Living Inside a Pariah Company

A while back I wrote a very critical blogpost about Volkswagen. I was, of course, hardly alone in doing so; the scandal they incurred at the time created major tremors in the business world.

But in the years since, I’ve been trying to think in different terms – in particular, what must it have been like to be an employee of VW in those difficult days? What is the view from inside the glass, looking up and out? What tensions must it have caused people – and what could they have done?

The Pariah Organization

My good friend Matt Nixon started writing a book a year before the VW incident, tentatively titled “Pariahs: Hubris, Reputation and Organisational Crisis.”  I happen to be re-reading it now.

Matt has the credibility to write this book: an MBA, he spent over a decade in consulting (Accenture, Towers Perrin), then another decade as a VP at Shell Oil and later an MD at Barclays. He knows something about whereof he speaks. Combined with a classical English education and a wide network, the book makes for illuminating reading.

Matt suggests that being a pariah organization (think “outcast” and “exile”) is a phenomenon on the increase (just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, it’s really true).  He also points out that pariah-dom is about much more than individual moral failings – it is trackable at an industry level (another gut feeling ratified by data).

He provides some diagnostics and descriptive models to identify and predict pariah-like conditions in organizations. Particularly telling is his critique of “false metamorphosis,” the consultant snake oil of “transformation” that has been overblown. True change, he suggests, requires a lot more, and is a lot more uncommon.

But what about VW’s employees? As Matt notes from other pariah organizations, a great many people in such companies feel bewildered and unfairly treated.  They see themselves, and their company, as largely ethical, and remain quite positive about staying with the organization they are part of.

The overwhelming criticism of their organizations feels like torches and pitchforks.

At a time of crisis, Matt suggests employees go through a predictable sequence of emotions – shock, followed by anger and shame, swinging back to resurgent loyalty, and ending in a blend of guilt, responsibility, and denial. He talks as well about three “tribes” of employees: Loyalists, Mercenaries, and Heroes. The three tribes react differently to the four phases.

What Can Be Done?

Matt’s book has some great insights for organizations and leadership. For me, for this post in particular, I want to focus on what an individual at VW could have been thinking about, what they could do, and what we could have done to support them.

Human beings are delicate creatures. We process information that is critical of us in very self-protective ways. We will take advice from a friend that we would never take from a stranger.

As outsiders, this means we have to temper criticism with the recognition that exceeding few employees assume personal guilt. The vast majority feel very little personal accountability for the sins of the organization, and personalizing accusations doesn’t help them come to grips with any objective truth.

The increasing demand for personal civil and criminal accountability of leaders in pariah organizations is, I think, a good thing. But it must be tempered by some focus on responsibility – our criminal justice systems are easily inclined to focus on the underlings, and not the leaders. Indiscriminate demonization of employees is counter-productive. In the VW case in particular, the role of culture and corporate environment seemed a strong contributor, rather than a simple case of “bad apples.”

As employees, the challenge is to see this as a “Santa Claus” moment: as in, “there is no…”

This did not happen in a vacuum; as Matt notes, the cult of leadership is partly to blame for obscuring the truth that corporate cultures “eat strategy for breakfast,” not to mention well-intended but impotent compliance programs. It’s critical to employees – for their own psychic health, as well as that of the organization – to be constructively schizophrenic.

They need to both feel secure in their own good intentions and, at the same time, be able to objectively see how things could have gotten to this point. As Henry Mintzberg angrily points out, this kind of phenomenon is best seen not as a scandal, but as a syndrome. And only insiders have access to the “real” story.

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Moral outrage has its place in the reform of business. So does shaming, by bringing business issues outside narrowly proscribed economic boundaries and into the social realm as a whole.

But blame and shame are two-edged swords, and very hard to control. At a social level, their overuse just promotes entrenched ill-will; look no further than the current state of US national politics.

At an individual level, blame and shame keep us from seeing and accepting reality, as it is. In a very real sense, as my friend Phil McGee puts it, “Blame is captivity – responsibility is freedom.”

As we look at more recent scandals/syndromes, we need to balance our outrage with a sense of respect for other individuals, and our defensiveness with a willingness to see things as they are.