What do the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, and the Trump White House have in common? In situations rife with uncertainties, decision-makers miscalculate risks, make mistakes, and engage in misconduct. They activate the “dark side of organizations,” through what sociologist Diane Vaughan calls “routine nonconformity.”1 Vaughan theorized that when people in authority get away with violating long-standing norms and rules, the irregular goings-on become normalized. Both participants and observers stop reacting to broken norms with outrage and alarm.
The explosions on the space shuttle and the oil rig resulted from a series of miscalculations, a routine disregard of safety protocols, and above all, a commitment to action. Rule- and norm-breaking, miscalculation, and general organizational chaos is clearly the modus operandi of the Trump White House. How can this not lead to disaster?
It may be tendentious to compare organizational disasters to this new political administration– but I didn’t start the argument. Financial Times reporter Gillian Tett beat me to it. She points out that Trump’s political campaign –and now his administration– is a case study in the normalizing of deviance. From his refusal to release his tax returns to calling on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, to disregard of governmental ethics rules that require divesting from private business interests to hiring his family members, to whatever’s next. Norms and rules (and laws??) are broken daily, as a matter of course.
It would be one thing if Trump were self-destructing. But his dysfunction is like a parasitic worm infecting the fruit and branches of the federal government of the United States of America. Guaranteed to sicken the Body Politic. That is Us.
- Diane Vaughan, “The Dark Side of Organizations: Mistake, Misconduct, and Disaster.” Annual Review of Sociology 25, (1999): 297. See also, The Challenger Launch Decision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.