Dr. Srinath Jagannathan
Organizational Behaviour and HRM Area, IIM Indore
Email: email@example.com; Phone: 0731-2439486
I argue that the language of crisis prevents organisations from coming to terms with ethical dilemmas they face. The moment a leader mobilises the language of crisis to discuss organisational issues, it becomes difficult to downplay the language of crisis ever afterwards. The language of crisis leads to moral slips and justifications of exceptional acts in the name of overcoming an exigency. One exigency leads to another, and soon one moral slip leads to another. The leader still continues to talk the language of crisis, but the end of the crisis appears nowhere in sight.
In contrast to the language of crisis stands the language of justice. Leaders who are committed to the language of justice are able to communicate a moral urgency to do what is right. Rather than emphasizing how the ethical right may lead to an existential crisis for the organisation, they emphasize the need to engage with a sense of fairness with stakeholders. A striking example of the language of justice is the recall of a variation of the painkiller Tylenol by Johnson and Johnson in the early 1980s. When the news about possible connections between Tylenol consumption and the deaths of a few people emerged, James Burke, the Chairman of Johnson and Johnson ordered the immediate recall of Tylenol.
If Burke had thought about the existential crisis that Johnson and Johnson would face if they admitted to flaws in Tylenol, he might have sanctioned an exceptional ‘one-time’ act to cover up. As I argued earlier, these ‘one-time’ exceptional acts are never one-time, and they extract an institutional price. The personal power of individuals sanctioning and executing these one-time acts displaces the legitimacy of institutional processes of deliberation and ethical dialogue. In the case of Johnson and Johnson, Burke ordered the recall of Tylenol without worrying about the immediate consequences. Burke’s decision might also look like an exceptional act.
Rather than being an exceptional act, Burke’s decision was the only right decision that could have been taken by any leader who wished to act out of a sense of justice towards stakeholders. Burke’s decision looks like an exceptional act because of the perceived rarity of such actions, rather than the decision being an exception to a moral norm. I have studied how leaders who sanction exceptional acts to manage a crisis soon become compromised. While the context of my studies have been the police, the processes through which ethical slips occur in corporations are startlingly similar. Compromised leaders may be feared, in fact, may even be adored, but they are seldom loved and respected.
My studies of decision making processes in the police find that when leaders invoke the language of crisis, they use the emotion of fear to justify wrongdoing. Invoking the context of an emergency, leaders accelerate the process of decision making and militate against the poetics of ethical dialogue. If organisations exist for the good of society, then they are not merely rational machines but also poetic sites. As Shakespeare noted, the cause of good cannot be served by rationality alone, but also needs the romance of poetic imagination. Justice rooted exclusively in rational subjectivity is merely the extraction of a pound of flesh.
On the other hand, justice rooted in poetic imagination is tempered with the quality of mercy. What legitimises organisations is their ability to combine the rational and the poetic. When organisations give in to accelerated decisions where ethical dialogue is marginalised, they herald the death of the poetic. With everything becoming instrumental in such an organisational world, calls for a higher purpose appear as a pitiful contradiction. The notion of higher purposes and deliberation help in analysing organisation-environment interfaces in terms of their complexities and ambiguities.
On the other hand, accelerated decision making which marginalises the need for dialogue in the name of managing a crisis, reduces issues into binaries. Burke’s decision of recalling Tylenol may also appear like a binary. The right thing to do was to recall Tylenol with anything else being wrong. Indeed, this decision would have been a binary if it had been merely being the Chairman’s decision and not backed by a process of ethical dialogue throughout the organisation. Leaders must realize that unless they build ethical coalitions and sites where ambiguities and complexities can be comprehensively discussed, organisations are not able to overcome problems they face.
In my studies on the police, I have found that well-meaning police officers are often unable to do the right thing because they have not nurtured a sense of dialogue in the teams they work with. Inside organisations, subordinates cannot be simply ordered to be ethical. Subordinates will come up with strong emotional justifications to defend their wrongdoing as right. People throughout the organisation need to be integrated into ethical dialogues which recognize ambiguities. It is through a discussion of ambiguities and a rejection of binaries that people will eventually become committed to ethical action inside organisations.
Burke was able to build such a sense of dialogue in Johnson and Johnson. A month and a half after the recall, he was able to provide a comprehensive chronology of what the company had done to sort the issue. Within a year’s time, Johnson and Johnson was able to regain public confidence and the market share it had lost. Leaders need to realize that it is the reduction of binary frames of idealism and pragmatism that is the problem. If ethics was merely about the infusion of idealism over pragmatism, then legislation for idealist robots as the leaders of organisations would have solved all issues. Rather than binaries, leaders need to nurture the messy craft of a poetic dialogue with complex issues.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Jagannathan, S. & Rai, R. (2015). Organizing sovereign power: Police and the performance of bare bodies. Organization, 22(6), 810-831.