Friday, November 18, 2011

Hierarchies Hurt Everybody

Why do good people act badly?

Many people have asked, “How could a revered person like Joe Paterno participate in such a horrible cover-up?” Thirty years ago, an identical quandary led us to decades of research on dismantling harmful hierarchies:

Why do good people do such bad things?

Paterno showed recognizable outward signs of a patriarch – a person in the sacred role of a father with unquestionable authority. The hierarchy that he ruled showed the same thirty-two consistent and predictable characteristics that we find in any hierarchy, no matter if based on race, religion, and yes, in sports. Here’s four examples:

1. Maintaining the hierarchy is the highest priority and the primary responsibility of those at the top. To the administrators and coaches at Penn State, it was important to preserve the wealth and prestige of the football program by avoiding a scandal.

2. People at the top are not held accountable for the effects on lower groups. Penn State administrators and coaches did not stop Sandusky from continuing to abuse children.

3. We live with constant lies, deceptions, and secrecy. Penn State kept the cover-up going for years.

4. People at the top become so isolated that they lose their vision of the realities of the world outside their fiefdom. When Paterno announced his retirement at the end of the season, he appeared clueless that his power base had collapsed underneath him.

The Penn State situation shows us that we have more reasons to work to eliminate hierarchical attitudes and behaviors than to lessen inequality and discrimination – even though that’s important too. When we are following the rules and roles of hierarchies, there are winners, sure, but there are many, many losers, and often they are just as innocent and victimized as the young boys that were ignored by the administrators and coaches at Penn State.