The 2013 U.S. Government shut down demonstrates the powerful and destructive effects of conflicts of interest on groups, nations, and the global community. Skipping past the news stories that lay blame on one group or another, we can see this incident as one of a series of escalating conflicts among the political class in the U.S. over many decades.
However, even the “media spin” on this most recent conflict portrays the real stakes for both the Democrats and Republicans – advantages and disadvantages in the outcome of the next election.
That spin also reveals an important learning point about the destructive impact of conflicts of interests on organizations and society.
This most recent contest between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. costs private businesses $160 Million each day, and has a serious long term impact on the many other significant matters for the U.S. and the world at large. The financial impact on those businesses is merely collateral damage in the election contest.
By engaging in incessant fighting and putting the interests of the political parties ahead of the survival of the communities they represent, and society at large, they have corrupted the very goals and purposes of the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S., as a nation, shares the same group characteristics as any other group. (See What is Anticorruption?)
5 Characteristics of Groups
Groups are identified by 5 primary characteristics.
- Ability to carry out Group Purpose
- Intent to Survive into the Future
- Ability to defend itself.
All groups, whether the U.S. Government, Rotary Clubs, sports teams, corporations or Al Qaeda operate with these same basic characteristics.
Attack on Group Purpose
From a group perspective, the purpose of the U.S. Government is set out in the Preamble to the Constitution, which is widely taught in U.S. schools.
“We the people, people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
We can see that the political class in the U.S. has lost sight of this group purpose and is actively fracturing the society with their conflicts of interest, and weakening the group identity.
Attack on Group Identity
The impact on group identity is manifest in the “choosing sides” behavior of U.S. Citizens as they gravitate to the identity of the smaller groups – Democrats or Republicans.
The political leadership of the U.S. government has lost their willingness to develop and strengthen the group characteristics of “the United States” in favor of the group characteristics of the subgroups – the political parties.
To the degree that U.S. Citizens fall into that choice, they contribute to the corruption of their country. My country.
I fully expect angry responses from U.S. Citizens and others as they justify the vitriole and deny their responsibility and contribution to the corruption of the United States. If the anger contributes to a dialogue – I welcome it.
Regardless of any such denials, the learning point is how this models the corruption – decay – of other groups.
Disagreement with Group Purpose and Policy
Like the political parties in the U.S., smaller groups, such as a corporation, or a single government institution, contain subgroup members that (unwittingly) destroy the five characteristics of their group via conflicts of interest. Like the U.S. political parties they also attempt to “spin” their conflict of interest as something that is somehow still in line with larger group policy.
For example, a government office may hire an employee simply because he has personal relationships with a local government official. Such a hiring is against multiple policies of the government office, but is rationalized as being nonetheless important.
This employee, knowing that he was hired despite the rules, concludes that the policies designed to help the organization reach it larger goals do not apply to him. Correspondingly, he then carries out other actions in violation of organization policy – misusing government authority to attack and suppress any activity inconsistent with his personal interest. He has reached a rational conclusion because the rules are – obviously – not serious and do not apply to him.
The result is an immediate weakening of organization purpose, and failure to reach larger organization goals in his area – because that employee and those that hired him, disagreed with the larger organization policies, and put their own judgment ahead of the goals of the government institution.
I have seen this specific violation result in the defeat of organization objectives, weakening of organization purposes and broken intergovernmental relationships – all because individuals were able to place their personal goals and interests/purposes above the group goals and purposes. (Nepotism is also form of conflict of interests.)
Fundamentally, this is a disagreement with the larger policies and disagreement on the primacy of the larger purpose.
Political parties in the U.S., however, understand the importance of adherence to their own purposes and policies and have systems in place to impose “party discipline.” Again, their willingness to “discipline” their party officials for failure to stay focused on party goals (ahead of larger U.S. goals), creates a conflict of interest that is destructive to the larger group.
How to Correct the Impact of Conflicts of Interest Within Groups
Groups, whether corporate or government, face similar difficulties. Subgroups within a corporation will periodically oppose or disregard otherwise rational goals and policies, sometimes to extreme or even criminal ends.
It should go without saying, that the most serious result can be death of the organization. Whether corporate or government, history is littered with the death of corrupted nations and groups. The impacts on the group members are often substantial.
In Why Nations Fail – the authors discuss many varieties of the failure of the larger groups called Nations. The authors cite the Arab Spring countries and other such examples of the national leadership causing harm to the entire population as they place their personal interests to supersede their responsibilities to the country.
The analogy applies to corporations and other groups as well.
The solution, of course, is for organization’s leadership to (re)focus on the goals and purposes of the organization, and be diligent about ensuring policy adherence, and group focus on those goals. Simple? Of course not. The conflict of interest overwhelms the ability of many in power and they are unable to refocus.
Where the organization’s leadership is unable to find the discipline needed to correct their behavior, or simply refuses, the stockholders (or citizens) can select new leadership or permit the organization to continue on its downward path to death.
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