This is an excerpt of the paper, “Integrity in Toxic Public Organizations: Solving Wicked Problems for Street Level Workers in Distress,” by Caroline Raat and Joop Remmé* (Adapted by Mark Worth).
Do instruments to enhance public sector integrity actually work? And if they do work, to what extent? Our focus is on “wicked problems” encountered by street-level bureaucrats in everyday situations, especially in toxic organizations. A wicked problem is one that is complex and intractable. It is a problem that only can be solved temporarily and partially – unlike ordinary problems.
In organizations led or influenced by “toxic types,” (for example, the “dark triad” of psychopaths, narcissists, Macchiavellianists), “Dirty Dozen” personality traits could be at play. These traits include manipulating people to advance one’s own interests, cheating, lying, exploiting others for personal gain, and lacking repentance or morality.
How many toxic types are leading organizations? Research shows 1.5 percent of the general population is diagnosed as “clinically toxic,” and 10-15 percent can be characterized the same at a subclinical level. Because 4-5 percent of leaders are clinically psychopathic or narcissistic, we could estimate that up to 40 percent of leaders are subclinically toxic.
A toxic leader is focused on self-interest, and maintaining and growing power, fame and prestige. He or she knows no or little empathy or morality, and is willing to lie, intimidate and manipulate. He or she has little or no emotional empathy. Toxic leaders don’t feel another person’s pain, but they can see through and use it unscrupulously for their own ends. The psychopath knows little fear. Unlike cases that end up in prison, corporate psychopaths – also known as “snakes in suits” – have the necessary self-control that allows them to maintain their charm, charisma and power.
Employees are expected to do what the leader tells them and especially not to ask difficult questions. Loyalty is demanded one-sidedly. This is disastrous for the work atmosphere and morale. People react to this differently: some leave, do everything to survive, become numb, join in the toxic behavior, or try to raise the issue. Some become whistleblowers.
In toxic organizations, the goal has shifted from the values of the organization to retention, power, prestige and growth. The organization is non-transparent and dishonest. Mistakes are not acknowledged but covered up. There is a high risk of abuse of power in the form of favoritism, exclusion, corruption and fraud. Measures to improve the organization are professed but not really lived up to.
Employees, customers and citizens are not relevant to the organization. If they get in the way, they are “eliminated” harshly and without remorse. At the same time, many workers are coerced to commit misconduct. According to a survey by the largest Dutch trade union (FNV), 15 percent of the national government’s civil servants say they are improperly pressured – especially from superiors – to behave improperly. One-fifth of employees knows a colleague who has been pressured.
A whistleblower system can serve as a way to prevent the escalation of problems. Overt whistleblowing can be used to alert the public of crime and corruption. But it would be better to see it as a way of preventing escalation by reporting a problem in its early stages – within the organization. Toxic leaders, however, likely will not choose to make the best use of internal reporting systems. They consider employees who report problems as “traitors,” and as a risk to their own position. Toxic leaders are inclined to do everything they can to track down and eliminate anonymous reporters, as we have seen in the infamous Dutch Ministry of Justice’s “Research Centre Affair.”
Toxic individuals exist and so do toxic public and private organizations. A toxic leader cannot become an ethical leader, and a toxic organization is not capable of change without external intervention. Internal whistleblowing systems and other methods such as codes of conduct are not strong enough, at legally enforceable levels. This fact has a negative impact on the moral quality of decisions, behavior and policy making at every level.
Stronger protection of whistleblowers, external reporting channels and structured decision-making systems can help enhance the internal morality of organizations, along with more drastic measures as letting go toxic leaders.
* Caroline Raat (PhD, LLM, MA) is an author, researcher, educator, consultant and practitioner in the fields of whistleblowing, quality of law and organizational behavior. Her publications have been about power, administrative law, freedom of information, and integrity. Joop Remmé (PhD) has taught about ethics, strategy and human resources management in MBA programs, and has consulted on management development and ethics. His publications have been about corporate social responsibility/ethics and stakeholder management. Both authors are affiliated with the Platform of Independent Researchers.