Robert Jackall is a sociologist by profession, currently teaching at Williams College. His book was originally published in the late `80's, based on his research of corporate life which was conducted earlier in the decade. It has recently been reissued, most fittingly so, as a "twentieth anniversary edition," with an additional 20 page chapter entitled "Moral Mazes and the Great Recession." In this chapter Jackall demonstrates how many of the characteristics of corporate life, in particular, the expedient and contextual value systems, that he identified in the early `80's were operative in both causing the "financial meltdown" of 2008, as well as in the reaction to it. He credits a noble predecessor, C. Wright Mills, for originating the phrase "organized irresponsibility" in describing corporate life, which certainly was most operative in the explanations for the financial disaster: no one was responsible, it was a "Tsunami," and we had no idea it was coming.
In the introduction to his original book, Jackall states that his objective is to answer the following question: "What rules do people fashion to interact with one another when they feel that, instead of ability, talent, and dedicated service to an organization, politics, adroit talk, luck, connections, and self-promotion are the real sorters of people into sheep and goats?" For a work by a sociologist, his is a bit of an outlier: no tables or graphs to bolster a "scientific, quantitative approach." And I think it is all the better for it. He lays out his methodology at the beginning, and admits that the vast majority of corporations that he approached refused to let him conduct his research. In the end, it was the "old boy network" which he describes so accurately which is operative within the corporation that worked in permitting him to enter the corporate world: known friends from school. He is granted access to the managers at two firms, both of which he describes using pseudonyms, one being a large chemical conglomerate, the other being a textile manufacturing company.
Jackall commences with a an overall depiction of the rise of the bureaucracy, stating that what has evolved in most cases is a hybrid model between Max Weber's paradigm of a functional organization with interchangeable people and a "patrimonial" bureaucracy operative from despotism to the "ward heeler," where personal loyalty is paramount. The author must have presented an empathic ear that allowed managers to let down their normal reserve, and describe in pithy phrases how the individuals in an organization actually see their roles. After a certain level, "technical expertise" counts for little; the main goal is to achieve a favorable rating from one's peers and superiors. I found myself underlining a passage of virtually every page. Jackall not only captures the essence of the situation with a manager's own lingo, he is excellent at formulating his own. Consider: "Managers also stress the need to exercise iron self-control and to have the ability to mask all emotion and intention behind bland, smiling and agreeable public faces....some managers don masks of Easter-Island-statuelike immobility; others a deadpan fish-eye; and the most adroit, a disarming ingenuousness." Jackall understands so well the gamesmanship operative in the corporate world. He never mentions that the same gamesmanship, or worse (!), is operative in the academic world.
Morality and the corporate world simply do not mix. The author describes the fate of several "whistleblowers" who try to do the "right thing", from Brady who is a chartered accountant from England who realizes that financial irregularities are occurring, and thinks surely the CEO would want to be informed... Hum... of course to learn that they originate at the top; and "White," an audiologist who realizes that the textile workers are losing their hearing, yet sees (and hears!) the rationalization of the "Big Boys" that deny this reality. The author also relates an incident concerning the clean-up of the nuclear disaster at Three-Mile Island, and another "whistle-blower," who wasn't "practical enough" being shown the door.
There is much, much else, from examining the world of Public Relations in the chapter "The Magic Lateran" to describing how "good managers" seem to have the knack for "milking" their plants by delaying maintenance and needed capital expenditures, and then using the "fast track" of promotion to outrun their mistakes, and ideally be in a position to fire their replacement as plant manager for those delayed maintenance problems. It doesn't get much more cynical than that. And always, to ensure that there is no system for tracking responsibility for a decision.
Relevant as today's headlines concerning the website failure of healthcare.gov, designed to implement the Affordable Care Act. Once again, there is the lack of clearly defined responsibility coupled with "who knew what and when." Robert Jackall has produced an excellent analysis of the operative factors relevant to decision -making in the corporate world. If there was one thing missing, it was a follow-up on how many of those "corporate skills" and "masks" became obsolete as so many of these manufacturing plants were moved overseas, and I think in particular of US Steel's Homestead Works, where I saw so much of what Jackall described in operation, and closed in 1986. Overall, 5-stars plus for Jackall's work.