Means and ends


Thinking about the decline of trust in institutions and how to reverse it, I argued yesterday that behind organisational wrongdoing often lies a culture which combines self-interest and self-pity. But what might organisations do to avoid and escape this mind set?

As Max Weber argued there are two distinct types of rationality to be found in organisations - zweckrationale (instrumental rationality) and wertrational (value based rationality).

In a healthy organisational culture there will tend to be a lively, open, tough but nuanced conversation not only about ultimate ends but about the relationship between means and ends. In the RSA and other organisations that undertake research, for example, we discuss not only our purpose and mission but also the principles that should guide us when being offered sponsorship. For without such principles the short term temptation – for both the individual and the organisation - to take the money and not ask difficult questions can be close to overwhelming.

But these conversations can be effortful and lead to difficult conclusions either for the whole organisation or for powerful interests within it. This is where self-pitying organisational discourses play their role. Such assumptions and narratives provide an excuse for these conversations either not to take place or to become bland and vacuous: ‘why should we give ourselves a hard time over ethical standards when we face such a difficult environment and such unfair external perceptions?’

An acknowledged example of this phenomenon lies in the invariable summoning by authoritarian national leaders of the spectre of external threat to legitimise their abandonment of democratic and legal means in what they claim is the pursuit of national security.

These are not new issues; Weber was writing a hundred years ago when the power and legitimacy of large organisations was on the rise. What has changed?

A combination of factors including institutional under-performance, rising public education and declining deference have meant more critical scrutiny of what organisations do and how they do it. Technology in particular has shifted power; where once only big organisations could afford sophisticated computers now the internet and social media puts information and power in the hands of the public and often leaves the institution flat footed. Secrecy is harder to protect and self-serving rationales harder to sustain.

The implication is clear: modern institutions - especially those which people believe should be expected to act in the public interest - must seek to make decisions as if they are operating in a glass box. (NB: This is not the same as arguing for total transparency. Indeed greater openness is more likely to be the consequence than the cause of more ethical organisational behaviour).

If an organisation which claims to be ethical is making decisions on a basis which the public would not understand or condone then it is ever more likely, sooner or later, that these decisions and the dodgy thinking behind them will be exposed, further eroding trust in institutions.

But how do organisations pursue legitimate self-interest while also making it less likely that they will revert to a culture which permits externally unjustifiable decisions to be made? This will be the topic of the next post in this short series.



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