Reflections on “Organized Thoughtlessness”

“Representatives of the outside are on the inside. Traitors in our midst.”

“Whistleblowing…is another tactic for spreading disunity and creating conflict.”

—Former  President, General Motors (GM)

“The preferred solution: total control of the internal environment to combat threat from the external environment. Most threatening of all…is the thought that the proprietary organization isn’t really private.”

 

How can privacy be expected when one’s job is to provide a service to people—who most of the times are paying for the service? Who are expecting quality, reliability, and even safety in return for their hard-earned money?

We’ve seen it in DC. We’ve seen it in Flint. And although many of us may not have seen it—it happened with B. F. Goodrich. A “subordinate” was fired after reporting to the FBI that the brake intended for the air force was not accompanied with appropriate test results, while his supervisors were promoted. It appears the organizational paranoia has no consideration for the fact that often time whistleblowers’ first action is to keep the matter private, likely to avoid disunity or conflict.

Fred Alford explores the concept of feudalism in an organization as being the perception of the whistleblower looking from the bottom up. In case you can’t entirely remember your time learning about medieval Europe—feudalism was a social system that is essentially based on hierarchy of power in which a lower class provide services for the class above its own in return for a service.

Alford says that feudalism is marked by power being a private possession. One is not expected to work for or represent the organization as a whole, but rather a workers’ decisions are often times made solely on a private relationship with the boss compromised by the power dynamic, despite one’s own moral compass. These private relationships allow for those “up top” to claim that they knew nothing about a given incident, once the whistleblower goes public.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on “Organized Thoughtlessness”

  1. I also was really impacted from reading “organized thoughtlessness”…

    The most in-human I’ve ever felt was when I was 17 and standing in my beloved childhood Virginia Tech sweatshirt behind barbed wire at Majdanek Concentration Camp in Poland. I didn’t feel like I had the ability to think anymore, to process what had happened there, and the evidence I was still looking at 70 years later. I felt an overwhelming need for survival- that I could do anything and think nothing- that to live in this place required not thinking, just doing. My humanity had been taking from me.

    I suddenly understood how people could watch others sent to their deaths and do nothing- not out of fear, but from the fact that they saw, but did not see. They heard, but did not listen. And they felt their surroundings physically, but did not feel them in their hearts or brains. Total dissociation from their actions and bodies occurred. They were beings but no longer conscious in the way that people are; they were closer to automatons or animals- focused on the one goal of survival, but so focused on survival unable to process anything else besides immediate psychical needs. I was no longer Lizzy anymore- whoever that was or had been. That person was lost forever in the pile of ashes that still smelled faintly of the people who used to be… In Descartes logic my thoughts had been killed, therefore my mind and my life had been taken.

    I hadn’t thought about that day in Poland very much in years, probably for the very reason I’m writing about, until reading “organized thoughtlessness”. The momentary utter and complete dissociation I experienced from my body was terrifying and buried, but I remembered it as I read about systematically dissociating your actions from your thoughts, the Orwellian squashing of all thoughts and questions, and purposefully pursuing thoughtlessness.

    I’ve certainly exercised forms of thoughtlessness in my life since my trip to Poland. Not only did I put away my memory of standing behind the barbed wire, but just a few months after my return from Poland I cheated on a test and used the thoughtless excuse of “the entire class is doing it so my action to cheat or not cheat will be meaningless either way”. I’ve also used emptying my mind of thoughts as a meditation technique. But these are not the same as total thoughtlessness. Alford described the use of thoughtlessness in organizations, with a focus on the level of thoughtlessness used when one cheats on a test or runs a red light, but the highest level of thoughtlessness is complete dissociation of ones actions, words and thoughts. I think thoughtlessness starts consciously with a choice, but can escalate to a non-conscious condition when one is in a stressful situation. I certainly experienced it, and as Alford writes many people in the work force consciously or not engage in thoughtlessness, the problem is once you are thoughtless I am not sure you can return.

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  2. What first came to mind while reading your blog post was transparency. I would like to think that we are moving towards a time where people don’t just want to read about your conclusions and how you calculated something but want to see the raw data in order to do their own calculations. Or perhaps companies have to disclose all of their information, for example how much state employees earn.
    As you mentioned, however, this does take away power. I go back and forth as to which is better. One the one hand I think I would want complete transparency so that I can make assumptions about results or how a company operates entirely on my own, however I also wonder about people taking raw data and analyzing it in a way that would benefit them. Would people who don’t understand misinterpret the raw data and perhaps become panicked?
    Your last point about personal relationships was also very key. When we were doing the press conference I often wondered how much the person I was representing actually knew. Most of the time his subordinate was mentioned as the one who was directly dealing with the water quality results, and I could not figure out how much his superior must have known. I came to the conclusion, however, that as the senior member it should have been my/the person I was representing’s responsibility to know. I don’t think that people “up top” can truly claim they did not know and that that removes any blame from them. I think being higher up means responsibility for all those “beneath” you.

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