Solving Wicked Problems for Street Level Workers in Distress

Caroline Raat & Joop Remmé [1]

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In this paper, we will address the question: do instruments to enhance public sector integrity work, and if they do, to what extend? The focus of the paper will be on wicked problems encountered by street level bureaucrats in everyday situations, especially in so called ‘toxic’ organizations. They are organizations that are led by or are highly influenced by ‘toxic types’, also known as “the dark triad”. Just as there is a ‘dirty dozen’ feature list for these types, we have developed a ‘dirty dozen’ feature list for toxic organizations. Also, we use the insight from (neuro)psychology that there is also an integrity personality type, the H-type, who scores high on the Hexaco H-scale. Street level issues in toxic organizations will be characterized as ‘doubly wicked’. We will explore the effectiveness of several instruments that are widely used in the field: codes of ethics, reporting systems, changing organizational culture and/or structure, and HR-measures. Some of them are more suitable to address toxic situations than others. Thorough research of the organizational setting is necessary to choose the right balance in instruments to diminish toxicity and to empower H-type personalities. Finally, we will introduce empirically approved instruments that might help civil servants and public organizations to improve integrity and quality: decision making systems & structures, nudges, and stakeholder management.

We can all relate to it: toxic organizations. You don’t want to work there, and you don’t want to be their customer, let alone depend on them. Much has been written about them in the literature on organizational science and criminology, but the concept is still rare in publications on integrity in the public sector. This can be problematic. Integrity problems resulting from such an organization must be solved by the same organization. However, it can’t, or it won’t. As we know from Einstein, we cannot solve a problem by using the way of thinking that created it.[2] It would appear this also pertains to toxic organizations.

If you are an employee of such a public organization and, for example, have to commit, maintain or help cover up a malpractice (or worse), and you believe that this is in violation of laws or public values, then it is best to refrain from making internal reports. It will lead you only to the classic whistleblower treatment of intimidation and retaliation (bullying, disciplinary measures, transfer, and dismissal). In 2019, the FNV trade union reported on the Dutch Tax Administration, partly in response to the childcare benefits affair (hereafter: benefits affair). The report states that the State Secretary had communicated about an intensive culture program as follows:

“WE ARE THE TAX AUTHORITY. WE MAKE THE TAX AUTHORITY TOGETHER. WHAT DO YOU CONTRIBUTE? I want a Tax and Customs Administration where clear and concrete agreements ensure smooth-running work processes and results (…) I want the staff of the Tax and Customs Administration to adopt a responsible, credible and careful attitude – both within the organization and in the communication with citizens and businesses. Moral leadership and actions in accordance with the rule of law are the standard in this respect. And finally, I ask from every manager and employee to realize that change starts with you.”

These are some typical responses to the culture trajectory in the report:

“Now there is still a culture of fear, if you ‘say’ something you are then boycotted and ‘eliminated.’”

“Mistakes made by the top, also put down to the top.”

“Not just making polite rounds along the work floor, but finally doing something with the input. And give concrete feedback on this.”

“Safety. That you can speak freely, can criticize without being mercilessly retaliated against in the case of a bad manager.”

“An open conversation environment without punishment hanging over your head.”

“Now managers are thinking mostly about their own position. After all, no negative reporting is allowed to trickle upward.”

“Equal rules for management and shop floor regarding integrity. Managers get promoted away, work floor gets reprimanded or worse.”

“Different leadership style, which is not – as is currently the case – focused on the career prospects of young, ambitious managers. Problems are now mostly trivialized, swept under the rug or completely underestimated. Critical employees are ignored and sometimes even bullied by the entire management team.”

“There needs to be more steering with wisdom, balance in that. Not just of those smart, but wise boys and girls. Who are developed to the point where they know what integrity and moral behavior is rather than a trick. With the addition of wisdom, you get a healthy organization where inclusion and safety and learning from mistakes are natural.”

“More people in management with empathy.”

“The managerial culture (covering for each other, not executing what was agreed upon, covering up mistakes) on the chopping block.”

“I am a team leader myself and want to be a good example in this. I also see that the culture program has not yet sunk in on the work floor and at my level. From communication, there are banners everywhere, but my supervisor has not yet talked to me about leadership and culture. I have an intrinsic interest in it, but how is it with my colleagues? There is a need for role models at all levels.”[3]

In this paper, we will explain what the communication style and the reactions have to do with toxicity.

2.         Toxic organizations

Just as persons differ from each other, including in their degree of depravity or toxicity, so do organizations. This is clear about an organization such as the mafia or a dictatorial regime, but in milder cases it is not. It makes more sense to also consider toxicity as a scale, on which an organization can score to a higher or lower degree. Below we return to the relationship with individuals who belong to the so-called dark triad.[4] In the literature on this topic we read that a much larger number of people than those who are clinically diagnosed in this triad score so high on ‘dark traits’ (narcissism, psychopathy, machiavellianism) – that we will call toxicity – that they subclinically qualify as such anyway.

The same can be said about toxic organizations. Some, like the SS, are obviously ‘wrong, dangerous and depraved’, systemically fostering toxic behavior in their ranks, others score less high on traits of toxicity, but are obviously unpleasant, both for employees and citizens. No figures can be given, but a search on the internet for terms such as ‘culture of fear’, ‘bullying’, ‘abuse of power by local government’, ‘nepotism’, etc. provides sufficient reason to assume that this is not a very exceptional phenomenon in the Dutch context.

If we use the extrapolation as we have done for ‘toxic individuals’, it could amount to as much as 40 % ‘more or less toxic’ (more on this later). If we take a survey by the largest trade union  (FNV) in national government as our starting point, we see that 15 % of the employees experience improper pressure, especially from their superiors, to behave in an improper manner. 19 % know a colleague where this happens.[5]

15 to 19 % is too much to speak of an acceptable situation, let alone 40 %. It is therefore important, given the few large-scale studies that have been conducted into the occurrence and spread of toxicity in government organizations, that more, methodologically sound research will be devoted to this. 

2.1       Occurrence and causes of toxicity in organizations

It is difficult to make general statements about how an organization that should fundamentally be focused on public mission can derail. It happens gradually and this development remains unnoticed by the outside world for a long time. For the scope of this paper, we will discuss the role of leaders; governmental, managerial and political. The reason for this is the increased attention for leadership, different styles of it and in particular ethical leadership. Because of their position and (high) visibility, their influence on the culture of the organization is larger than that of regular employees; although the latter also play a role in its creation and change.

Organizational culture – the shared set of values and habits – is at least more a determinant for how the organization, its leaders and employees act and decide than is its formal structure and rules. When it comes to integrity: a law or code stating that you must have integrity will not find an institutional setting or breeding ground in a toxic culture and will therefore, at best, be complied with strategically. Rules will, however, be used to judge others, including employees who are considered ‘difficult’.

2.1.1     Toxic leaders

We move to leaders. Some have a calling to become one, others grow into it. More often, people who score high on the toxic characteristics and low on the H-scale (that we will elaborate on later in this paper) who aspire leadership. Again, about some individuals we can say it is almost obvious that they are psychopathic, narcissistic or Machiavellian. 1 % of the population can be clinically diagnosed as psychopaths, and another 0.5 % as narcissists. 4 % of leaders meet these criteria.[6]

About 10 % of the population is considered to be subclinical (mild or everyday) psychopathic; not (yet) diagnosed with a disorder, but with distinct traits of one.[7] Extrapolating this percentage to leaders, the percentage would be 40 %. The percentage of subclinical narcissism is still unclear, but it is clear that everyone has some of its typical traits to a greater or lesser degree. Machiavellianism is not a disorder but belongs to the previous two types; it involves manipulative and deceptive behavior, focused on one’s own interests.[8] So far no research has been done into the percentage of leaders who can be considered toxic, but given the disastrous effect these persons can have, methodologically thorough research into the percentage of toxic leaders seems to be in order as well.

2.1.2     The H-factor

For the purpose of this paper, we briefly, and thus necessarily stereotypically, describe toxic personality types; of course, reality is more nuanced. On the H-scale or Hexaco scale (the Big Five, expanded to include integrity traits), toxic leaders score low.[9] They are not honest, have no ‘moral compass’, strive for status, wealth, and privileges, and go after their own interests. Even leaders who do not initially fall into the previous category grow into these traits to a greater or lesser degree. Studies show that power makes people less empathetic and less moral.[10]  we emphasize here that employees without leadership roles also (can) have streetlevel power over citizens. In what follows, we do not distinguish between clinical or subclinical psychopaths and narcissists (and Machiavellians); collectively, we call them ‘toxic types’.

A toxic leader can be characterized as focused on self-interest, maintaining and growing power, fame and prestige. He knows no or little empathy or morality and is willing to lie, intimidate and manipulate. The psychopath (a largely congenital disorder, which is triggered in childhood) knows little fear. Unlike the cases that quickly end up in prison, the corporate psychopath has the necessary self-control, which allows him to maintain his charm and charisma.[11]

Literature suggests that psychopaths also have social and organizational utility. They can make quick drastic decisions with a cool mind, without emotion or doubt; firing people, starting wars, they are not affected by it. This means that as long as their interests runs parallel to that of the organization, there need not be a problem as far as that is concerned. However, with the same ease, they lie to deny mistakes or wrongdoing and, without compassion, use others to do so. They do not hesitate to intimidate people to achieve their goals. Thus, their influence on their subordinates is negative anyway; they are made to feel insecure, with all the consequences.

Narcissists score high on extraversion and not necessarily high on lack of anxiety.[12] They also have their social utility – this apart from the fact that each of us scores on some of the typical traits – namely that they can inspire people. They function well in representative positions where they can leave the ‘real work’ to others. That need not be a problem as long as they have an extensive staff. Faced with criticism, they react hostile and intimidating. Mistakes are always someone else’s fault. However, they know how to present this in such a way that few people notice it. We do not know who ‘spun’ the communication strategy of the Secretary of State; superficially it comes across as ‘democratic’, but the message ‘I want you to change’ and ‘what can you do?’ is toxic at its core: not leadership, but the employee is responsible for change because the boss wants them to.

2.1.3     Toxic behavior

Toxic leaders may have little or no emotional empathy – they don’t feel another person’s pain, but they can see through it well (cognitive empathy) and use it unscrupulously for their own ends. Painting beautiful vistas, intimidating, gaslighting, pretending they know it all better, covering up mistakes – it’s not good for the environment. Employees are expected to do what the leader tells them and especially not to ask difficult questions. They do not get help to do their job; neither do they receive normal human support – unless someone is watching; image is very important. Furthermore, loyalty is demanded one-sidedly.[13]

This is disastrous for the work atmosphere and morale. People react to this differently: some leave, some do everything to survive, become numb, join in the toxic behavior, some try to raise the issue. Toxic leaders let employees muddle along (laissez-faire), are condescending and only point out mistakes; unless they think they will get better from spawning.[14]

One group of employees will thrive in this climate (the emotional side of organizational culture); the so-called climbers.[15] After all, they are also primarily focused on career and prestige. These climbers can have a close relationship with the followers and leaders, which can make the organization or department appear ‘warm’ – just think of the Friday drinks where they have the highest say, affirm each other and ‘shine’.

Graph 1: Fennimore et. al. 2016, p. 619

We suspect that many climbers are the new toxic leaders in the making or at least in aspiration; they are ambitious, not value-driven and focused on their own careers. Individuals who score high on the H-scale (psychologically they are people of integrity) are especially vulnerable to toxic leaders and climbers: they are determinedly unappreciated by them and often distrusted, as they will disapprove of and possibly challenge the leader’s behavior (if it is convenient). They are put in charge of toxic leaders and climbers with an appeal to loyalty; once the work is done, the latter take the compliments. H’s are susceptible to bullying and manipulation by toxic types. Because of their modest personality they usually do not strive for leadership.

A practical example comes from the court case of a client of one of us. She was responsible for the information security of a large local government. Her new boss knew nothing about the subject and immediately made it clear that she did not want to know anything about it either. Various agencies had already established that the municipality’s information security was not up to standard, but the employee continued to receive insufficient support to actually do something about it. At one point, the employee asked by email: “I now have three urgent assignments that all three need to be finished from you by next week. That’s not going to work because I can only do one at a time. Can you tell me where your priority is?” The chef’s blunt reply was: “All three assignments must be finished. See how you do it, but I will not accept a delay.” (laissez-faire, demanding) After the chief demonstrated information-unsafe (exemplary) behavior himself several times, including sending unsecured emails, using public Wi-Fi on the train, and leaving his work laptop near the exit in a bar, the employee made an attempt to discuss this with the chief. This was met with the communication that only he decided what he should do and that he would be watching her work extra closely. She reported this to the most senior director. The latter wrote to her in an e-mail: “I would withdraw the report if I were you, because otherwise you will get a bad evaluation”. Involuntary transfers, mandatory psychological training and other measures to make the employee insecure followed. Finally, she was fired, while the director denied that this had anything to do with the report. At the trial, the court clerk asked about the formal authority to dismiss because the mandatory city board decision was lacking. At the hearing, the city’s attorney conjured up a statement from the director in which he wrote that it had been ‘discussed by the board and a decision had been made in a meeting’. The judge was satisfied with this; the judge said he assumed that if the municipality stated that the dismissal was not related to the report, it was. After the hearing, the employee requested the board meeting minutes, and they showed that there had been no mention of her dismissal at all. This was reason for the judge to hold a new hearing, but he immediately announced that the dismissal file would not be examined again – even though there was ample reason to do so in view of the behavior of the boss and the director, especially because of the ‘dubious statement’: what else was wrong with the city’s story? The city produced a new dismissal decision signed by the board. The judge was satisfied and ordered the municipality to reimburse the costs of the employee only because of a procedural error.

2.2       Dirty dozen

To measure the dark triad, the dirty dozen was developed:

1. manipulating others to advance one’s own interests.

2. cheating or lying to advance own interest, dishonestly.

3. flattery to advance one’s own interest.

4. exploiting others for personal gain.

5. lack of repentance.

6. lack of morality.

7. harsh and insensitive toward others.

8. cynical.

9. need for admiration.

10. need for attention from others.

11. need for prestige or status.

12. expecting special favors from others.[16]

Hardly anyone does not score on any on these traits; we all meet them to a greater or lesser extent. This automatically means that we all are more or less moral. Integrity in the philosophical sense is not (only) something that people have, but (also) something that they do. People exhibit to some degree the behaviors and motivations associated with integrity, and usually it also depends on the context. Here we see the wicked nature of integrity, because it continues to require effort, has many dimensions, and cannot be explained from a single perspective. There are ways to encourage people to make an effort to be someone with integrity. It would be simplistic to say that integrity is something we can detect in a person and then say that person ‘has integrity’. More important is to see integrity as an aspiration. Then we could say that a person shows an aspiration to achieve it.

When we speak of someone with high integrity, usually with esteem, we are indicating that we have great confidence in that person’s ability to resist temptation. By temptation we mean any incentive, intended or unintended, that might cause the person to deviate from what we expect of that person. Therefore, you can also call integrity a virtue. In terms of Aristotle, it means using one’s strength and intelligence to find the best path among temptations.[17] Those temptations can be about financial gain, increasing or maintaining power, pleasing one’s own ego or winning the favors of others or giving favors to others. In the public sector, these are not legitimate aspirations. Not succumbing to those temptations requires insight and fortitude. It is what is often called following the high road.

Some people score on decay so high (low on the H-scale) that they are ‘beyond help’. They score thus significantly high on toxicity that they are counted among the dark triad; toxic types, in other words. A trait that is also added to this typology is cruelty (daily sadism, i.e. enjoying other people’s suffering).[18] It is important to realize that if people really have a toxic personality, they cannot and will not change. At most, they can be forced to modify their behavior by external control and sanctions, but becoming truly high in integrity, empathetic or morally driven is out of bounds.

3.         From toxic leaders to organizations

Toxic leaders attract other toxic leaders and followers (climbers). In the selection process, the toxic leader looks primarily at whether the applicant fits his own interests and agenda. Selection often takes place through cooptation: acquaintances are brought in, even if a job vacancy has been published. New employees are socialized into the toxic culture; the reverse almost never happens: their influence is too small. If toxic types end up in an organization where they can do as they please, their traits are reinforced. If the influence of toxic leaders, followers and climbers is great enough, a toxic organization will eventually emerge. Van Duyne describes this as a crooked organizational culture. Toxicity – and therefore other corruption of power – does not usually happen to the organization but is an expression of this culture and of a failing leadership: “[T]hey germinate on a pre-existing imbalance in the ‘corporate housekeeping’. Key words here are: inadequate leadership, lowering quality standards in the recruitment and selection of top personnel, losing sight of the organization’s goals in favor of its own.”[19]

Toxicity can be exacerbated by factors like great external pressure, budget cuts and improper (management) incentives, such as output financing for public tasks. They reduce the resilience of non-toxic types. Excessive hiring of interim managers and employees also will not do the culture of an organization any good; they often feel less a member of the organization and the chance that toxicity can spread as a result is increased. A department can then feel disjointed, where everyone goes his separate way. External advisors are also in a precarious position, which means that we cannot expect not too much of them when it comes to combating toxicity.

For example, one of us was hired as an interim legal consultant in a department where she was faced with resilience from the top regarding enforcement against a certain industrial company that polluted the air and caused harm to the citizens. It was pointed out to her when she had to handle a file on a grossly polluting company that the administration wanted to keep the relationship with this company good. In the case of another company, only something may not have been quite right administratively, but it received disproportionate penalty, while the company was in the process of obtaining a new permit. The judge rightly asked whether it would not be better to wait until the licensing procedure had been completed. The department did not want to do that. At the end of the assignment, she was told that she had been selected mainly for her ability to stand ground; the senior lawyer wanted to put an end to the internal situation. It didn’t work; without sufficient backing (and a clear assignment!), a single consultant can’t do this.

3.1       Definition of toxic organization

For the purpose of this paper, we will describe a toxic organization as:

An organization in which the goal has shifted from the values of the organization to retention and growth. The organization is non-transparent and not open. Mistakes and errors are not acknowledged but covered up. There is no room for dialogue and free decision space. If there is, it is not filled with the values of the organization, but arbitrarily. Employees, customers and citizens are not relevant to the purpose of the organization, unless they are in the interest of the leader, employee or organization. If they get in the way, they are “eliminated” without remorse and in a harsh manner. In a toxic organization there is a high risk of abuse of power in the form of favoritism or exclusion, (network) corruption and fraud. How the organization actually functions is often difficult to assess because image is considered very important, and little is reported. Measures to improve the organization are introduced but not ‘really’ professed.

As reported, just like individuals can be full-blown or subclinical members of the dark triad, organizations can also be more or less toxic. Toxicity, like the converse: virtues, sound, safe, or just, is a scale on which to score.

3.1.1     Dirty dozen for organizations

For toxic organizations, the dirty dozen can be rewritten as follows:

1. manipulate to advance the organizational interest as filled by the leadership; this is usually one’s own position, that of network relationships, growth and status.

2. cheat or lie to promote one’s own interest or to cover up wrongs and mistakes and blame others. non-transparent and closed-minded.

3. flattery, including strategic apologizing and blaming; network corruption.

4. exploiting employees and the environment for personal gain; they are not supposed to be loyal to organizational values, but to the leadership and its goals. They are forced to remain silent and cover things up.

5. lack of contrition and actual lived self-reflection, no compassion.

6. lack of lived organizational values, even if they are propagated for form’s sake. Prone to fraud and abuse of power.

7. harsh and insensitive towards employees and environment; this manifests itself in orders, impossible assignments, disproportionate sanctions, vindictiveness, and “wanting to win” rather than “doing justice.

8. cynical; this may manifest itself in unscrupulous framing of others as querulous or fraudulent and strategic litigation behavior. Bullying and rancor are also part of this.

9. much attention paid to image, reputation and externals such as buildings and cars.

10. much value placed on scores and benchmarks, even if they don’t say much in terms of content.

11. much value attached to awards and publicity (moral boasting).

12. appeal to positional power (authority) and respect, privileges, prone to corruption Not tolerating contradiction or criticism and vindictive behavior.

4.         Public administration, street level decisions and wicked problems

A wicked problem is a problem that can only be solved temporarily and partially, unlike ordinary problems, for which we usually see multiple solutions and decide on a way to put them behind us.[20] A wicked problem is complex and intractable.[21] In public administration, decisions must be made all the time. The context implies that these are rarely unambiguous: facts, values, interests and rules of a very different nature must ultimately be weighed. That in itself is problematic, because how do you weigh an environmental interest against a financial interest or a public housing interest?

In this paper, we discuss the weighing of interests at street level: the level where the organization has direct contact with individual citizens. One often thinks of the work of a social benefit or social support department, but also employees, complaints committees or judges are, according to Lipsky, street level bureaucrats.[22] The work of the street level bureaucrat (or, as Coble Vinzant and Crothers call it: leader) is characterized by:

– There is a continuous shortage of resources;

– Demand is greater than supply;

– The goals and expectations about the task are ambiguous, vague, or even contradictory;

– Outcomes are difficult to measure;

– Clients often do not come to the organization on a voluntary basis. Therefore, they are not part of the main reference group. Because of these characteristics, street level workers find themselves in a service dilemma: they can never do it equally well in all cases, which leads to losses; of wickedness, in other words.[23]

4.1       Own moral rules come first

Although much street level work (even that of judges) appears to be simply the ‘application of rules’, this is often not the case. The relevant citizen with his problem must be placed in a certain category before it can be determined what rules are to be applied. This already leaves a lot of discretion. This categorization is usually, due to the lack of time, done quickly and therefore possibly with errors. Rules themselves also leave discretionary space that the employee must fill in. This too can go wrong.

The employee’s own assessment framework plays a role in all this. Often the employee will pick out a case or person that he spends more time and effort on. This has nothing to do with objective urgency or complexity, but with the employee’s own preferences. According to the literature, this is based on sympathy/antipathy and social morality: is someone worthy of being helped. Subjective judgments and unconscious bias play a role in this. This leads to favoritism, and thus automatically to exclusion or disadvantage of the non-favorite.[24] In the context of a public organization, this can conflict with values such as equality, neutrality and impartiality.

The doctoral research of one of us involved a social housing agency.[25] The culture was unclear and was characterized as disjointed. This did not imply toxicity, but rather that there was a laissez-faire leadership. The employees pursued their own course entirely, based on their own experience and values. Employee A says that she is proud of a case in which she did more than could officially be asked of her. Moreover, she indicates that in doing so she ignored the formal rules but had, according to her values, a good reason for doing so. This story has been called ‘the decent vagabond’.

There was a gentleman in my consulting room who works here in E. And that gentleman – he was divorced some time ago – he lived with someone for six months. And at a certain point that person said: in two months you have to leave. Then he tried to get other accommodation, which was a barn or an attic room at a farmer’s place. And so, well, everything was in place and at the end of the day the farmer said: I’m sorry, I don’t feel like it anymore. So then that gentleman was literally on the street. He was actually sleeping on a bench outside in a park or wherever, and you could see him looking worse by the week. And officially he couldn’t get an urgent housing statement because he wasn’t a citizen in E. But his employer is in E. and coincidentally, I was working with that man for some housing, which would be unfurnished housing. So, I first contacted his boss and said: well, we are currently renting out your semi-furnished houses, and isn’t it possible that this staff member of yours could live there for the time being? But he had other intentions and it had already been discussed and that was not possible.

And then I was like – yes, here I come again with my humanity – I’m not sensitive to everything that people come for. But I think that if you have a normal income and you have to sleep on a bench outside in the park, well that’s should not be possible. You could say: go to the Salvation Army or things like that. But I didn’t think that was appropriate. And then I consulted here: is there nothing you can do about it, because I thought at the time that it was inappropriate. And then we just looked and there was a house at disposal. I have to say, it didn’t look quite good, it needed some work. But the man was overjoyed with the house, so we gave it. Look, at a certain point you can say: rules must be rules, but if someone is really sleeping outside on the street, I think that’s unacceptable. You can’t even take a shower or change your clothes… Well, I thought that was good.

Looking at this story in a matter-of-fact way, it seems that A identified with this man because he had a normal income and a neat appearance. She calls him a gentleman. The question is whether A would have gone the extra mile for a ‘typical bum’.[26]

Employee B comes up with another story showing that she disagreed with the Dutch regional health authority (GGD), responsible for medical urgency statements for prioritizing social housing, which was called ‘the critical clients’.

It happened that someone, um, three times in a row over a period of well, I think three years, was given an urgent housing statement. And also, each time – because the moment someone has a statement, you have to offer them a home – and that each time the home was not good, and because of that they were going to apply for a statement again. And now, the last time, that happened again. And then someone gets a statement again. So then I’m like, yes, it’s going to stop. It also happens, for example, that, um…. a house is offered at a time when these people are on vacation… to Morocco. So they had agreed that the children could decide on an offer. They arrange all that. When these people come back, they move into the house, and it turns out that it’s not good after all. And that happened a few times in a row. And then I feel like once it has to stop. [Q: Was that about the same people?] It’s about the same people, yes, the same family. And every time something else happens that changes the situation, and I am like: yes, it will all be fine… [Q: Do you send them to the GGD?] At the moment that someone wants to go to a GGD, who am I to forbid that? (…) So that’s something I don’t agree with. I think it could have been done differently. [Q: in what sense different?] Well, if those people, um, had looked a little better beforehand…. because with medical urgency it’s true, in principle you have to accept the house when there’s a statement. Only if there are good reasons that the house is not good, it can be discussed and that never happened. [Q: Was it accepted immediately?] Yes, they accepted it in principle and afterwards it turned out that they were not so happy after all.

The rules are clear in this case: if a house is not medically appropriate, then someone gets an urgent housing statement from the GGD for another house. B seems to have a hard time with the fact that the children of those involved took a wrong decision and: that they were on vacation – to Morocco. The latter addition in particular is irrelevant to the decision and seems to indicate bias or prejudice.[27]

According to Coble Vinzant and Crothers, street level work involves wicked problems: because they are unique, they do not allow themselves to be standardized.[28] The practice is complex and intractable. As a result, the decisions made by employees to solve the problems are also not easy to analyze and evaluate. Despite this, it can be argued that some decisions are good and legitimate, while others are not. Legitimacy means an external standard consisting of various criteria, including values, norms, traditions, etc. In the context of this paper, integrity and public morality is also such an external standard.

Coble Vinzant and Crothers argue that street-level leaders should be especially focused on public values. In street-level practice, the employee always runs into the question: is A’s case the same as B’s, and therefore should I not treat them the same? Or is A, because of the organization’s public values, still entitled to more than B? How objective am I in my choice? How far can I go with my feelings, over my heart or stretch the rules out of sympathy? For this reason, we speak of the rule of law as an art of balance: the government, and therefore the street level employee, is expected to uphold both classical values and responsive values in every decision. This in itself is a wicked problem.

In the following, we will speak of street level employees as a neutral term. It indicates people who obviously work in and for the public organization and are thus part of the organizational culture. In a toxic culture, their work is extra complicated because they are sometimes instructed to ignore the rules or to benefit or harm certain citizens. Their work can be described as a practice: it is about what organizations and employees do. The most well-known definition of a practice comes from MacIntyre: it points to a number of important aspects, such as its purposefulness, its dynamism and its social nature.[29] Another way to deal with the concept of practice is to see it as a theoretical perspective, a pair of glasses through which one can look at reality. An organization has a structure, a culture, and a practice. These interact with each other.

4.2       Responsiveness, customization, new case handling

Partly in answering problems with large government agencies, initiatives are being taken to respond more responsively, by introducing more customization (human scale, focused on the individual case).[30] Governments and courts try to informalize their procedures by not focusing on the case file, but on ‘solving the problem’. This is a good development when it comes to preventing standard decisions that are too rigid and do not fit the facts and the situation of the citizen concerned. On the other hand, the government remains obliged to guard against ‘too much humanity’ as described above, which can lead to favoritism, exclusion, and other (unintended) unjust behavior.[31]

Customization, responsiveness and new case handling resemble care ethics in this sense: the moral duty to care for the individual is central. This can be difficult in street-level cases, such as social benefit decisions or court rulings. Because of the context, they cannot approach everyone with the same degree of care and attention, so that – for whatever reason – they pick out one or more people as favorites and dispose of the other cases on the basis of ‘shortcuts’; we will come back to this in paragraph 7.1.

As we wrote earlier: the very observance of both classical values and human values must always, simultaneously take place – you cannot choose between one mode or the other. The question, then, is whether care ethics is the most appropriate ethics in public organizations; unless it can be organized so that everyone gets undivided attention and desired services and outcomes, which seems impossible to us as yet. The service dilemma is therefore a wicked problem. If you leave out one (bureaucratic values), you take away the ‘wickedness’ but – for that very reason – cause integrity issues such as favoritism or exclusion. If this is not quickly rectified, but ‘polished away’, then the organization harms the aggrieved citizen or the public interest. Then an understandable error becomes a full blown integrity problem.

As Selznick, who developed the idea of responsive law with Nonet in the early 1970s writes in his later work: “The responsive institution is open and outreaching, but the paths of openness and the forms of outreach are cut to the cloth of institutional integrity.”[32] This integrity, however seems forgotten in most recent Dutch legal literature, let alone in practice of tailoring street level decision making. In toxic organizations, this new ‘doctrine’ may be used by toxic leaders and employees to do as they please, thus sending out the message that this is legitimate: public service distribution thus becomes a matter of personal taste instead of value.

4.3       Street level employees in toxic organizations

The problem becomes doubly wicked in toxic organizations, where public values do not really ‘live’ (at best, confessed purely decoratively). Even if the employee is not ordered to do ‘something wrong’, he gets the unintended message that this is allowed. A lot is then expected of the craftsmanship, professionalism and moral strength of the employee to resist this. It is not impossible, but people must be able to grow and develop this skill, rather than to be thrown in the deep.

Giving employees a lot of room to decide in a laissez-faire way, without good role models or training, but after inspiring sessions stating ‘from now on everything will be different’, is probably not a good idea. The effect may be that employees who are not fundamentally toxic go along with the arbitrary or even toxic behavior of others. The stories from the housing agency show how easily that can happen.

Another example comes from some cases one of us handled on building permits on a town square. Where one client’s neighbors, while violation rules, managed to get city permission to put up a huge structure (the favorite), the other client, who did act according to the rules, faced constant bans and enforcement actions (the enemy). The latter, for example, had to undergo an extensive integrity assessment, while the city did not ask this from the favorite, contrary to the law. The city lied about this all the way to court and eventually had to apologize for it. Only a day before the hearing the documents were sent. These showed that the city employee had received the construction drawings only one the day before the permit issue. The old drawings turned out to be rejected by the aesthetics committee. The new ones were never submitted to this committee, which of course was illegal. The enemy even had to deal with illicit police raids, for which no apology was ever made. Even a hefty rebuke from the judge towards the municipality only worked negatively; it led to even more counteraction.

5.         Institutional setting for integrity

This example shows that an organization must be ready for customization and responsiveness, by developing a sound institutional setting or breeding ground, defined as:

– A coherent set of public values;

– Which are lived and practiced in the organization;

– Without having to be embodied in external or internal rules and;

– Without being enforced by (the threat of) external enforcement.[33]

The goal of change programs is obviously to move from toxic to sound, towards a virtuous organization, which is in many ways the opposite of a toxic organization. Here we align ourselves with the work of the classical sociologist Philip Selznick. He describes that organizations can change from a purely formal, rational form into institutions. Institutions are carriers and vehicles of values. The process in which this takes place he calls thick institutionalization, institutionalization that goes beyond merely establishing a formal organization with a certain purpose. The employees form a community.

“(…)[A]s the organization takes on a distinctive identity, the source of integration shifts from goals to values, from specific objectives to ways of thinking and deciding. In short, a corporate culture is created. The culture is sustained by a sense of community, that is, in the context of organization, by person-centered sharing in a common enterprise. (…) Attention must be paid to fragile incentives (…) This requires a transition from managing organizations to governing communities.”[34]

According to Selznick, the rules that exist for governance should be applied wherever power is executed over others: “Clearly [a ‘law of governance’] should apply wherever the social function of governing is performed, wherever some men rule and others are ruled.”[35] Selznick sees a task for the leadership: in his view, it is not enough when it is only concerned with the formal pursuit of organizational goals, let alone its own toxic ones. More should be expected from the leadership: the creation of a group with its own values that feels committed to each other and to the organization. According to Selznick, it is important that the leadership pays attention to fragile incentives, with which the organization can express appreciation for its employees. This is not so much about material rewards or the occasional pat on the back, but about the atmosphere. This can be promoted by the management, with middle management being indispensable – themselves recipients of subtle rewards.

Selznick believes that once an organization has become an institution, it can develop an internal morality:

 “If an organization has a well-developed internal morality – driven by the quest for excellence, sustained by the interplay of means and ends – the community’s strategy may well shift from external to internal control. Instead of demanding conformity to standards imposed by legislation and regulation, we may place greater reliance on moral development.  (…) For institutions, as for persons, self-regulation does not mean freedom to do as one pleases. Rather it implies the exercise of options that will (…) enhance its integrity. (…) The great task of institutional design is to build moral competence into the structure of the enterprise. This is the key to corporate responsibility – private as well as public. (…) [A] responsible enterprise, like a responsible person, must have an inner commitment to moral restraint and aspiration.”[36]

When we are talking about honest, value-oriented organizations, this is a good direction. But how do we get there, assuming the organization is cooperative, for example, because it is forced to do so from the outside, or a new leader has taken office? Although Selznick’s descriptions of organizational measures seem ‘soft’, we believe they are not: sometimes hard measures are needed to achieve change, such as departure of (some) toxic leaders and employees who cannot be changed or controlled. Only then can the organization focus on its (public) values. We will return to this in paragraph 6.6. Selznick acknowledges that institutions do not become virtuous by themselves; “an appropriate strategy combines external constraint with moral development. Legislation and adjudication are still necessary to develop a normative framework.

Selznick also describes that rewarding and promoting desirable behavior works; this is part of ethical leadership. In our opinion, it is also important that employees with integrity are given a lot of space, are heard, valued and protected. After all, they are the torchbearers of the organization’s values. This means that honesty and modesty in particular must be valued.

Important for the flourishing of H’s is psychological safety: the safety to speak out in a frank manner.[37] Although Edmondson believes that this is not very dependent on the personal qualities of leaders, she also recognizes that this does not apply to toxic types: they cannot and will not learn this. She describes in her book a number of institutional measures that can promote this. This also ties in with the work of Van Vught and Wildschut, who state that forms of democracy are important for making good decisions. We will return to this in paragraph 7.2 and 7.3: structured decision-making and stakeholder management.[38]

5.1       Research is paramount

In order to implement a successful change program, very thorough research must be done on the organization involved prior to any intervention. What kind of organization is it, toxic or not, and in what way? And what is the (potential) problem or problems? What does the organization want? This is more than an ‘0 measurement’. Because of the complexity of the problem, the most diverse possible use of research methods is needed. So both quantitative (surveys, based on scientific methods, e-discovery) and qualitative (desk research, in-depth interviews, observations). The researcher must be competent – a team of researchers is obvious – and be given all the space needed for his/her research. It must be able to take place as independently, impartially and objectively as possible.

We will not go into all aspects of thorough research here but highlight a number of aspects. First of all, in order to avoid bias and influence, it is important that the researcher does not lean too much on the client; in other words, the management. This applies not only to toxic organizations, but in all cases. Management’s view of what the problem is, is already adopted in the assignment or terms of reference. That the rest of the research will be colored by this needs little explanation. For this reason, it is advisable to work bottom up: first of all question – confidentially! – the ‘ordinary employees’ first, and then work upwards through the hierarchy. ‘Ordinary employees’ often have less stake in a rosy picture of the organization and are often ‘less trained’ in communication and imaging: in other words, they are likely to be more authentic and honest in their answers.

Also, to avoid influence is to check and double check and not rely exclusively on self-reports and tests. Even with a built-in correction for manipulation, these remain susceptible to this, and they are also easy to train; the Internet is full of tips on how to give desirable answers. While this meets with understandable moral dilemmas and resistance, sometimes it is necessary to ask employees anonymously what they think of leaders. For example, there are Hexaco tests that third parties can complete.[39] Certainly combined with other data, they can provide a good picture, for example, of the presence of toxic types and their behavior: bullying, lying, suboptimal performance, network corruption, etc. Consider it a form of whistleblowing towards the researcher. A risk may be that the client is ‘not happy’ with the results.

Once a picture of the organization, leaders and possible problems has emerged, solution directions can be explored. Again, these must be as good as possible to bring about lasting change. Possible risks, advantages and disadvantages and the chance of success must be described, only then to be able to start a process with the client. During the process, there must be continuous evaluation and, if necessary, other solutions must be tried out. A good consultant is transparent about this beforehand.

5.1.1     On wheat and chaff

In the world of government organizations, we constantly see culture-, reorganization- and integrity projects. What is striking is that a one size fits all approach is chosen more often than necessary. Unfortunately, we also see that an ‘industry’ has developed that sees integrity as a revenue model. Consultants and trainers come up with glossy stories and simple solutions that do not do justice to the subject. If integrity promotion would be as simple as they present it, it would have been introduced and succeeded everywhere long ago.

There is a risk that when these kinds of non-scientifically sound and non-detrimental courses are used by toxic organizations, they only send the message to the management that there is no need to do anything: we already have integrity, so we don’t have to do anything about it. We see that there are all kinds of ‘integrity certificates’ for organizations and the industry. In itself there is nothing wrong with this, but we must beware of the quality of the content and the use of these certificates by incompetent people who merely see a ‘revenue model’ in this.

An example is a self-employed consultant and trainer for the public sector, whom we will not name, that advertises as ‘certified X-expert’, ‘recognized Y-consultant’ and ‘recognized Z-interviewer’. A quick look on the internet showed that course X is a seven-day training without an exam. The certificate merely indicates that it was followed, not that someone is a ‘certified expert’ – this exaggerated pretense is not due to the training. Y turns out to be a five-day online course in a method that is scientifically partly outdated and partly ‘home brew’. Z is a training in a non-scientifically supported conversation technique that was intended to make both parties feel good about themselves. Ideal for toxic leaders! 

6.         Widely used integrity instruments: do they work in toxic situations?

6.1       Codes

Ethical codes are sometimes referred to as the ‘queen among integrity measures’ because they are – next to disciplinary regulations – the oldest and most common instrument. Their operation has not been studied empirically, if at all. A code as such is little more than a text – just like an oath is little more than spoken words – although publishing it on the organization’s website may set something in motion. The code functions as a promise to stakeholders and creates expectations.

Traditionally, three types of codes have been distinguished. The oldest is known as a border code, because it is designed to indicate to employees what lines should not be crossed.  Codes of conduct are mandatory in government under Art. 4 of the Civil Service Act. The National Integrity Code of Conduct is largely such a boundary code. For example, under 4.1 it states as a basic principle: “do not accept excessively expensive gifts (as a rule, do not accept gifts of more than € 50, – anyway)”.

The disadvantage may be that such a text is primarily read as legal text and used in court cases. The code is not intended to be attractive to the employee.  This is the case for the National Code: it is a long text in the legislative layout of the Official Gazette, which does hammer on the importance of integrity and values such as independence, but it lacks moral appeal. Many managers and employees will almost forget that the code exists, because at best they heard about it when they joined the organization. Such a code is often not actively used, except where disciplinary measures are considered, and is nothing more than ‘nice to have’.

The next development came with the aspirational code. This contains values and behaviors by which the employee is expected to be inspired. They usually relate to the organizational culture and are illustrated, for example, by the behavior of prominent members of the organization. Codes like these are often inspiring to read and fun to share. They are designed to make the employee proud of belonging to the organization. An example is the code of the city of Gouda, which is recommended by the Dutch Association of Municipalities (VNG). It begins with a message from the municipal board and top management stating: “We are accountable for our actions. And we will address you when necessary. We expect the same from you towards us. Of course!” ‘Sensitive topics’ are indicated and explained by traffic lights. The explanation seems somewhat patronizing and is also not always in line with the legal rules on the subject, such as those in Art. 2:4 of the General Administrative Law Act. The main drawback is that the code is not specific enough to act upon. It does not make it sufficiently clear whether an employee has deviated from the code to such an extent that action is required.

It is perhaps no surprise that more and more organizations have sought to combine the strengths of both types of codes while avoiding the disadvantages of the two. This leads to codes that exhibit a combination of borders rules and aspirational statements. The approach taken here is to determine for each issue, whether there is a need for a clear boundary, as in accepting gifts, or whether it is best to have statements that encourage the employee to act from his or her own sense of responsibility, inspired by the aspirations of the organization. The National Integrity Code of Conduct is such a code. However, the value aspect remains strongly underexposed and a provision such as ‘as a rule, you do not accept gifts above € 50, -’ leaves too much room for interpretation. In almost all codes we see that the person concerned is advised to enter into consultation or to think things over for himself. The question is what use is made of such an open door.

Here we call attention to the use that is made of codes. It is quite possible that Dutch governmental institutions are more focused on enforcing guidelines, which would be close to a boundary code, and not to an aspirational code. This means that even if a code is formulated or looks like an aspiration code, it will also need to be applied as if it were a boundary code: a semi-legal instrument, in other words. Because an aspiration code does not have the same degree of uniformity as a boundary code, but may be used for disciplinary purposes, this can be problematic. After all, its language may not offer the clarity that is needed for taking measures.

For a code to work, you need to consider two things: 1) how is it written? And 2) how is it to be used? Regarding the first question, it stands to reason that sometimes the code is written in language that makes it an unappealing read, e.g. through the use of jargon or a pejorative tone. Regarding the second question, it should at least be addressed in entry-level programs so that new employees learn what is expected of them and learn to use the code. It should also be reflected in leadership development programs, because the leader needs to articulate the code. It is also wise to include the code in decisions about promotions, also to avoid promoting someone who has a reputation for deviating from the message in the code, which can have disastrous consequences for trust in the code and in leadership. Connected with this aspect is the use of the code by senior management, which would be wise to reinforce it in statements and behaviors.

This is where a code can fall victim to toxic leadership, as when a leader of that type may at best abuse the code and is at the very least not likely to encourage others to use it productively. Toxic leaders are not virtuous leaders, and toxic organizations are not inclined to get the best out of people. As business ethics professor Solomon points out: “[B]elieving in values alone is not enough. Values have to be translated into action, and that means acting according to our values cannot merely be an abstract obligation but must be built into our ways of dealing with the world. That is what a virtue is (…).”[40]

Because of the intertwined nature of codes of conduct for government employees and the organizations for which they work, we also looked at the Dutch Code for Good Public Administration, which does not address specific officials, but rather government organizations as a whole. The Code is not binding and contains statements such as “government is open and has integrity”. These are typical statements for an aspirational code, providing little direction. Not surprisingly, this code is hardly used  and a new one is being worked on.

6.2       Reporting mechanisms

Whistleblowing has been a means of exposing integrity problems for many years. For this reason, reporting systems are mandatory in many countries, as well as in EU legislation. We will not discuss this legislation here, but indicate that internal reporting systems, which protect the reporter and offer anonymity, are not optional. That said, you can meet the legal obligation in a minimal way or make the most of it on your own initiative, because you highly value integrity.

An interesting example of the use of a whistleblowing function is given by a chain of hospitals in the United Arab Emirates. The board of that organization considered, a few years ago, that managing especially medical doctors is difficult. It often works poorly and where it does work it may result in lower quality of care, partly due to the difficulty to retain medical doctors. The board considered that it would be best to give all of the professionals in their organizations ample freedom to do what they do best. But, of course, that cannot mean that those professionals can do whatever they feel like. The solution was a whistleblower function as a kind of default quality check: were professionals to deviate too far from the guidelines and determines plan, then they would run considerable risk of being held accountable through the procedures of whistleblowing office. All of this would be treated confidentially, so the media would not have the opportunity to escalate a problem once it was detected. This way of working also offered ample opportunity to resolve an issue before it would lead to any conflict. This approach satisfied two dimensions of working with a whistleblower function: addressing a possible source of conflict and addressing an issue that needs to be fixed (or at least inspected). This shows that whistleblowing has significance not only as a way to manage a troubling development, but it also serves a purpose in terms of quality management and knowledge management: the information the whistleblower communicates was apparently lacking before and this became problematic.

What does not get enough attention is that a whistleblower function can serve as a way to prevent escalation. What we mean is that whistleblowing is often associated with escalated conflicts that need to be known to the public, but it would be better to see it as a way of preventing escalation through reporting a problem in its early stages. This is also a matter of proper quality management, as well as proper HR management.

It seems likely to us that toxic leaders (in ditto organizations) will not choose to make the best use of reporting systems. They consider reporters as ‘traitors’ and as a risk for their own position. They are inclined to do everything they can to track down and eliminate anonymous reporters. In the childcare benefits affair cited above, there was also a reporter involved, and she too received the standard treatment for whistleblowers.

6.3 Cultural change

Because an organizational culture is not only contained in structures and rules but also and even more so in the people who make up the organization, changing it is always going to be a complex and lengthy process. One thing does emerge from the literature on this subject: without genuine will and support from the leadership itself, it will not work. Because in a toxic organization the leadership itself is the main problem, and there the capacity for self-reflection and change is lacking, in our view culture change in that case is an impossible task. This also applies to the introduction of ethical leadership: the toxic leader does not see the point of it and – because of his personal characteristics – cannot become an ethical leader either. Yet both do appear to take place; in our view mainly in a pragmatic and sometimes downright toxic form to strengthen one’s own position. This is called integrity washing. Employees notice very well that this is only meant ‘for the outside world’, become even more disillusioned (‘weary’), with the result that toxicity only increases.

Culture change, we believe, is possible under some circumstances if new non-toxic leaders are brought in, thus diminishing the impact of the toxic leaders. They can develop further as ethical leaders and take the organization along a change path. Even then, this will be complicated and not always successful; who doesn’t know stories of people who were introduced as change managers and failed? This means that the number of new leaders – and employees – needs to have a critical mass to make real change happen. This may require HR measures, which we discuss below.

6.4       Structural change

A change in rules, decision-making structure or hierarchy can help to diminish the likelihood of norm-breaking behavior and thus counteract toxicity. In particular, rules and protocols that ensure that several people or departments are involved in decision making guarantee that toxic people cannot go about their business unseen (four-eyes principle).[41] We are not only talking about changing financial procedures to prevent fraud, but about changing all others, for example to grant permits or social benefits.

These structures can be built into automated systems by means of digital authorizations: various people have to check off a decision before it can move forward. Because of the large volume of street-level decisions, this is often impossible. For this, legal mandates are set as low as possible. There is a lot to be said for this because autonomy and professionalism are also important conditions for the proper functioning of employees.[42] Rather, it is a matter of balance. Taking samples of decisions can be seen as a breach of trust, but it is a means worth considering to prevent wrongdoings. In the financial audit world this is very common, and with good reason: it prevents and detects injustices.

6.4.1     Standardized decision making

Another widely used structural tool is decision protocols and standard documents or text blocks, which are also often found in automated systems today. These Business Process Management Systems prevent ‘too much humanity’ and they are also very efficient.[43] A lot of routine work, such as typing in addresses, literal quotations from laws and other standard phrases over and over again, this is taken out, with the idea that the employee can then focus on ‘thinking’. This is also subject to criticism: standardization leads to organizational blindness and laziness; it encourages the “fast brain” (more on this in paragraph 7.1). Also, ‘built-in errors’ can proliferate. It also conflicts with ideas of civil service professionalism and human autonomy. Again, it’s a matter of balance.

Integrity or Compliance 2.0?

Structural measures are often referred to as integrity measures. In essence, however, they are compliance interventions. They certainly work and should not be abolished, but they do not unquestionably promote the integrity of employees and organization, by which we mean character or moral disposition. At most, they prevent integrity problems in the same way that legal rules do. Or, in the case of forced co-decision, work to promote debate, which in turn can lead to greater integrity. At their core, however, they are more like legal instruments; compliance 2.0.

6.5       HR Measures

When toxic types – leaders and employees – really go too far, an organization’s reaction is often, and in itself rightly so, a mild one: people get a new chance, and another and another. Precisely because of the communication skills and charm of toxic types, they can get a lot done in this sense, also because the top wants to prevent scandals at all costs. Leaders, moreover, often have the power to take HR actions, so they are invulnerable to this kind of measures. Disciplinary measures cause loss of face, and this is a sensitive issue especially for narcissists. This is not true for psychopaths. The most rigorous measure – dismissal – is a means of getting rid of a toxic type who abuses his power, is corrupt or fraudulent. It rarely happens.

While this is arguable on many fronts (because of the cost or the signal it sends), in our opinion, in toxic organizations, we suggest considering offering an elegant way out to severely toxic leaders and employees. An alternative is redeployment to positions where they can exert less influence on the organization. Bringing the number of spoiled people below the critical mass increases safety in the organization. This idea is dissected from Sutton’s no asshole rule.[44] This Stanford professor describes that organizations should identify and dismiss this type of person as soon as possible, regardless of their performance.[45] This sends the clear message that toxic behavior will not be accepted. By applying sanctions, a leader may be seen as less likeable, but of higher integrity, more group-oriented and trustworthy.[46] 

For less toxic individuals, particularly those who have been dragged along in the vicious cycle of negative behavior, this is not effective. If they are given the opportunity to act differently, they will do so, especially if they get the necessary help to do so. This is where the principle of generosity and forgiveness applies to the organization: not (judging) and punishing, but repairing damage as quickly as possible and taking the right measures to prevent problems from reoccurring and promote culture change.[47]

Selection committees should explicitly consider H-scores; not only by self-reports, but also by using more objective methods. The same applies to selecting for styles of thinking, about which more below. To get more integrity and psychological safety in an organization, more individuals who score high on this should have more influence on decisions. By making structured decisions and introducing forms of moral deliberation, they can take a leading role.

7.         Integrity instruments to explore

7.1       Optimal decision making

Though automation and bureaucracy are ideal for rational decision making, much of this is still ‘done by hand’, trusting on good faith, professional education and experience. This, however, does not guarantee optimal outcomes.  As the philosopher Peirce points out:: “Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination, and does not extend to that of other men.”[48]

The idea behind structured decision-making comes from the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.[49] He discovered that people – even in organizations, and even if they are professionally trained – are by no means perfectly rational decision makers. We make 95 % of our decisions with the ‘fast brain’, which makes judgments in fractions of seconds. Only 5 % is sent on to the slow brain (reason), which is also heavily colored by the filter of the fast brain. If the decision is about whether to brake for a sudden traffic jam, the fast brain is very useful.

If the decision is about people and/or their situations, as is the case with street level employees, then it can be a recipe for accidents. Indeed, much of the faster brain’s judgments is biased and irrational. For example, it causes us to want to help people who look like us more quickly, and to fear or dislike people who are different’. People are baked to judge others, even when it is not necessary at all. Their judgment of the person influences their judgment of their situation, such as a permit application. This is called pure arbitrariness and irrationality.[50] One example comes from the dissertation of one of us. This story has been called ‘the luxurious client.’ A woman applies a house because she was granted an urgency certificate by the GGD due to abuse. However, the rental officer thinks that someone who looks nice and whom she has seen driving a car apparently cannot be a victim of violence, or receive a social benefit.

With some people you get the idea: well, they have an urgent statement from the municipality, well, I don’t understand why they have an urgent statement. Because they behave so pathetically, and they drive a big BMW or so. [Q: Can you give an example of that?] Um, we had a girl, who said that she was abused at home. Well, I just ran into her in the village, and she drove a pretty reasonable VW Golf and she has nice clothes on. Yeah, I have a different idea of those people, what they look like. I mean, I see plenty who come here, who just really don’t have any normal clothes on their bodies anymore. And, and then I think: yes, those people look more urgent to me than this girl. [Q: And that girl’s urgency was because of the financial situation?] No, it was urgent because of abuse. She was young and didn’t have a job so, yes, she was on her own, and  so she was looking for a cheap rental house. Because she was then receiving a social benefit. Yes, when you see all those things together and then you see how she walks around, and you see that she has a car, then you think: yes, how is that possible?? But yes, well, you have to leave that out of consideration: yes, she was given an urgent statement by someone, the GGD, who undoubtedly handled that well.[51]

7.1.2     Dehumanization: the case of the Benefits Affair

We’ve seen that reason is great at rationalizing and straightening out what the fast brain has already decided. In this way, even immoral decisions and judgments about people, or decisions that conflict with public values, can still be maintained – up to the dehumanization of groups.[52] If this is the case, then the organization’s integrity is in serious decline: it no longer upholds human dignity and equality, but treats some people downright unjustly and unreasonably.

An example of how this dehumanization works collectively is how the Benefits Department of the Tax Administration proceeded in the benefits affair. On the basis of having two nationalities, a large group of parents was framed as a priori fraudster. This dehumanized the group: they were no longer equal people, but as a ‘lower species’, to whom you need not pay the usual careful attention. This frame was carried on for a long time, right up to the highest administrative court, the Administrative Law Division of the State Council. This court did not feel the need to check the underlying procedures. The chairman of the Division told a newspaper reporter in response to his announcement that he would organize self-reflection in the Division: 

“Of the files that we were presented with in cases here, I cannot recall them being incomplete. We had sufficient factual information to make judgments in the individual court cases. [Q: The Tax Authority was perhaps given the benefit of the doubt too often?] That’s how administrative law works. It assumes that government agencies act lawfully and apply the law. The courts do not assume the failure of the whole system.”[53]

The Division should, however, have assumed exactly that failure after seeing many of the same complaints by lawyers and citizens. After all, toxic organizations are manipulative and intimidating (to their own critical employees), do not admit mistakes, do not voluntarily provide all information to citizens and courts, and do not deserve the easy-going benefit of the doubt that, according to the Division’s chairman, government is naturally entitled to. That a supreme court still tries to rationalize not seeing this and to justify government’s a priori benefit of the doubt, does not demonstrate much sense of reality or impartiality.[54] We may also note an elite ethos: government and State Council are interlinked in many way, and it is hard for people to believe that ‘near-colleagues’ can act in a wicked way.  The selection mechanism for the State Council members and employees may also have some toxic aspects, like cooptation.

Institutional bias is still bias; the ultimate source of it is cognitive bias or worse in one or more decision-makers’ minds.[55] Someone put the two-nationality rule into the automated systems; someone created work instructions that required employees to follow it. What we see in various publications about the benefits affair is that its institutional nature is seized upon to hold no one morally or legally responsible; except for political responsibility. This is the problem of the ‘many hands’; however, shared responsibility is not the same as no responsibility.[56] To avoid such problems for the future, it is necessary to identify at least some pivotal figures (those who instructed and were able to change the operation) and analyze their influence. Not to punish them, but to learn from it.

7.1.2     Respect-expertise

An observation that can be made here is that there may be respect-expertise; a variant of status power, that holds for both the legislative and the executive power (by the judiciary) and for the judiciary itself (by judges among themselves, government and litigants).[57] This can lead to strong bias; it seems to be a form of authority bias: the man in the white coat will know best. An expert is someone who has been trained and experienced in a particular subject; he therefore probably knows more than others and thus, if all other conditions are good, makes better decisions.

A respect-expert might be an expert, but he derives his automatic ‘being right’ mainly from his status. Respect-experts are not only considered to know more, but they can also present their point of view – their rightness – very well: they score high in charisma and communication skills. Whether there is a link between respect-experts and toxic leaders has not, as far as we know, been investigated, but given the common characteristics, it could be the case. Respect-expertise can also be attributed to organizations, such as government agencies, departments or courts of justice. It is always good to wonder whether there is real expertise, or authority bias.

7.1.3     Thinking styles

Another observation is that certain thinking styles are better predictors of good decisions than all the others that Kahneman et. al. mention.[58] What seems important here is an ‘open mind’ and ‘modesty’: the willingness and ability to take on board other points of view and not to assume beforehand that one is right. The so-called cognitive reflection test looks at a person’s ability to suppress judgment and impulse thoughts.  There is also the need for cognition scale, which looks at the degree of need for understanding: wanting to check facts and being able to think about a situation and the adult decision-making competence test, which looks at the degree of self-overestimation and risk perception.  The best predictor seems to be the test for active unbiased thinking. People who score high on this will actively seek out information that disproves their hypotheses, consciously listen to other opinions, and carefully weigh new evidence.[59]

Here too, a connection between these thinkers and H’s has not yet been investigated, but given the common characteristics, it could be.

As much as it goes against our idea of free will and a rational mind, we really could use some help in making decisions. This is true for all street level employees, which, according to the literature, includes judges! We discuss here two types of decision aids aimed at debiasing: structured decisions and nudges. We would suggest that this should be introduced not only for ‘ordinary employees’ but for all public officials, whether they make big or small decisions. This may not go down well in toxic organization because of the built-in assumption that only others make mistakes.

7.2       Structured decision-making

Structured decision making has been studied primarily with teams that make decisions.[60] It involves defining the problem, selecting in advance a set of criteria that are important to the decision to be made, and then assigning points to these criteria. The results are then discussed in the team, ultimately avoiding irrelevant motives. Unconscious biases are made explicit. As a result, the most rational and morally high quality decision possible is reached. By making moral deliberation structured, it combines the good of both means.  According to this, it can also be used for individual decision making by street level bureaucrats; even if they have to make tailored decisions. Structured decision-making could very well be built into an application. Appendix A shows an of this.[61]

As a result, the most rational and morally high quality decision possible is reached. By making moral deliberation structured, it combines the good of both methods styles. According to this, it can also be used for individual decision making by street level employees; even if they have to make customized decisions. Structured decision-making could very well be built into an application.

Structured decision-making fits well with the rule of law: it is aimed at consistency, reliability and as much equality of decisions as possible. Laws and rules are designed to do this, precisely to bring human dignity closer to everyone. Not for nothing was this rule of law a reaction to arbitrary exercise of power: henceforth, the ruler himself also had to abide by the laws and rules. This is still the case, even now that power is diffuse, decentralized, and exercised by many thousands of government employees.

Therefore, perhaps it is good to realize that in this respect responsiveness and customization are not an end or value in themselves, but only necessary where rules must have discretionary space because they must apply generally, and thus always be individually fulfilled. There too, therefore, human dignity must be brought closer to everyone, by making as few distinctions as possible. The idea of civil service craftsmanship should be aimed at this: by making sound and crafty decisions according to fixed structures, whether or not in combination with moral deliberation, this benefits all citizens.

7.3       Nudges

To complement this, a nudge could also be built in, reminding the employee of the organization’s values. An example of this is having to re-sign for the organization’s values with a check mark every time a decision is made. Though this will simplify these values, at least it works as a ‘moral reminder’.[62] One of us is experimenting with a nudge that discourages the fast brain by building in delay and explicating unconscious bias. This is followed by a number of decision aids. Appendix B shows some examples of this. Other nudges target uncontrolled behavior by toxic employees or ‘followers’, such as putting up posters with eyes and warning texts that ‘abuse will be punished’.[63] Offering a number of choices that are at least ‘within the acceptable margin’ can also work well.

7.4       Stakeholder Management

When we speak of reporting mechanisms, we also have to look at stakeholder management.[64] After all, stakeholders typically hold you a mirror. Their questions may indicate whether one member of an organization communicates the same story as another, whether the actions of an organization lead to satisfaction or not and what further information is required.

A stakeholder can best be seen as someone who is connected to how an organization works towards achieving its objectives.[65] This pertains as much to government organizations as to business organizations, although government organizations may use a slightly different terminology. This means that the stakeholder is seen as someone who has interests which link him or her to the organization. Some of those interests are apparent and others less so. The need of a stakeholder to be treated with integrity is such a less obvious but still very real interest. Whether it is honored affects the stakeholder relationship.

Thinking of stakeholders has often been seen as troublesome and stakeholders have been associated with disturbing operations and planning, while it is increasingly recognized that this has to be understood. However, there is also a side that promises opportunities. Stakeholders offer knowledge and, now that we are talking about integrity, their feedback is essential to protecting integrity. After all, it is well established that the feedback on the quality of our behaviors has an influence on how we think about ethics and integrity.[66] For most people, the mere fact of being observed or the prospect of going to be held accountable has a profound impact on behaviors. This is how stakeholders can support integrity.

8.         Conclusion

Toxic individuals exist and so do toxic public and private organizations. How many there are, and which toxic processes are taking place here, we do not know as yet. However, it seems to us a good idea to pay more attention to this in management science as well, for both business organizations and governmental organizations. A toxic leader cannot become an ethical leader and a toxic organization is not capable of change without external intervention. None of the discussed means to that end is strong enough, at legally enforceable levels. This fact has a negative impact on the (moral) quality of decisions at every level. In this paper, we have mainly looked at the street level, because decisions made here often have an enormous impact.


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[1] Joop Remmé (PhD in Philosophy) has a long career in education and consultancy. In education he has been active at various MBA schools, both in The Netherlands and internationally, teaching about ethics, strategy and HRM. As a consultant he has mainly been in involved in management development and ethics. His publications have been about Corporate Social Responsibility / ethics and Stakeholder Management.

Caroline Raat (PhD, LLM in Constitutional Law, socio-legal studies and legal theory, MA in public administration, certificate in Psychology) works as an author, researcher, educator, consultant and practitioner in, among others, whistleblowing, quality of law, and organizational behavior. Her publications have been about Power, Administrative Law, Freedom of Information, and Integrity Issues.

Both authors are affiliated with the Platform of Independent Researchers.

[2] A. Einstein Quotes, Retrieved from

[3] FNV 2019.

[4] See for instance, Jonason et. al. 2012.

[5] FNV 2018, p. 12.

[6] Babiak et. al. 2010.

[7] Van Vught & Wildschut 2012, p. 87.

[8] C. Douglas & A.P. Ammeter 2004.

[9] De Vries 2016; also see Paulhus 2021.

[10] Hogeveen et. al. 2013; also see Van Vught en Wildschut 2012, p. 87.

[11] Palmen 2020.

[12] For instance, Paulhus &Williams 2002,  p. 560.

[13] Kets de Vries & D. Miller 1985.

[14] Palmen 2020, p. 8.                                                                           

[15] Fennimore et. al. 2016.

[16] Hansen & Baker, 2017, p. 36.

[17] Aristotle 1984-2, p. 1767.

[18] Paulhus et. al., 2021.

[19] Van Duyne 1995, p. 130.

[20] Camillus 2008, p. 98. It was already identified by Aristotle 1984-2, p. 1572-1584.

[21] Camillus, 2008, p.98.

[22] Lipsky 1980.

[23] Lipsky 1980, p. 28.

[24] Lipsky 1980, p. 90.

[25] Raat, 2007.

[26] Applying narrative analysis, the conclusion was that this was probably not the case. Raat 2007, p 134.

[27] Raat 2007, p. 144-145.

[28] Coble Vinzant & Crothers 1998, p. 5.

[29] MacIntyre 1981, p. 187.

[30] Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Bestuursrecht,2018.

[31] Raat 2007, p 251.

[32] Selznick 1992, p. 344.

[33] Raat 2007, p. 32.

[34] Selznick 1992, p. 244.

[35] Selznick 1969, p. 259.

[36] Selznick 1992, pp. 344 – 345.

[37] Edmondson 2019.

[38] Van Vught & Wildschut 2012.


[40] Solomon 1999, p. xix.

[41] For example, Hvk 2021, p. 10.

[42] See for example De Bock 2015, p. 35.

[43] C. Raat 2020-1.

[44] Sutton 2007. Also see Raat 2013, p. 78-79.

[45] Van Vught &M. Wildschut, 2012, p.190.

[46] Van Vught &M. Wildschut 2012, p.118.

[47] Raat 2020-2.

[48] Peirce 1955, p. 5.

[49] Kahneman 2016.

[50] Raat 2007,  p. 232

[51] Raat 2007,  p. 72-75.

[52] Bandura, 2002.

[53] Interview in Trouw, 9th of January 2021.

[54] See about this benefit of the doubt Hisch Ballin 2015, p. 47.

[55] Raat 2021.

[56] Thomson1980, p. 905.

[57] Kahneman 2021, p.234.

[58] Kahneman 2021, 238.

[59] Kahneman 2021, 238-242.

[60] Kahneman 2021, p 321 e.v.

[61] This image will be used in a book written by Raat on ethics and integrity for public sector lawyers, expected publication in November 2021.

[62] Mazar & Ariely 2006.

[63] Dear et. al, 2019.

[64] The relationship between Stakeholder Management will be discussed in a book edited by Remmé, that will be finalized in 2021.

[65] Freeman 1984.

[66] Gino et al. 2008, p. 33.