How We Have Come to Think of Ourselves as Victims of Systems, by Douglas Griffin

This essay is the introductory chapter of Douglas Griffin’s book The Emergence of Leadership (2002), from a series of books about complexity theory as applied to leadership. I’m putting it up here so I have a consistent place to point people when I want to recommend it.

A widely prevalent way of thinking about leadership and ethics in relation to today’s corporations is epitomized by a popular film genre. These films narrate the struggle of some heroic individual against a large organization.

For example, there is the story of a large utility on the West Coast of the USA. Over a number of years, acids from one of the utility’s plants leaked into the ground water used by adjacent residential communities. Many of the residents developed multiple forms of cancer and some of them claimed that this was due to drinking the polluted water. However, they were completely unsuccessful in their attempts to connect the cancer with the operations of the neighbouring plant. Then, by chance, a young assistant in a law office noticed that there were a number of cancer cases that seemed to be related to the plant, a pattern no one had so far noticed.

She took up the cause and in her heroic struggle, as the leader, she united the residents in taking a joint action suit against the corporation. When a former employee supplied her with relevant documents from his basement, they were able to win the case, which turned out to be the largest settlement against an American corporation up to that time. Some of the top executives were found guilty of negligence and the young woman, the heroic leader, received a bonus of two million dollars from her law firm. Typically, after such a film, there is an air of excited triumph in the crowd as people leave the cinema. Someone finally took revenge on one of those big corporations, triumphing against “the system”!

Throughout the film, the characters talk about the corporation as an “it” which has intentionally leaked the acid, allowed the pollution of ground water and caused the cancer. This is typical of the everyday way in which we speak of large organizations, consisting of thousands of employees, as acting with culpable intention and being ethically responsible. When we talk in this way, we are talking “as if” an inanimate, nebulous entity called a corporation, or a “system”, can have intention but in doing this we tend to forget the “as if”. We slide automatically into talking about the “system” as having intention and being ethically responsible. However, in law, the corporation can only be found guilty of criminal intent if it can be proved that individuals in it acted intentionally to cover up the facts concerning the on-going leakage. In other words, it must be proved that individuals acted wilfully against the good of the community. Here, ethical responsibility is ascribed to the autonomous individual. Its both the corporation as “the system” and the autonomous individual, each in their own way, who are ethically responsible. We derive satisfaction from finding both the corporation and the individual guilty. The basis for thinking about ethics these days, therefore, has a “both … and” structure. We take it for granted that ethical responsibility is located separately in both the corporation and the autonomous individual and in doing so, we forget the “as if” conjecture applied to the corporation. We tend not to sense anything contradictory, that is, paradoxical, about this way of thinking.

In automatically obscuring any paradox and forgetting the “as if” intention ascribed to the organization as a “system”, we slip into thinking about the corporation as having a mind of its own, as setting its own purposes and acting with the freedom that only human beings in fact have. This way of thinking affirms an ethically passive stance in which most of us, as victims of the system, feel that the cause of unethical behaviour, such as the on-going leakage and the subsequent cancers of the residents, has been found, guilt allocated and justice served. It is the “system” and a few powerful individuals who are to blame, and the heroic individual leader has delivered us.

But has the cause of the unethical action really been found? Certainly, in the film described, key elements of a cover-up are identified. However, there is an important question about causality that is not even being asked. Indeed, the question is completely obscured by the way of thinking about ethical responsibility described above. The important question is: how could on-going damage to the environment of such a serious nature, over such a long period, happen in the complex daily interaction of thousands of employees working in the corporation and living in the surrounding community. Presumably, all of these people were acting with purpose as autonomous human beings and no one intended the result because, after all, they all lived in the community they were polluting. Presumably, they were all ethically responsible as human beings. However, the only causes of, and ethical responsibility for, the pollution are identified as both the corporation with its “as if” intention and senior individual managers. The rest are simply passive victims with no ethical responsibility for what happened, despite the fact that they were working daily with the leaky processes. Surely they had something to do with what happened? But we do not usually take this as a matter for examination and explanation.

Richard Sennett, in his book The Corrosion of Character (1998), explores how corporations, both large and small, have been affecting the surrounding communities in which their employees live. His book eloquently and persuasively argues that the qualities of community and of individual identity in the workplace have been deteriorating in the USA for decades. He presents evidence for the corrosion of individual character in: the gradual loss of community; the transition to more flexible concepts of working time; a different work ethos; and the superficial nature of role relationships among members of teams. He holds that the new capitalism and the indifference of corporations to their employees are responsible for this. The passion of his argument gives the book the urgency of an ethical “j’accuse!". However, I would argue that the ethical basis of his argument is the same as the film plot described above. The “system” of new capitalism and indifferent corporations carries out its intentions and is implicitly taken to be morally responsible for “its” actions, which destroy communities and corrode character. In the film, there are both the few criminal individuals and the criminal “system”, and Sennett points to both the many individual victims and the morally culpable “system”. Notice how this “both … and” way of thinking focuses ethical responsibility on a few managers and the corporation as perpetrators, while relegating most people to the passivity of helpless victims of the “system” without ethical responsibility for what they do.

To emphasize the point, I am arguing that nowadays we locate ethical responsibility in both the “system”, simply taking it for granted that a “system” can be ethically responsible, and in a few individuals. In doing this, we adopt a particular view of leadership in which it is individual leaders who are blamed and punished when things go wrong, or praised and rewarded when things go right. The rest of us are allocated to passive roles as victims of “the system”, and of manipulative leaders, and our salvation lies in the actions of heroic leaders. In thinking in this way we are obscuring how we are all together involved in the dangerous situations that arise. Perhaps this is why we find ourselves repeatedly exposed to these dangerous situations. It then becomes a matter of great importance to understand just how we have come to think in this “both … and” way in which we ascribe an “as if” intention to the “system”.

If you liked this, perhaps you will like other things I make. Like my newsletter K.log, or my tweets at @neoeno, or my website — you're on it right now!