Organizations Are Never Neutral

—Lucinda Garthwaite, ChangeMakers Partners Lead Partner

The New York Times today published a long, thorough piece on the impact of one family on current geo-political dynamics. In How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World, Times writers Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg build a compelling case that the Murdoch family’s business strategy has played a massive role in a turn to violent intolerance in the UK, Australia and the US, and has begun to wield similar influence in other countries.  Mahler and Rutenberg are careful to point out that the Murdoch strategy, while most often tilted toward what many call “the right,” is basically opportunistic. If a liberal lean will fill the coffers, argue the authors, then Murdoch-controlled media leans left; if money can be made from the right, then the righter the better in media content.

Even read critically, even with skepticism, and notwithstanding that the Times is owned by a Murdoch critic, this piece illustrates a fact too few organizational leaders take to heart: Organizations cannot be neutral.  Even arguably apolitical organizations are significant participants in societal and global systems. 

The behavior of a system, no matter what size, is determined by the behavior of its parts; this is an understanding held across fields of study and practice, across ideologies and political leanings.  Organization leaders with a personal commitment to a free and just world who ignore this fact risk hypocrisy every day. 

This applies across sectors, not just to businesses of all sizes.  Education, non-profit, faith-based and community-based organizations are also significant participants in social systems.  Their behavior as organizations – their strategy, their programs, their services, the way they treat their employees -- has an impact, without question.

Still, organizations devoted to commerce bear unique scrutiny in this regard.  In 2014, Princeton University Political scientist, Martin Glens, and Northwestern University Political scientist Benjamin Page published a study arguing that “economic elites” and other organized business interest groups had ascended to more influence over the fates of nations than average citizens or non-business interest groups. This was widely reported as supporting a conclusion that the United States had become an oligarchy, rather than a democracy.  Since that study was released, other researchers have disagreed.  Even those disagreements, however, acknowledge some level of political impact of the economic elite, and common systems sense dictates that organizations, simply as parts of the system, will have an impact.

Which brings us back to the Murdochs. They own two organizations, News Corp and the Fox Corporation. If only a fraction of today’s NYT story holds water, then those two organizations, controlled by one family, continue to drive critical parts of the social system in which we all must swim. 

Your organization is not neutral. What kind of citizen of the system will it be?