Resistors: If We Don’t Resist The Wrongs, History Will Repeat Itself

American Airlines Airbus

Having spent close to a decade studying and writing about organizational dynamics, I can safely assert that most organizations have command-and-control cultures where blind obedience and loyalty are valued over engagement, inclusion and ethics. This has serious societal implications. At the core of democracy and a civil society is resistance to obedience. There must be resistance when actions and behaviors go against legal, ethical, and social values and norms. Where there is no resistance, the risk of the abnormal becoming normalized is high.

In ‘The Perils of Disobedience’, Stanley Milgram wrote “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards or morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” The recent exposé in The New York Times on Boeing adds to a long, long list of institutional wrongdoings, in particular how whistleblowers and those who registered safety concerns and violations were retaliated against.

Culture defines how institutions operate and behave and the relationships they have with all stakeholders. Culture should also be considered as a check and balance against wrongdoings. The acid test on culture is how people who resist (i.e. disagree, dissent, disobey and blow the whistle) are treated. Where, as what appears to be the case at Boeing, people who resist are penalized, checks and balances do not exist, which puts the institutions and its stakeholders at huge risk.

To be sure, Boeing, as with most other organizations and institutions who have been exposed, have invested huge amounts of money in their culture. However, the values they espouse in their glossy and well-articulated promotion materials are not the reality for most employees. Employees in these institutions are expected to be obedient, and they view the words as human resource propaganda. For many of these organizations, the statements and programs are merely legal and public relations shields.

The companies named in recent New York Times opioid crisis article kept shipping drugs to doctors and pharmacies that they knew were involved in criminal activities. Surely, someone must have known about these activities; yet why didn’t anyone come forward? Most likely they were too scared of retaliation. What Boeing and the ‘Big Parma’ have ignored is the not only the risk to their reputations, but more importantly to the loss of lives. In fairness to Boeing, up to this point, they have enjoyed a pretty good reputation with their stakeholders and from what I can tell, their intent was honorable. Where they have likely failed is embedding the words on values and behaviors into every aspect of what they do. The most important aspect of this is requiring everyone to be that check and balance as part of their responsibility.

Chevron, an organization that I have studied, is an example of embedding the words into how they operate and the relationships they have with their stakeholders. Strikingly, their espoused values and expected behaviors mirror that of Boeing.  In ‘The Chevron Way’, employees, if they see any risk, are expected to do something about it, including stopping production. Their motto for this is, “if you see it – you own it”.  This is not a passing human resource fad for them. ‘The Chevron Way’ has evolved over close to three decades, and leadership there attributes their constantly outperforming others in their sector to this. Also, because of this, employees feel engaged and included. The fact they do not have an attraction and retention issue in what is considered to be a “dirty” industry proves it can be done.

White House Counselor Don McGahn, in refusing to direct the firing of Mueller, is an example of a check and balance that is required in institutions. He is also an example of being punished for his resistance, notwithstanding the fact his resistance protected the person dolling out the punishment from the certainty of obstruction of justice. CNN credited him by stating that what he did could have been a huge factor in saving democracy.

For me, the whole topic of resistance and the countless number of exposures of wrongdoings strikes a raw nerve for a couple of reasons.

First, during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, my parents were part of the resistance movement. Throughout their lives, they instilled in me and my four brothers the civic responsibility to resist wrongdoings, citing Milgram’s perils of authority. They did this in a very personal way by admitting that a close member of the family was a Nazi sympathizer/collaborator and explaining the carnage this caused within the family and to the country.

The second reason is what I experienced after exposing a corrupt CEO to the board of directors. I was asked to remain with the organization to coach and mentor a new CEO, someone who I fully endorsed during the selection process. Less than a year into his tenure, he systematically started to go against the legal, ethical and social norms we established over the previous decade. The many attempts I made with him to change were totally rejected to the point where he stopped communicating with me. My only recourse was to report this to the board. The board, who by and large were sponsored by me, made the choice to downplay the transgressions because, as it turned out, they feared him. In a remarkably short period of time, the CEO created a command-and-control culture where obedience and blind loyalty prevailed, even to the point that it neutered the board. Suffice it to say, checks and balances were non-existent.

I left; and the CEO labeled me as a whistle blower and sought revenge. For eighteen months I was subjected to being discredited; my phones and emails were tampered with; I received a death threat; former associates were ordered not to associate with me; and I was blacklisted by “the establishment of old boys” for having the audacity to resist authority. After the eighteen months, the board, after a number of situations that were exposed, finally forced him out.

This experience took its toll on me. I had symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thankfully, some close to me intervened and helped me turn my negative energy into something positive, which is helping to create a more civil society. This is what I have been doing in studying and writing about organizational dynamics, with a focus on the workplace.

Work is where we spend most of our waking hours. If we are unable to resist authority at work, it is unlikely we will resist it in our other associations. If resistance to authority is expected, encouraged and rewarded at work, we are more likely to exercise it in our communities and countries.

Quite frankly if we don’t resist the wrongs – history will repeat itself.

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