Corrupt and Incorruptible Organizations

“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’s just a confusion to try to reduce the one to the other.”

Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: Version 2.0

An organization is corrupt not because corrupt individuals choose to do what’s right only for themselves, but because even the best of people — when they are in the organization — would end up choosing to do what’s right for themselves instead of what’s right for their teams and for their organization.

A corrupt organization is one where the otherwise good individuals with admirable integrity could still end up choosing not to do the right thing and not to do it in the right way — even when they have the power to do so, and where individuals are corrupted not by moral, legal, or ethical dilemmas, but by misplaced incentives in the system.

Those misplaced incentives in an organization have complex origins. Some are the result of people exploiting an inevitably imperfect system, others are that of organizational or strategic inertia formed when the organization faced a pivotal crisis in the past.

Most of those misplaced incentives are not created intentionally. Some are unexpected by-product of trying to address some other, older misplaced incentives; others are merely outdated mechanisms meant for a time of the past.

Requiring people to become incorruptible is a noble but eventually impractical ambition.

But an organization doesn’t have to be corrupt.

There is another way.

In fact, there are more than one way to build or transform into an incorruptible organization.

An incorruptible organization is not necessarily one that’s consisted of incorruptible individuals, but one where individuals have the power to create an incorruptible system, one that puts everyone in check — through effective, efficient and humane democratic oversight.

An incorruptible organization honours empowerment of its people with utmost integrity, accommodates different paradigms of accountability mechanisms, and implements democratic processes and rules instead of authoritarian ones.

An incorruptible organization not only affords the democracy of people, but also affords the democracy of power.

An incorruptible organization forces corrupt individuals out and attracts ones with integrity in.

An incorruptible organization nurtures leaders who eat last, and encourages everyone to ask why.

An incorruptible organization plays infinite games.

An incorruptible organization can only be built by everyone of us, through constant learning, sincere collaboration and relentless activism.

The question is, are we ready?

Maybe most of us are not, because we don’t have enough power literacy.

Understanding power in organizations is the first step.

More often than not, it’s the easiest for us to blame everything wrong on the superficial — culture, leadership, circumstances and a few bloody executives — and then pompously admit that there’s nothing we could do, because “it’s not a one-person fight”, or worse, “it’s above my pay grade”.

While the real problem is that few of us really dig in to ask: what does that mean? What can we still do and who can we still influence, personally? Collectively? Collaboratively? Activisticly?

If we want miracle, then be the miracle.

If we want change, then understand power and be the change.


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