).
  • Recruitment, Selection, and Promotion: An organization’s culture is determined in significant part by its people, but at the same time an organization’s culture influences the people who join and the people who stay. The reciprocal relationship between personnel selection and organizational culture is increasingly recognized by those who study organizational corruption as significant. Ethical organizations attract ethical people, and an organization full of ethical people is more likely to remain ethical. A corrupt organization, by contrast, tends to attract corrupt people, which keeps the organization corrupt. Attacking corruption in organizations may therefore require a multi-pronged strategy, one that simultaneously (or at least in parallel) attempts both to change incentives and constraints of those already in the organization, and also to attract the right sort of people to the organization. It seems plausible that similar dynamics may be at play with respect to police departments. A department with a reputation (particularly in heavily policed minority communities) for brutality and racism will have a much harder time attracting more enlightened, community-oriented officers. A department that fetishizes military equipment and conflict will tend to attract a different sort of recruit than a department that emphasizes de-escalation and community relations. So, just as reforming corrupt organizations may require greater attention to personnel and recruitment policies, so too may reform of bad police departments require a similar sort of attention.

Again, I’m not sure how well these parallels hold up, and I would welcome comments from any readers who are more aware of the relevant research literature on whether the parallels are accurate and helpful in terms of thinking about how to combat dysfunctional organizational cultures in these very different contexts. But the parallels seemed sufficiently suggestive that I thought it might be worthwhile to ask whether thinking about them together might help us better understand, and respond to, problems in these seemingly distinct domains.

4 thoughts on “Are There Common Features of Dysfunctional Organizational Cultures? Corruption and Police Brutality

  1. As always, Matthew, excellent post. I would like to add that if we expand the concept of corruption — as many have done — I believe we can see political decisions that have been made over the years designed to repress minorities and protect privileged interests (from Jim Crow on). As a consequence, many of the activities by the police (ample resources to target blue collar crime, stop and frisk, qualified immunity, military hardware, training, etc.) are all legal and in compliance with the law and policies. It is arguably these political policy decisions over the history of the US that do not reflect the “public interest” that has done more to create systemic racism and police brutality than illegal corruption within the police. Both exist, of course, and the US needs to address both forms of corruption.

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  4. Thank you Matthew for an insightful post. I think that Prof Sir Amartya Sen put it well in his book, Identity and Violence when he showed how we all have multiple identities and personalities. Thus a lawyer or a police officer will have an identity with other lawyers/officers where she/he works. At the same time that lawyer or officer may come from a different racial or cultural background and have a separate identity which may already have a deep-rooted prejudice against a particular minority group. Then that same person may love soccer and enjoy Thai cuisine. That person may well think that she/he is ethical but, based on objective criteria, may be unethical, corrupt and indeed racist and sexist. Lawyers still lag behind other professions in understanding ethics, corruption, and the concept of shared values and fair trade. Prof Sen, when he was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was asked by a British immigration official, on his re-entry into the UK, if he knew the Master of Trinity (as he had written his address as; Master’s Lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge). This got him thinking about the subject of identity.

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