Volkswagen recently admitted to intentionally skirting U.S. emissions controls by installing “defeat devices” in nearly 500,000 vehicles. This scandal has undermined their credibility and profitability. In The Atlantic, Jerry Useem looks at historic precedents in other large organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Ford and NASA to explore Volkswagen’s expensive mistake and the corporate climate that led to it:
The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the [O‑rings] from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself.
If that comparison sounds overwrought, consider the words of Denny Gioia, a management professor at Penn State who, in the early 1970s, was the coordinator of product recalls at Ford. At the time, the Ford Pinto was showing a tendency to explode when hit from behind, incinerating passengers. Twice, Gioia and his team elected not to recall the car—a fact that, when revealed to his M.B.A. students, goes off like a bomb. “Before I went to Ford I would have argued strongly that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall,” he wrote in the Journal of Business Ethics some 17 years after he’d left the company. “I now argue and teach that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall. But, while I was there, I perceived no strong obligation to recall and I remember no strong ethical overtones to the case whatsoever.”