Part 2: Immunize your virtual organization from institutional guilt

Image from Flickr. Used under CC license. Photo by USACE

The 5 ways that double-loop governance can save your organization from itself

Institutional guilt (see Part 1 below) is routinized violation of your organization’s values, vision, rules, or policies. It is symptomatic of dysfunctional communication strategies inside an organization. It leads to distrust of staff and disengagement from the organization’s vision. Staff and volunteer disengagement/disenchantment is a prime reason non-profit organizations fail (Duckles, et al 2005).

Institutional guilt is something that will ruin your virtual organization. It poisons the culture and it drives away volunteers while it demoralizes your staff. Implementing double-loop governance is a good way to build in protection against institutional guilt. You also need to be sure that your employees and volunteer committees do not fall into the trap of violating your own values and policies for some immediate purpose. Double-loop governance opens up learning capabilities and communication channels to help limit and repair occasions where volunteers or staff do stray from your organization’s vision and values.

1. Double-loop governance makes every member a caretaker of the vision and values for the virtual organization. 

Your values are not just a bulleted list on your website nor a poster on the wall. They are the deep logic of why your organization exists. When you create the knowledge loop that includes questioning and reaffirming your values into every decision, then your staff and volunteers can celebrate these values. Membership includes embracing the values, and entering into the ongoing conversation about them that keeps them current and vital.

2. Double-loop governance makes a virtue out of transparent decision making.  

Transparent here means available to all members (not necessarily public). Practically, transparency includes time and place availability. Members are told when and where a decision is being made. For a virtual organization, this might be a set period of time to edit a certain wiki, or a set period in which to vote online. The management of critical-path decisions may (and usually should) devolve to active subgroups charged with delivering the outcomes. These subgroups need to maintain their own transparent decision process. A great example here is Wikipedia, where each entry contains the edited text, a history of edits, and a discussion page about the text and its edits.

3. Double-loop governance brings conflict to the surface. 

Conflict avoidance is a major source of “unusual routines” (Rice and Cooper 2010) in general, including those that create institutional guilt. Conflict can arise in many forms. Personal issues surrounding time commitments, responsibility and authority, and expectation management cannot be avoided through double-loop governance alone, but they can be openly addressed and resolved in a manner that promotes reflective learning among those involved. Evaluation conflict avoidance happens when tests of deliverables are either postponed, curtailed, or done in private. Double-loop governance supports open and thorough testing, and the disclosure of competing interpretations. Conflict is rapidly promoted to the surface of discussions, where voices of dissent become available to all members. Resolution is commonly achieved through a working consensus, not 100% agreement, but something more robust than a simple majority. Conflicts over the underlying assumptions of the organization can result in new values and a new vision: the organization is free to pivot toward a novel direction at any time.

4. Double-loop governance accelerates failure to ensure success.

Remember that double-loop governance supports double-loop learning. Single-loop learning focuses on avoiding failure.  Double-loop learning focuses on using failure to recalibrate the underlying assumptions of the activity, this promotes the act of failing as a learning device, and a logic of rapid iterations of activities with open testing.  In software development efforts, double-loop governance actively supports agile development decisions. In all endeavors, the ability to fail quickly and recover takes the fear out of trying new strategies.  This almost guarantees a better final result.

5. Double-loop governance supports do-ocracy and emergent leadership. 

While not all double-loop governed organizations are strict meritocracies, the best find ways to recognize and reward achievements and contributions. One of the benefits of the network effect is an ability to reach out beyond the founding team and find people who have similar interests and valuable skills. As the network expands, the chances of encountering tomorrow’s leadership improves. When these people become engaged in activities and outcomes, they need to have a clear path to leading subgroups and then larger groups, and ultimately the organization.

Final Thoughts: Double-loop your organization and forget the guilt

Remember that decisions that don’t get made by the people who are supposed to make them get made anyhow by the people who need them. Even the decision not to decide today is made by someone. When decisions are guided by the values and vision of the organization, when the process is transparent, when the conflicts appear on the surface, when failure is just another chance at success, and when leadership opens up in front of those who have proven their worth: that is when institutional guilt has no purchase on the logic of your organization.


Duckles, Beth M., Mark A. Hager, and Joseph Galaskiewicz (2005) “How Nonprofits Close: Using Narratives to Study Organizational Processes.” Pp. 169-203 in Qualitative Organizational Research: Best Papers from the Davis Conference on Qualitative Research, ed. Kimberly D. Elsbach. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

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

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.