Furthest Right

Introduction to Dark Organization


Despite it being an apparent American concept, “dark organization” remains an unknown concept to the broader public, either because it is politically untenable or because people are confusing it with malevolence. Some research and writings to illuminate this problem has been forthcoming, some of which was authored by Prof Howard F Stein Nothing Personal, Just Business (2001) and Prof Diane Vaughan The Dark Side of Organizations (1999).

Vaughan describes “that routine nonconformity, mistake, misconduct and disaster, are systematically produced by the interconnection between environment, organizations, cognition and choice.” To describe it more in detail she states that “social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety.”

Stein argues on the other hand, that “institutional change creates feelings of loss and grief that are often denied; leading to an inability to mourn that can destroy trust and produce aggression.” In summary he writes that “throughout the United States and indeed the world, organizations have become places of darkness, where emotional savagery and brutality are now commonplace and where psychological forms of violence — intimidation, degradation, and dehumanization — are the norm.”

The psychologist sees it from a change management perspective while the sociologist sees it as “deviant management,” which in itself can be viewed as change. It is possible to deduce that both authors are addressing the same issue which is probably why they both refer to “dark organizations,” and not dark intentions.

There is overwhelming evidence of natural pressures on organizations such as economic pressures and competitive requirements. These pressures can be viewed as negative in the sense that it may even lead to bankruptcy, but the dark organization effect is for the most part different. Referencing the author Jim Collins How the Mighty Fall (2009), he identifies about twenty-six parameters/conditions that may (in sequential fashion) lead to failed companies. However, these parameters only apply to “healthy” organizations where companies valued at less than twenty percent of their original value are classified and presented as having failed. In dark organizations (which Collins do not address) the assumption can be made that those organizational managers would not present themselves as failed, but would in terms of business performance remain below the twenty percent value essentially forever. For example, in the case of South Africa, the possibility exists, should a healthy organization be enabled, that business performance would improve five times, i.e. the GDP/capita target could essentially be $40,000 instead of its approximate value of $8000 today.

Internationally, an example of a dark organization was the Oil-for-food Program managed by the United Nations. After the second Gulf War, President Bush informed the UN that they may close that initiative. Little did he or the UN General Secretary realize how long it would take. In the South Africa Limited of today, the same dark organizational characteristics are slowly emerging. It can be seen in its limitation of information which leads to lack of transparency and which are generally the first thing threatened organizations do to protect themselves. This is similar to the formation and effect of the well-known “silo” that commentators generally use.

When information is finally distributed, it is ambiguous, for example: the South African government’s policies on external relations are the opposite of their home affairs policies, e.g. the wealthy Indian Gupta family aircraft landing on a Military Air Force Base for a wedding, approved by Foreign Relations while negated by Defense security policies. Another example is the housing development policy of “spatial densification” which opposes “urban sprawl” but in actuality results in low-cost housing being implemented in the exact urban sprawl fashion.

Examples can be monitored all over the place, which can identify specific organizations that suffer this debilitating illness, and which according to Stein can be remedied, but recognition of the fact is the essential first step.

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