Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Morning Talk: Chris Christie's Culture Problem

Since I don't have anything better to do than to watch TV all day, I managed to catch Chris Christie's entire press conference where he admitted that the slowdown of traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was caused by people in his office as political retribution.  Then, he went through an hour-long wiggle where he stated that he is ultimately is responsible because the buck stops with him (not here?  No Truman?), but that he didn't really know, so how can you hold this against him?

The wiggle highlights a problem which I assume is larger than the New Jersey governor's office, and is probably common in politics.  How does one distance oneself from scandal, but still try to claim credit for the successes of the office isn't really what I'm thinking about.  It's the disconnect between what you say, and what is rewarded.  Sure, Christie says that he's responsible, but it's obvious that he doesn't believe that he has real responsibility for the scandal - it's someone else's fault who lied to him.  If you worked for the Christie administration, what would you take away from this?  How would this guide your actions?  It probably would lead you to believe that if you do something unethical, don't get caught.  It wasn't until the emails came to light that any punishment was meted out, as Christie wasn't really interested in what was being done. 

What this means is that there is institutional dissonance.  Christie says that people should act in one way, but punishments and rewards are not given out accordingly (I'm responsible, but don't punish me for it is a prime example of this).  I don't want to be too hard on Christie, as many organizations, political, social, and businesses alike, have these problems.  The problem stems from when people see what is truly valued in the organization, and tries to mimic these behaviors, even when they contradict the explicit wishes and statements of what one should do to get ahead.  It tends to drive these behaviors underground and into the shadows.  Is BridgeGate the first time that such unethical retaliatory behaviors have occurred in New Jersey?  I'd venture to say no.  Bridget (what a perfect name!) Kelly probably had done something similar in the past, or, someone else had been promoted for something similar.  The culture of the organization implied that such tactics would be rewarded, and while not an explicit okay was given, Christie's staffers assumed that he would approve of the outcomes and reward them.  The ends would justify the means, so long as Christie didn't find out exactly how things were accomplished.  Christie didn't probe his office too deeply, and the ease of hiding these tactics was easy... with the payoff of working as Senior staff on a Presidential campaign or administration making the decision pretty easy for the ambitious and morally ambiguous.

Christie is in a pickle now.  (Only 5 calories, and satisfies your cravings for salty food while dieting...)  He probably has a larger problem on his hands.  It's not about containment, which is what the political pundits focus on, but on culture shift.  Who has he promoted in the past for doing underhanded and unethical actions in the past?  What needs to be done to fix this?  How do you shift the culture so that people don't make the calculus of being caught vs. getting ahead in a toxic political climate?  It's not easy - he has a Machiavellian staff on his hands who assume that the results speak for themselves, regardless of the way that they were produced.  The answer may also rest with Machiavelli.  One reading of the "It is better to be feared than loved." is that instilling fear in those you rule is okay.  But in the larger context of the passage, a better path is proposed.  Rather than trying to manipulate the emotions of those you rule by trying to make them like you, why not try competence?  Machiavelli tries to convince The Prince that being an effective ruler is better than being a fool looking for emotional validation.  So for Christie, he just needs to focus on creating an environment where New Jersey just runs well, runs ethically, and runs efficiently.  People might not like him as a person, but they would respect him as a governor.  That might be enough to be elected President.  Or, it should be.

No comments:

Post a Comment