Is an organisation corrupt or just ill?

United Nations World Health Organisation logo

United Nations World Health Organisation logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we hear about a corrupt organisation we often are surprised and outraged. What we fail to consider is that all organisations are never completely healthy. They are all ill to some extent. They will have practices that are dubious, decisions that are suspect, and staff that are problematic. Leaders decide how much toxicity can be tolerated before it becomes a problem.[1] The leader has to manage the organisation’s health. When the organisation becomes unwell, “rogue employees” emerge or “rotten apples” start to appear, the leader needs to act. As the organisation’s most visible symbol, the leader has the largest role in managing its health.[2] When organisations become unwell, though, it is not enough to look at the top. We have to look inside the organisation.

What are signs of an organisation that has become ill?

The symptoms can vary. In some cases, it can be a decline in profits or productivity. In the public sector sickness absence rates are a good measure. When staff are physically ill, especially stress related illnesses; the organisation is likely to be ill. Many organisations focus on the employee and ignore the way the organisation can make the employees ill. Such an approach only deals with the problem’s symptoms. The employees may be stressed because responsibility and accountability are not connected. The tasks they perform may not be linked to the outcomes the organisation claims to deliver.[3] Also there can be a gap between what the organisation tells the public or does in public and what happens inside it.

To avoid illnesses, listen to the street.

Inside each organisation, people tell stories. These stories will indicate the health of the organisation’s culture. The middle managers tell stories to translate the corporate strategy into frontline practice.[5] How they tell those stories will create or cure an organisational illness. If middle managers are unwilling or unable to tell senior managers about frontline constraints, it creates a problem. In the same way, if they tell staff to accept toxic behaviour by another employee, it discourages people from raising issues. These stores are important and senior managers need to listen to them.

What stories do you tell each other at work?

Senior managers need to understand the stories that they tell about the organisation because that sets the tone.[6] If a senior manager tells their junior direct reports that they were reamed out for a misplaced comma or that they were raked over the coals for bad press, it will tell the junior employees and managers something about the company. The stories give them their cues and set the culture or expectations. The frontline staff will take their cues from that behaviour and those stories. The same process works the other way. If junior employees are telling stories about a problem, then senior managers need to listen.

What is compromising your organisation’s immune system?

For an organisation to become ill, its immune system must be compromised either its culture or its structure. If the organisational structure is compromised, then corruption can take root and then flourish. If the board of directors becomes blinded by the profits and success, they will begin to overlook problems and fail to ask searching questions. Why ask questions about something that is making you rich and appears to be working? The Board needs to remain vigilant about whether they are being denied information that would allow them to curtail the excess. In this area, transparency and accountability can help. However, there needs to be more than transparency. There has to be a will to act on what is seen. When organisational checks are undermined (over time) the organisation starts to weaken, become vulnerable to illness.

Are you seeking out people who know what is going wrong?

There are people who know what is going wrong. It is these people that the leader needs to find and listen to or have his trusted subordinates listen to so that they can keep their ear on the street.[7] If they are not ready to listen to those who are making uncomfortable points, what kind of leadership does that suggest? This is more than creating critical upwards communication. A formal system is important, but the informal systems set the tone. No organisation, no matter how small, is completely transparent to itself. However, it has to find a way to confront uncomfortable truths from time to time.

To understand the illness, ask why people are leaving

Just as doctors will check a patient’s vital signs and run tests, senior managers need to do the same. They need to consider who they have hired and why. Do they know why people are coming to work at the organisation? If the new hires have a different set of expectations than the internal culture, the senior managers need to understand why that gap exists. Another area to consider is to look at exit interviews. Why are staff leaving? An organisation will become ill if good people are leaving and it cannot attract good people. To put it directly, if senior managers do not know why people are arriving or why they are leaving, how can they understand the organisation’s health?

For the public, it is important to look beyond an organisation’s surface. If we only criticise an organisation as “corrupt” we fail to understand the source of that corruption. If we want to reform the organisation, then we need to understand what makes it ill. Once we understand what makes it ill, we can help it get better.

[1] I do not mean criminality or behaviour that threatens the staff or the public. I mean the underlying problems or issues that emerge in an organisation when personalities intersect with opportunities that cause problems such as low level harassment, bullying, intimidation, and negativity.


[3] This can help explain the highest stress jobs include teachers and journalists.




About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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1 Response to Is an organisation corrupt or just ill?

  1. Franz Kratschmer says:

    What we need to take into consideration in this case is the source who maintains the organization. As regards the United nations it is very simple. It is the contributing member states who tell the CAO or CEO (Secretary-General) what they expect to happen and how he should run the business. He is the prisoner in the golden cage.


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