Phaticized work – Social hijacking of workplace activities is an on-the-books form of embezzlement

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shaking handsThis introduces our series on phaticized work, a covert and often unconscious form of corruption in which organizational resources are diverted to personal ends by way of social instincts.

It’s an on-the-books form of embezzlement, because instead of shifting money outside the organization—requiring the books to be “cooked”—phaticized work commandeers official workplace activities for private ends that have nothing to do with the mission of the organization.

Phatic is a term borrowed from linguistics, where it refers to speech that serves a social function rather than conveying information. For our purposes, phatic refers to workplace activity that serves or is driven by social instincts rather than accomplishing real work toward the legitimate purpose of the workplace.

Phaticized work is any workplace activity that perhaps appears to serve the organization’s mission, but actually serves a social function that either does not genuinely support the mission or undermines it.

It’s a form of workplace corruption we have a hard time recognizing as such. But, it’s a recognition for which the time has come.

To understand what’s ahead, we first look behind.

One of the difficulties faced when trying to introduce a modern understanding of corruption in many developing economies is that the cultures there often condone or even encourage what elsewhere are understood to be illicit practices that undermine economic efficiency and effectiveness.

For example, in some cultures, offering bribes—to get police, government admin personnel, or even emergency room staff to do their jobs—is simply considered a courtesy, like tipping a server at a restaurant. It’s viewed as a concrete, person-to-person demonstration of mutual concern, a form of social grooming, in cultures where a more abstract sense of duty and contractual obligation does not prevail.

Absent a sophisticated and rational understanding of organized human activity, primitive social instincts become the fallback position, the default.Corruption is tolerated because it’s not recognized as corruption.

That’s the trick of bad behavior; if we realized it was bad, most of us wouldn’t do it.

This ties in to the “fundamental attribution error,” which leads humans to attribute the bad behavior of members of their in-group to circumstances (i.e., “That’s just what you have to do in that context”) while attributing the bad behavior of people outside the in-group to bad character. In-group biases like this make the hidden corruptions of one’s own culture very hard to identify, accept for what they are, and correct.

It’s easy for those of us in the First World to see how social instincts corrupt the behavior of people in developing economies. It’s not so easy to see how they corrupt our own behavior.

But, we at New Gov Office intend to lead the way here.

Phaticized work is to the First World equivalent of bribery.

The same cultural lag we recognize in developing economies applies to developed countries. Our concept of embezzlement is skewed and conveniently narrow.

The examples we intend to expose in this series share two key characteristics: they divert organizational resources to private ends and they rely on or are driven by social instincts. They phaticize the workplace, disguising personal profit (either material or social) as mission focus.

In this series, we want to examine various examples of phaticized work, and delve into how they rob organizations of resources, spread irrational thinking throughout the organization, and sabotage the merit system that sustains prosperity in the general economy.

Forward-thinking business people, stay tuned!

One comment on “Phaticized work – Social hijacking of workplace activities is an on-the-books form of embezzlement

  1. […] stove-pipe explanation is thus a form of phaticization, socially driven on-the-books embezzlement, because it gives the appearance of legitimately serving […]