The normal dysfunction of organizations

The more corporations grow in size, power, and political rights, the greater our need to understand them. The greater our need, particularly, to understand how they so easily go bad. The recent in-depth article by Peter Thamel and Mark Viera, on Penn State’s Board of Trustees’s Painful Decision to Fire Paterno explains as much about the dangers of normal dysfunction in organizations as it does about the crimes committed.

Trying to make sense of a terrible tragedy, it’s tempting to look for that single failure of judgment, or action, or motive that explains it away. But it’s never that easy. Organizations are complicated structures and, while capable of enormous accomplishment, they do so with a persistent, non-trivial, yet accepted level of willful ignorance, avarice, and localized self-interest.

What began as a clearcut case of sexual molestation festered and transformed, as successive layers of authority—a legendary coach, his athletic director, his vice-presidents and president— ignored, downplayed, and withheld what to them seems to feel less like bearing witness to a crime and more like sharing bad news with bosses.

An awful, human, personal crime quickly becomes, in bureaucracies, just another administrative headache.

What struck me was the relationship between Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, and its Board of Trustees (those responsible for overseeing the responsible management of the university), which was a relatively normal relationship between chief executives and their boards. Spanier kept them at arm’s length, treating them as auditors rather than advisors, as people to placate at infrequent meetings rather than seek out for the experience and wisdom they supposedly brought to their positions.

A normal level of ignorance, obfuscation, and self-interest keeps organizations functioning. Until it doesn’t.

In the vein of not wanting bothering them with bad news that we will handle ourselves, Spanier contributed, like so many other leaders of so many other companies (e.g., Enron, BP, Phillip Morris) to the normal dysfunction of the university. Only this time, as happens too often, that dysfunction allowed him to overlook moral and criminal actions enabled by the organization itself.

Spanier, two other senior university administrators and Paterno had all given testimony before a criminal grand jury by late spring of 2011. They had been questioned extensively about what they had done after learning of a report in 2002 that said Sandusky had molested a young boy in the showers of the football building. According to the trustees, Spanier never informed them of any of that before Sandusky’s arrest on Nov. 5.

Fortunately, organizations are still made of people and there are often many more good people than bad. The board responded as swiftly and boldly as it could in firing the President and the coach, and others in between. And the first issue of Penn State’s alumni magazine published after the scandal, with an all black cover, shows how deeply saddened and introspective are the rest of the people who make up that organization.

Yet that such terrible crimes can be committed, and overlooked, in such normally dysfunctional institution serves as a warning as we face the growing role of organizations in our social and political lives.

Pennstater magazine