Bystanders and whistleblowers: A study of the systemic forces driving the journey from denial to action in the face of wrongdoing within organizations

MacCarthy, Brigid (2022) Bystanders and whistleblowers: A study of the systemic forces driving the journey from denial to action in the face of wrongdoing within organizations. Professional Doctorate thesis, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust / University of East London. Full text available

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This study examines how a member of an organization comes to recognize and react to wrongdoing in their workplace. The impact on an individual of perceived systemic processes at the level of the organization and the wider culture which encourage silence or grant voice is analysed within a social constructionist framework. This focus allowed a more holistic understanding of the decision to speak out or remain silent in the context of organizational wrongdoing. The aim was to produce a plausible and explanatory account of bystanding and whistleblowing, acknowledging that those processes are complex and co-constituted from the interplay of social and psychological processes. In a small way, I hoped to generate testable hypotheses about key processes which explain how people situated within a specific set of norms, faced with organizational wrongdoing construct meaning and make choices about ethical practice. Nine participants, drawn from a range of organizational contexts, who had raised concerns about wrongdoing within their employing organization were interviewed individually. They were asked to narrate their biographies up to and including the process of speaking out about their concerns. Two further participants, who were bystanders in two of the whistleblowers’ incidents were interviewed using the same approach. The interview data was analysed using grounded theory. The research procedure gave participants space and a process which provoked reflection and some newfound perspectives. Initially an analytic account of the stages and processes leading up to speaking out or remaining silent was obtained. Then the data was re-analysed, using the Transforming Experience Framework (Long, 2016) to explore in greater depth how the organization-in-the-mind was composed in each case. The goal was not to develop a causal explanation but to reach an understanding of how self, role and system interact in shaping a whistleblowing episode. Investigating the complexity of the full situation of inquiry requires that discourses at the cultural level, should also be examined. Therefore, I conducted a supplementary study of representation of whistleblowers in film. I explored the relationship between historical contextual factors and the changes to the portrayal, of the whistleblowing act, to draw out how discursive concepts construct the subject of the whistleblower. Popular films featuring whistleblowers were sampled across decades and their narratives were scrutinized using situational analysis. Findings showed that the pathway to speaking out has shared stages and processes, but that the route to speaking out or keeping silent is both iterative and highly individual. Systemic factors were found to inform the process at every stage. Whistleblowers attachment to a contested version of the primary task, when they perceived the alternative version of task to be associated with perversity led them towards raising concerns. Experiences of occupying roles in their earlier life were reflected in how they managed their attachment to organization. Being let down was also formative. Those experiences collectively pushed them towards a new attachment to a parrhesiastic self and to attempts to rescue the organization. The bystanders were aware of the same problems within their organizations but, helped by an allegiance to an alternative professional discourse, were acquiescent. The cultural context of the ‘market civilization’ shaped the discourses and practices operating within the organizations in the study and contributed to the construction of what was recognizable behaviour within the organization. The implications of these findings for professional practice were discussed. The results point to the value of enabling consultants and other change agents to understand the systemic constraints which make wrongdoing invisible or deter staff from challenging what they see and to develop strategies to empower people within organizations to reach a position where they are prepared to speak out.

Item Type: Thesis (Professional Doctorate)
Additional Information: A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University of East London in collaboration with the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust for the Professional Doctorate in Consultation and the Organisation
Uncontrolled Keywords: Professional Doctorate in Consultation and the Organisation, D10D
Subjects: Psychological Therapies, Psychiatry, Counselling > Biography
Groups & Organisations > Groups/Institutions/Organisations
Management & Economics > Leadership - Social Behaviour
Department/People: Adult and Forensic Services

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