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Just Playing Whack-a-Mole

The big news this morning was the investigation into corruption involving Fifa, the world body controlling football (AKA soccer). In one interview a statistic was mentioned which indicated that 99% of fans think the people in control of the sport are corrupt. That’s quite a damning statistic, I think.

Most people I speak to think our politicians are corrupt, incompetent, uncaring, and have various other negative characters. And many people who work in large organisations and companies dislike the management and think they are corrupt and incompetent and usually more interested in extending their own power and influence rather than improving the core aims of the organisation.

Why is it that those who are ostensibly our leaders, and therefore theoretically the people who should enjoy the most esteem and loyalty, are so often in reality treated in the completely opposite way and are despised and mistrusted?

I think there are two reasons…

First, being a leader of a large organisation is often quite difficult and errors of judgement are inevitable. But in many ways most people’s jobs are difficult. As an IT consultant my job is difficult because I have to keep up with new technology, have to work with very complex concepts, and need to coordinate the requirements of many disparate and competing systems to get the best result. But am I despised by the people I work for? Well I certainly don’t think so, in fact the opposite is generally true (I should emphasise I’m talking about my clients here, not my managers).

The second reason is just the nature of most (but not all) large organisations. The mechanism which selects people for leadership roles is itself hugely corrupt. I’m convinced that in many organisations the promotion system gets the worst possible outcomes and just choosing people at random would get far better results.

This idea is supported by a study done in 2010 by three Italian researchers who demonstrated mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random. I don’t take the results of single studies too seriously, especially when they involve “social science” like human group behaviour, but it’s an interesting result anyway.

So the current systems used to select leaders tend to choose people whose ideas closely match those making the decisions already (because they do the selection). They tend to select people who are good at telling their seniors what they want to hear rather than what is true. And they tend to favour people who are dedicated to continuing and extending the existing structure no matter how irrelevant it is.

Once an organisation starts trending toward corruption or incompetence it is unlikely to get better because the leadership system protects itself. It’s almost like a social Darwinist mechanism where the “fittest” are selected, except the fittest in this context are those who fit in best to the prevailing structure no matter how dysfunctional it is.

Even if those controlling an organisation are fundamentally reasonable people (not corrupt or incompetent to a significant extent) the promotion system is still wrong because it doesn’t encourage diversity. Everyone at the management level in most situations just look like clones of each other.

You might make the point that if there is too much diversity of opinion in a management structure that it will end up being conflicted and maybe paralysed by indecision caused by too many divergent opinions and philosophies. Well maybe, but I would prefer to risk indecision because a clear path can’t be agreed on rather than just going with the unopposed view of a controlling elite.

Clearly there are limits when even the most well organised and tightly controlled organisation can be overthrown and that is what might happen this time with Fifa. There are plenty of times when this type of change has happened in the past, the most significant one in recent times might be the breakdown of the USSR. But maybe this is a bit like a game of “whack-a-mole”. What happened when the USSR transitioned to modern Russia? What happened when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq? Are things really that much better in either of those situations? I don’t think so.

Maybe it’s just an inevitable part of the human condition, at least in the current phase of our social evolution, that we will usually be ruled by the most corrupt, the mediocre, and the most self-serving leaders. Maybe all we’re really doing is just playing whack-a-mole!

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