What Are the Signs of a Government Turning Pathological?

In The Secret Handshake, written long before the post-election political maelstrom we’re now experiencing in the U.S. and in many countries around the world, four types of political arenas are described.  So, too, are the political styles of employees that suit them best.

All human organizations have some degree of political activity — positive and negative — ranging from minimally political to pathologically political.  Below is a description of pathological politics taken from The Secret Handshake.  You can decide for yourself if the U.S. government is healthy or perhaps precariously perched on the edge of pathology — if not worse.

Daily interactions are fractious when pathology exists.  Conflict is both long-lasting and pervasive.  Nearly every goal is achieved by going around the formal procedures and organization.  People tend to distrust each other.  Information  massaging is the only form of communication.  Out of necessity, people spend a lot of time watching their backs.

Unless leaders of such organizations become aware of and reverse pathology, they tend to self-destruct.  Unfortunately, they often take a lot of good people with them ruining careers to keep the pathology intact.

Below is a list from The Secret Handshake of “Tell-Tale Signs of Cultural Pathology” in groups, businesses and governments.

  1.  Frequent flattering of those in power coupled with abusiveness toward people in less powerful positions is a sure sign of creeping organizational pathology.  Flattery may not get you everywhere, but it is often used by those who fear they cannot advance on their own merits.
  2. Another sign of cultural degeneration is information massaging.  When hardly anyone says (and means) anything that might rock the boat, you can be sure that the organization is at least becoming or is pathological.  When people communicate via hint instead of directly expressing their views, the roots of pathology are present.
  3. “Poisoning the well,” is another political activity indicative of pathology in organizations and government.  The thing to look for is people frequently fabricating negative information about others.  They drop defaming information into conversations and meetings in the hope of ruining the target’s career chances.  Gossip and verbal backstabbing are common here.
  4. Some organizations are poisoned by the people in charge.  There’s no need to poison the well.  In such organizations there’s a cold indifference.  No one is valued  for long; in fact, everyone is dispensable — and feels that way.  The only way to survive is to become obsequious to those in charge and to get someone else before he or she gets you.
  5. Whenever there is a good deal of “fake left, go right” strategy — leading others in the wrong direction in order to look good oneself — organizational pathology can be found. A sense of organizational teamwork is absent as individuals’ careers are sacrificed to save those who are misleading them.  Sometimes teams mislead teams, with the spoils going to the victor — the one that faked the best.

If you are a political purist or anything other than a street fighter or manipulator, it is improbable that you will last long in this type of setting.  Besides, the people who run such political arenas don’t trust political purists or team players with the best interests of positive organizational goals in mind.  So, the people hired are mostly flatterers and liars facilitating the deterioration of the organization, what management expert Henry Mintzberg described as “scavengers that swarm over a carcass” in terms of ethics and constructive productivity.

Does this sound familiar?  If so, send this description to your senators and representatives.  They may need the help.

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3 Responses to What Are the Signs of a Government Turning Pathological?

  1. Sheryl Shuminsky says:

    Kathleen, your insights and analysis are terrific, presented matter of factly in a prickly and ominous moment in history. Thank you.

  2. We had similar issues in an academic department at the medical school where I worked.

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