Power and Corruption

How come so many organizations full of mostly good people with good intentions end up doing not-so-good things?

The notion of power is significant to all of us not only because it permeates everything and everywhere in organizations, but also because of another familiar topic: corruption.

Contrary to what many believe, in organizations, it’s often good people with good intentions end up doing bad things. There are definitely bad people out there, who cross ethical or legal bottom lines for their own interests, while look around us, there are far more decent people than indecent ones.

So how come so many organizations full of good people with good intentions end up doing bad things?

Institutional Corruption

I was inspired by Lawrence Lessig’s books on the notion of “institutional corruption.” Although his context is specifically more about the United States and government, I’ve definitely seen and heard about similar things going on elsewhere. So what about it?

Basically, there are at least two types of corruption. The first is “a corruption by individuals. It involves an individual crossing a moral or legal line. It is corruption only if the individual knows he is crossing a moral or legal line. It is doing wrong.[1]

So, “[i]f corruption can predicate of an individual (‘Cunningham is corrupt.’), it can predicate of an institution, too (‘Parliament is corrupt.’).[1] It is this second type of corruption that matches what I said previously about good people:

“A corrupt institution is not just an institution with a bunch of corrupt individuals. Indeed, whether an institution is corrupt or not is not directly tied to the corruption of individuals with it. An institution could be corrupt even if no individual within it was corrupt. And an institution could be not corrupt even if it is filled with corrupt individuals. The two ideas are distinct, and it just a confusion to try to reduce the one to the other.”[1]

Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: Version 2.0

In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that, more often than not, instead of a bunch of villains doing bad things, it’s actually a bunch of good people with good intentions end up doing bad things.

Dependence Corruption

A specific form of institutional corruption is “dependence corruption.” Dependence corruption is about confidence, which is a critical element of any democracy. Who we vote to represent us in a democratic government partly depends on the confidence we have in the candidate.

Confidence, like democracy, is also about feeling:

“Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights—or perhaps any voting rights at all.”

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Some dependencies, potential or factual, erode our confidence in either the organization or the powerful people who are in charge of it. Or both.

Imagine I am a senior executive in a large org, and imagine my next obvious career option lies largely in the salivating consulting industry. I can easily imagine myself being a senior executive in a famous consulting firm. Consulting firms love top executives like me and my connections and knowledge.

Let’s also assume that my org does lots of business with those aforementioned big consulting firms. Here’s the question: how confident would you be about the impartiality of my decision-making, when you know my career options depend on pleasing (or at least not offending) any of those big consulting firms?

That indirect dependency may erode your confidence in me. What if I knew what’s best for the org, but I really don’t want to piss off that consulting firm I’m eyeing to land a role in later? How could you tell I’m being impartial in my decision-making?

In most large orgs, there are many instances of such “dependence” corruption alive and hidden in plain sight. As the old saying goes, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Likewise, it is difficult to get someone to put the interest of the org over his own, when the latter depends on pleasing or at least not offending other orgs or people who, in turn, put their own interest over his org.

If we don’t know where potential corruptions are, then we’re more likely to be part of those good people with good intentions, who end up doing bad things.


[1] Lessig, Lawrence. Republic, Lost: Version 2.0. Grand Central Publishing.



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