Part 1: Don’t let institutional guilt drag down your virtual organization

Making fake wood
I made fake wood out of paper and plastic for a summer

Institutional Guilt: you know it when you see it

You may have experienced institutional guilt directly, and you’ve likely seen this on TV. Remember the cop show where the new recruit, still wet behind the ears, with a new house, a young wife and a family member (usually a child or a parent) who has a horribly expensive medical condition; this new recruit, who has every need for some extra money is standing near his locker when his sergeant claps him on the shoulder and hands him an envelope. “This is your cut,” he says, and walks away, leaving the recruit to either take the money or buck the system. So the rest of the movie all about how the organization is rotten at the core, which is exactly what institutional guilt does.

I experienced institutional guilt when I was working at a chemical factory on the Tacoma waterfront during the summer of 1972. (The above photo, taken in 1971, is like one of the machines I worked for that summer. The fake wood grain on the paper is called “Mediterranean Oak.” I sort of remember the guy in the photo, he was the chemical engineer on staff.  Source: Tacoma Public Library.) One night, during the graveyard shift, I noticed that someone had opened up a pipe into a storm drain, a pipe which was always supposed to be sealed and only emptied into drums labeled appropriately for their toxic content. I mentioned this to the crew chief and he asked me if the inspector was there. Of course not, the inspector went home at 5.

The next time I was on a day shift, I told the plant supervisor that the pipe was left open at night, and all the extremely nasty chemicals were being discharged directly into Commencement Bay. He looked like I had told him I saw him microwave a kitten. This was information he did not want to hear, but he reacted like it was something he already knew. He told me to get back to work, and retreated into his office. I don’t remember ever speaking to him again. Then again, I don’t think I ever worked the day shift again. I never trusted the company after that, and I developed a reputation for not following orders to do certain things that others would do. Plenty of people there had new houses and young spouses and kids with expensive medical bills, and didn’t ask many questions.

I would suggest that other employees didn’t trust the company either. Almost daily they were asked to do tasks that were explicitly prohibited by policies posted on the bulletin board. They could be fired for any of these infractions, or they could make a complaint about their supervisors at any time. There was plenty of guilt to go around. This was a company that paid union wages for manual labor, so there was a steady supply of workers. This was fortunate for the company, as there was a steady turnover of employees.

Institutional guilt happens when values and vision, and policies and processes are routinely broken. The routine creates an alternative policy, a counter-value, which becomes the operational norm for the organization. As this new policy and its values cannot be spoken of, it is almost impervious to change. “Rotten at the core” is a good analogy here. For a virtual organization this situation will lead to almost certain failure; volunteers and staff will flee. Those that remain do so for suspect reasons.

The routines that include institutional guilt are a subset of what Rice and Cooper (2010) call “unusual routines.” These are dysfunctional outcomes of flawed communication practices (and other sources). There is no organizational structure that can prevent these entirely, and there are practices available, however expensive (e.g., firing all the staff and starting over) to repair unusual routines. Double-loop governance and the communication practices that this supports and promotes can preempt institutional guilt in several ways. I will be outlining these in the next blog.

How have you experienced institutional guilt? What is your story?

 Coming next: Part 2: Immunize your virtual organization from institutional guilt


Rice, R. E. & Cooper, S. (2010).  Organizations and unusual routines: A systems analysis of dysfunctional feedback processes.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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