Academic Leadership Organizational Change

The Dark Side of the Organization

Updating and reinvigorating old ethical debates through highlighting the dark side of organizations.

In writing a managing change textbook a decade ago, I included a chapter on ethics.  It seemed like the right thing to do. In all honesty, probably one of the book proposal reviewers suggested it.  My dilemma was that I wasn’t as fully engaged as I should have been, whilst I try to be ethical and encourage workshop participants to reflect on their own ethical positions I academically struggled at the time. 

The favoured philosophical framing appeared to be an academic abstraction even an abdication of some of the evil acts of individuals and organizations.  Over the past decade, I have engaged more with the ethics literature, which has become particularly relevant as I have focussed on leaders and leadership.  I share this because I had the realization that if I couldn’t engage even myself when writing the ethics and change chapter, I was unlikely to engage readers.

This dilemma surfaced writing the new textbook, although writing about ethics seemed to be the right thing to do, earlier concerns persisted.  I could write a far better chapter than a decade ago, but would it really influence or persuade? Or would the celebration of philosophies from ancient Greece now look more elegant, but little else?

I decided to frame the relevant chapter in terms of the dark side and at the very least this made the activity more interesting and meaningful for myself and hopefully, my engagement would influence readers, only time will tell.  

A few years ago I purchased, read and enjoyed The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership.  It reads very well, offering case study warnings from organizational history about when transformational leadership goes wrong.  It was like an antidote to all the excessively enthusiastic transformational leadership literature that seemed to dominate debates. It offered a model of relating the critical/theoretical to the practical application of leadership in which readers were made very aware of the negative consequences of leader actions, the cloak of Greek philosophy had been removed.  Using case studies gave us context often missing from enthusiastic accounts of leading change and transformation.  I believe that these deep and rich accounts of context would allow readers to relate what leaders were doing to themselves asking that important question what would I do in that situation?

In writing the textbook chapter, it proved difficult to differentiate the dark side of organizations from the dark side of organizational change and in the end, I settled for the former. In reviewing literature for the chapter, I was surprised about the development of dark side literature, it went far beyond my own interests in management and organization studies, capturing the imagination of scholars in very different academic disciplines.

As I explored the dark side literature I appreciated the shades of darkness, one might even say grey, through to black.  This reflected some accounts of the dark side not being very critical, through to critical accounts which question the political and economic context in which organizations operate as being highly problematic. In understanding the development of interest in the dark side of organizations I found Linstead et al’s (2014) review very informative in terms of how this debate evolved and their differentiation of a darker side of organizations and why we need to challenge such aspects of organizations.

I tend to facilitate organizational change workshops for external clients and to date, they have never asked for input on ethics or the dark side.  The closest I came was doing an overview of organizational change over a morning. At the end of the morning, the Chaplain asked why we hadn’t covered ethics and organizational change. It was a fair point in that the onus must be on me to introduce ethics/dark side concerns into workshops, rather than waiting to be asked. In fairness, these days I do, any discussion of organizational change inevitably raises (or should raise) ethical/dark side concerns.  When I frame the debate in terms of the dark side we tend to have a good level of debate quite quickly. 

My one current concern is semantic. Decades ago there was a debate about associating black bin bags with rubbish and by association black people with rubbish.  I wasn’t convinced by that debate.  However, I always watch the non-verbal closely and there does appear to be some unease. It was slight, but for example, recently a Ghanaian workshop participant appeared uncomfortable with the fashionable dark side terminology. I reassure myself in that the critical scholars cited are explicitly anti-racist and that they use this terminology to highlight discriminatory workplace activities and colonialism. Then again we know how powerful language and discourse can be in shaping thinking, this debate is ongoing.

Further Reading

Hughes, M. (2019) The dark side of organizations. In Hughes, M. (2019) Managing and Leading Organizational Change. London: Routledge.

Linstead, S., G. Maréchal., and R.W. Griffin. (2014) Theorizing and Researching the Dark Side of Organization. Organization Studies 35(2): 165-188.

Tourish, D. (2013) The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective. London: Routledge.

2 replies on “The Dark Side of the Organization”

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