Tales of organisational abuse

The three-year Commission to Inquire into the Dublin Archdiocese investigated hundreds of  incidents of abuse and showed the ways in which decades of exploitation of children had been covered over by the active participation of the legal  authorities and four archbishops. Bishops, priests and religious orders in the diocese had clear knowledge of allegations and practice of abuse going back to the early 70s and there were complaints made against 28 priests, some of whom were known by the church authorities to be abusers even before they became priests. The report concludes that:

The Archdiocese was pre-occupied until the mid-1990s with maintaining secrecy, avoiding scandal, protecting the reputation of the Church and preservation of assets.

I listened in horror to radio reports by those who had been abused who either felt unable to raise their voices, or if they did raise them they were accused of trying to undermine the authority and dignity of the church and of spreading malicious rumours.People who raised their allegations  were often publically vilified.

Such an enduring tale of abuse over such a long period of time can only be sustained by people in all positions actively or passively colluding in what is going on. Every day, in small ways and in large, the way these matters were discussed and acted upon undermined or amplified those processes of abuse which were being suffered by children. It may not always have been clear what was going on as the brilliant film Doubt starring Meryl Streep illustrates so well, but there are enough accounts in the report to make it clear that this exploitation was not only known about but that people actively covered it over ‘for the good of the church’.

In much more minor ways one can experience similar abusive processes taking place in organisations.

I have been working with a group of senior middle managers in a not-for-profit organisation where the Director has developed what she considers a ‘strong vision’ for the institution which relies upon it being publically perceived as being very entrepreneurial. In the spirit of the times it is understood to be a good thing to be business-oriented, and the organisation has been attracting a lot of notice for the claims that it has been making. There is a good deal of both excitement and opposition to the idealised claim to be entrepreneurial from different groups within the institution, depending on the length of time they have spent in the organisation, their professional background or their values. So, for example, some of the managers in the organisation have moved from business to a different career and do not have the same idealised understanding of what it means to be entrepreneurial as the director and some of her colleagues seem to.

The visioning and strategy-making process has spawned a whole set of organisation-wide initiatives, however, which are aimed at ‘realising the vision’. These range from something called ‘small steps for change’ where departments are invited to send a ‘champion’ to a regular meeting to explain how they have made small steps towards being more entrepreneurial, through to ‘challenge meetings’ where senior managers are invited to given an account of why they have or haven’t become more entrepreneurial to a star chamber of other senior managers. The challenge meetings have indeed been very challenging with incidents of senior managers shouting at more junior managers and demanding that they justify themselves. New initiatives are often followed up by quite peremptory e-mails demanding why the last directive has not been complied within the deadline specified.

The group of managers I am working with are using the time we spend together as a reflective space to think about the difficulties of managing. One of the things they return to again and again is the time that it takes to respond to the endless new initiatives that the strategy process has thrown up. The managers present do not consider themselves ‘against change’, indeed they are committed to what they are doing, and are constantly making the necessary improvements and adjustments irrespective of the corporate strategy. Indeed, many of them would already consider themselves quite entrepreneurial. However, the anxiety that surrounds the strategy for everyone concerned has created an environment where it has become quite difficult to argue against what is being proposed, no matter how unworkable some of the suggestions. The managers I am working with have a variety of responses: some just keep their heads down and hope that senior management scrutiny will pass them by; others write long and patient e-mails explaining why what is being proposed is unworkable or even counterproductive. Others do their best to comply with what is being put forward even though this sometimes puts them in a position of having  later to apologise to their teams if the initiative proves to be unimplementable.

There is agreement in the group that these proposals are hard to resist, and that it is difficult to speak out against them for fear of being labelled uncooperative or against change. There are a few brave souls who do, but these tend to be older, more experienced colleagues who are close to retirement or who feel that their position within the institution is powerful, despite their rank. Being able to speak out or not becomes a judgement about one’s relative power in the organisation. There is another interesting phenomenon happening: there are one or two colleagues who used to be senior middle managers who have been promoted. While they would once complain about the way they themselves have been treated in managerial processes, now, in public at least, they appear to be speaking out in support of what is happening. It is almost as if the higher up the organisation they go, they more they are obliged to ‘play the game’. This change in attitude is dispiriting for their ex-colleagues who have watched them climb the greasy pole hoping that they would make a difference when they got there, and of course, invisible to the public eye, this might be exactly what they are doing.

I am by no means making a claim of moral equivalence between the degree of abuse experienced by hundreds of children in Ireland for decades with level of what might be better termed institutional bullying in contemporary organisations. The kind of abuse that the children in Ireland have suffered is likely to have ruined their lives. What is interesting to me though, is the dynamic that arises in organisations where the day to day relationships between people contribute to the covering over of abusive relationships because of an appeal to a higher good, the good of the church or the good of an idealised vision. There is a very powerful game being played which is extremely difficult for individuals to change on their own except in small ways, although small changes may eventually lead to large ones. Both situations have, to a greater or lesser degree, the characteristics of totalitarianism and it takes a good deal of both detachment and courage to do something about it.

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