Posted by: chrismaser | November 13, 2010


We, as individuals, represent the behavioral strengths and weaknesses of our upbringing, and we tend to repeat the behavioral pattern—be it functional or dysfunctional—over and over again unless we consciously break the cycle. (Dysfunction means that a given person is impaired in their ability to function harmoniously with “right action.”)

As far as I can see, there are three basic instances in which an agency becomes malfunctional. The first is when a person (or persons) takes over control as dictator and pays mind simply to vested interests at the expense of the agency’s mission, its people, and the public at large. The second is when people in an agency, created for one purpose, try to make the agency into something it’s not designed to be, but are either unwilling or unable to change its perceived mission and infrastructure to accommodate the “new identity.” And the third is when an agency has outlived its original purpose or has simply lost sight of it and becomes a self-serving, institutionalized machine to perpetuate its own survival.

In any case, the agency no longer serves the public it was designed and empowered to serve but instead compels the public to serve the survivability of the agency. Here, it must be remembered that individuals are the agency. Therefore, the more dysfunctional the leadership is, the more malfunctional the agency is in terms of its founding charter; the more dysfunctional the rank and file members are, the more malfunctional the agency. Although the malfunction of an agency is a reflection of the dysfunction of its individual members in the collective—especially the leadership, there’s more to it than this statement suggests.

Complex organizations, such as the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Environmental Protection Agency, are typically composed of people that fall into three, major categories prone to becoming subcultures:

1. Politicians expect their futures to lie in elected or appointed office. Thus, they concentrate on maintaining and expanding their career opportunities outside the agency, but within the political party of choice. These days, however, when they are appointed, it is often as heads of agencies about which they know little or nothing.

2. Careerists are those whose rewards come largely from inside of the agency of employment. Consequently, they define their primary goals and loyalties within the agency’s hierarchical career ladder in a way that maintains the stability of the agency and elevates their own position within it.

3. Professionals relate to norms set by others in the same profession, say forestry and wildlife management, norms that generally cut across organizational boundaries. A professional’s reward comes independently from peers within the professional society, not from within the agency of employment. The professional role is generally advisory and thus seldom the most powerful in an agency.

Although an individual often plays two or more roles in daily working life, one is dominant. So it’s not surprising that people in these three categories within a single agency often come into conflict with one another when they’re brought together to deal with a complex, integrated issue, because they each belong to a different subculture with different supporting structures and different systems of ideals, rewards, and incentives. This is especially true if an agency tries to shift its identity in a way that also shifts the perceived basis of power from one subculture to another.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that, while an agency’s formal goal may be sound forestry or social work, its informal, operating goals may differ substantially among the three subcultures based on differing senses of idealism, integrity, and subjectivity. (Here, it must be understood that no human being on Earth can be objective for even 30 seconds.) Thus, each subculture not only perceives a given situation differently but also defines the problem and envisions the solution differently.

All of the many professionals I’ve known over the years, including myself, want to keep two professional norms inviolate: personal integrity, which is a sense of authenticity based on sound, sincere, personal principles, and professional integrity, which in my case means upholding the biophysical principles governing social-environmental issues with as little political bias as humanly possible. But, the way an agency is organized can either encourage and nurture professionalism or stifle it.

It takes more than cooperative behavior and a sense of good will to protect integrity and professionalism. Such cooperation and good will must be nurtured by the appropriate organizational design, one that is “safe.” In addition, the organizational design must support and nurture integrity and its creative source, as well as a diversity of differing ideologies, through positive rewards and incentives. In other words, a functional agency must lead by its highest example.

Finally, the U. S. Forest Service, now over a century old, is an example of a public agency that has lost sight of its original charge and has become malfunctional with age, which points out that our present form of exploitive capitalism is not working for the good of the American people, especially the children who will need healthy forests in their future. When a malfunctional agency serves the timber industry, who is it that serves the national forests and the people of the United States, people who by and large have no vested profit-motive in timber from public lands?

The same question can be asked about a malfunctional Bureau of Land Management, which serves the special interests of a small portion of the livestock industry, the timber industry, or the mining, oil and gas industries at the expense of the public’s rangelands. Again, the American people, as a whole, have no vested profit-motive in grazing livestock, clear-cutting forests (including old-growth), mining, or drilling for oil and gas on public lands.

Malfunction tends to creep into an agency when the production of a product, coveted by a politically strong special-interest group, becomes more important than the process of human interactions that fulfill the agency’s original charge. Put differently, the product is more important than the people, human dignity, or trusteeship of the land itself. The sole focus becomes timber, forage, minerals, oil, gas—or whatever else—at any cost.

What happened? Rather than recognizing that the people of the nation are both the agency’s bosses and its customers and therefore treating them accordingly, the agency bows to corporate interests through political pressures and serves the corporate/political bosses. Again, our political system serves the private power base, not the people. Thus, enemy number one to a malfunctional agency is the very public it’s meant to serve—a public that requires a healthy, sustainable ecosystem to produce Nature’s free services, such as good quality, clean water, if the people are to enjoy their birthright of a quality of life worth living.

When such malfunction is pointed out in news stories and court cases, the “views and policies” of an agency become the backbone of the agency’s homeostatic defense, a defense that is usually upheld by the courts of the land if legal procedure has been followed—regardless of any other consequences.


Series on Resistance to Change:

• Understanding the Nature of Fear

• Our Institutionalized Resistance To Change

• My Introduction To An Agency

• The Inception Of An Agency

• Stages In The Cycle Of An Agency

• Homeostatic Defense

• Coping Mechanisms

• Coping Mechanisms: Anger And Aggression

• Coping Mechanisms: Appraisal

• Coping Mechanisms: Defensiveness

• Coping Mechanisms: Denial

• Coping Mechanisms: Displacement

• Coping Mechanisms: Filters

• Coping Mechanisms: Projection

• Coping Mechanisms: Rationalization

• Coping Mechanisms: Repression

• Coping Mechanisms: Resistance

• Breaking The Dysfunctional Cycle

• From Where I Stand

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1994 book, Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL. 373 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.


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