Collusion or engagement

I've been keeping half an eye on the Tesco news in the last couple of weeks. It's A UK based supermarket chain which has been found to have overstated its profits and is now being investigated, because. "Breaking accounting rules to exaggerate profits is a cardinal sin as far as investors are concerned and Tesco has been punished severely with shares falling more than 10% at one stage …" Four executives have been suspended. It is not clear yet whether they colluded in the profits overstatement, but that crossed my mind as a possibility.

Then, in the way of things, I then started to notice other stuff going in which conformed to my label of 'collusion'. I looked up the definition just to check whether I had the right term in mind.

Collusion is an agreement between two or more parties, sometimes illegal and therefore secretive, to limit open competition by deceiving, misleading, or defrauding others of their legal rights, or to obtain an objective forbidden by law typically by defrauding or gaining an unfair market advantage.

It's a firmly worded legal definition involving unfairness, malpractice and intent and in this context often applied to cartels or price-fixing. However, this didn't quite address the complexity of things I'd observed which were less about specific intent to deceive or mislead or defraud and more about people colluding in 'just obeying orders' or going along with something that they felt uneasy about for any number of reasons that include not wanting to 'career limit', fear of the person with more positional power, not wanting to 'rock the boat', fear of penalty for non-compliance and so on. These 'fear factor' things – individually or combined – have the consequences of eliciting collusion in something that isn't quite right.

When I worked for British Airways I worked on a project on collusion amongst airline crew. Many aircraft accidents happen because there is an unhealthy relationship between the pilots and the other crew members. (See some examples from the 1970 – 1990s here). First officers, for example, frequently wouldn't speak up when they saw something going wrong – effectively colluding in a belief that things were fine.

This 'going along with something' that is questionable or feels wrong/unfair, or corrodes respect and trust I think is form of collusion, which is damaging at many levels. Sadly, in most organisations it takes bravery and also recognition that it is likely to be personally damaging to challenge a situation, system or process that is questionable. Who wants to get the treatment that whistleblowers typically get or to be labelled a 'maverick' or a 'troublemaker?

One of the articles I read this week was 'Just obeying orders: rethinking obedience and atrocity' . In this, the author discusses how the now infamous Milgram experiments purport to 'provide startling evidence of our capacity for blind obedience – evidence that inhumanity springs not necessarily from deep-seated hatred or pathology, but rather from a much more mundane inclination to obey the orders of those in authority, however unreasonable or brutal these may be.'

But this researcher offers another perspective on the Milgram experiments. In his analysis 'what this means is that those who shock do so not because they are unaware of the consequences of their actions, but because they know what they are doing and believe it to be worthy. Rather than being blindly obedient, they are engaged followers'. He goes on to say 'One thing, however, is certain. Whether you agree with Milgram or not, or accept our "engaged followership" theory, there are few issues in psychology that are of greater social significance. These are not just a matter of the academic understanding of authority, obedience and genocide. "Obedience" has long served as an alibi for those involved in atrocities, and it is routinely articulated in the defence: "It wasn't my fault, I was only obeying orders."'

This is a rather startling finding when we consider how much emphasis we place on workforce engagement and 'getting people to buy in' both of which could also be construed as 'be obedient'. And this has led me to wonder if the very mechanisms we (organisation design and development people) use to either maintain the status quo or to introduce new things, is in fact done in order to create 'engaged followers' who are unwilling or unable to question the leaders, the rules, or the 'way we do things (or want to do things) round here' whether it be in the established or the new order.

Take an example of many established performance management systems that operate a stack ranking system. "Stack ranking, also referred to as forced ranking, where managers across a company are required to rank all of their employees on a bell curve, has been a controversial management technique since then GE CEO Jack Welch popularized it in the 1980s. Only a small percentage of employees, typically about 10%, can be designated as top performers. Meanwhile, a set number must be labeled as low performers and are often fired or pushed out, giving the system the popular nickname "rank and yank."

Numbers of those involved in operating stack and rank systems are convinced that it is not helpful in developing performance. Indeed, many organisations have given up on them. When i4cp asked companies in 2009 how many of them used stack ranking systems, 49% said yes. But by 2011, only 14% used them.

But this still leaves numbers of organisations who do use a forced ranking system, where people are fully aware of its numerous shortcomings and yet continue to be 'good corporate citizens' and go along with it. Are these people engaged followers who believe in the system or colluders in supporting a practice that evidence suggests is damaging?

Examples like this abound in organisations: people go along with things that don't square with adult to adult relationships, good customer service, integrity and so on. It's not just the high profile misreporting of results or overstating oil reserves, or ignoring 'massive failures in patient care' as in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Public Trust. It's also in the stuff that doesn't catch the public eye in the same way.

Examples I've met include glossing over some types of information, choosing some statistics over others and presenting stuff in a certain way because 'that's what x wants', but then I wonder whether this is just the normal give and take of organizational dynamics. Where does something shade into collusion with something that is not 'right', and what is the yardstick of 'rightness'?

These are difficult questions that I think all consultants (internal or external) need to reflect on. And Chris Rodgers has written a useful blog that does just that. Take a look at it and then try out this example for yourself. If you are in an organization that selects and recruits via a competency based assessment – as many organisations do what would you do if you felt they were not useful in selecting good candidates? A recent Economist piece on this practice of notes that, 'Not many people like them [competency based selection processes]. One complaint is that the tests favour candidates with time to practice the type of answers recruiters want-—and that they encourage dishonesty.

Would you go along with the system as an engaged follower (and if so, why) or would you challenge it (and if so, how)? Let me know?