Organizations’ Alleged Fear of Being Publicly Blamed for Sensitive Issues – an Insurmountable Challenge? a Critical Reflection Exemplified By the Investigation of Destructive Obedience in Public Institutions

Monday, 16 July 2018: 00:00
Oral Presentation
Katharina KÄRGEL, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany
Destructive obedience[1] in organizational settings is a sensitive issue, often attracting media attention and public interest, especially if tabooed and moral values are at stake. In general, research on sensitive issues posing a risk for an organization’s or individual’s reputation is challenging with regard to field access and productive long-term research cooperations. Thus, this contribution discusses one of the causes for this, namely organizations’ alleged fear of being publicly blamed.

The illustrating research project aimed at uncovering whether social identity is a predictor of destructive obedience in organizations by conducting semi-structured interviews and an experimental role-play within public corporations and agencies in Germany.

Despite the successful agreement on the research cooperation, the research project was steadily doomed to failure. The reason for that was a continuous subtext of an alleged fear of being publicly blamed which, among other things, came up by negotiating the existence of both destructive orders and blind obedience, often referring to the end of Nazi Germany.

Subsequently, the research process was subject to strict organizational governance, causing a series of problems. Interview partners have, for example, been directed to draw a positive image of their organization and to negotiate the existence of rigid hierarchies. Further, the access to interview partners was limited to a very small number of carefully chosen employees and research ethics were almost disregarded. In order to remedy the challenges that occurred, the methodological approach was extended by participatory research methods. The adequacy of this solution will be discussed just as alternative approaches and further (unforeseen) challenges.

The outlined field experience calls for strategies encouraging the collaboration of research and practice.

[1] Destructive obedience is defined as following an order that is either illegal or falls into a regulatory grey area or causes moral scruples.