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Dysfunction: Organizations That Fail Expectations

Truthful information flows in high-functioning organizations. This enables managers and thereby their organizations to make choices and, later, to deal with their consequences. Bad information, on the other hand, often leads to unintended results, as happened with Enron and WorldCom/MCI, among other recent examples. Business schools teach organization theory. A private company cannot rest on its laurels, the constantly changing marketplace will force it to adapt or go out of business. Thus, for-profit companies get rid of (or demote) bad managers. Else, the company fails and the (mis)managers (and their subordinates) are pounding the pavement as bankruptcy forces reorganization. Government, on the other hand, does not go out of business. Government accountability is tested through electoral and judicial and media channels. These are very different alternatives to market discipline as ways to weed out dysfunction.

Dysfunction and its Consequences

Dysfunctional systems often include a scapegoat or black sheep. That person has dared mention whatever craziness is going on (shades of the Emperor's New Clothes). Blame rather than thanks or reform ensues. Since literally killing the messenger of bad news has gone out of fashion, harassment may continue until the scapegoat cracks or moves on. Then, a new scapegoat is found. Coworkers disassociate from the scapegoat in hopes of avoiding that fate themselves. Meanwhile, either the problems continue to worsen, or misadvised fixes fail. Leadership is a vacuum. Morale plummets, particularly where the "troublemaker" who cared enough about the organization to report the problem leaves. By contrast, more functional organizations might consider the same individuals valuable troubleshooters, recognizing that problems are easier to correct while still minor.

Public Sector Ethics

Because a democratic country like ours does not go out and fire its government, even a change in administration usually only affects the topmost officials. Talk about reinventing government usually remains just that. On the other hand, the public interest is what government is really about after all. No one likes corruption, illegal activities or gross mismanagement in their government, unless it directly benefits them. Government ethics address these issues. The Constitution also matters. Our American system works by checks and balances, by disseminating information and power among the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches and the citizenry.

Bully Bosses and Leadership Failures

Unfortunately, bureaucracies often protect problem bosses. In 1999, the MSPB recognized that "tough" managers can also have problems, calling it a "bull in a china shop" phenomenon. Employees may call them "bully bosses." Autocratic managers rule through fear, intimidation and retaliation, rather than efficient information flow. Other problem bosses are more subtle backstabbers, but with similar cover-up goals. Management gurus since Abraham Lincoln invariably advise both talking with and listening to subordinates. Information must flow upward as policies flow down for implementation. Yet many problem bosses and their own managers prefer a "don't ask/don't tell" attitude (a/k/a ostrich philosophy). Double talk is bureaucratically protective--classic mixed messages frustrate or confuse outsiders (or employees). Leadership, on the other hand, involves two-way communications.

The Problem Personnel Officer

Too many personnel officers consider employee-protective laws obstacles to be avoided, rather than moral or ethical guideposts. Cynics consider the personnel officer's real job as protecting management. If so, employees reporting problems (even internally) become anathema. While compliance with laws and regulations may be somewhere in many job descriptions, placing them in a wide-ranging category and as only one of many "critical elements" invites problems. Many performance evaluation forms ignore government ethics; others disassociate law and ethics. Thus, "human resources" officers may blindly help bosses get rid of "troublemakers" rather than implement federal personnel laws. Plus, more complicated laws can protect less. Federal managers can get away with even worse tactics against whistleblowers than against employees complaining about discrimination (although harassment in that area is far from unknown either, the EEOC also being understaffed) because of the MSPB's and Federal Circuit's choices toward hyper-technicality or complexity. As civil service protections become nominal, federal managers may even retaliate more freely than their private counterparts.


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