Misplacing the moral authority

Contextual note: From 2007 to 2010 I was a volunteer and then a paid consultant for a United Nations entity. I worked in Aceh, Indonesia, and then in the Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. Our office in Bangkok, along with numerous other United Nations agencies, was located within the compound of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), the regional development arm of the United Nations for the Asia-Pacific region. I wrote the following essay for a Masters subject on leadership in 2010.

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The failure of ethical leadership at the United Nations and its implications for organisational effectiveness

A message over the loud speaker had called all staff in the compound to a ‘town hall’ meeting with the visiting Deputy Secretary-General, Asha-Rose Migiro. After a couple of hundred people gathered in the Assembly Hall we rose for the entry of the Deputy Secretary-General. She spoke briefly, mostly about the challenges the UN would face in coming months and years in light of the global financial crisis. As governments reallocated budgets to bail out banks we didn't yet know how much would be redirected away from international aid. It was an anxious time.

The folksy title of the town hall meeting had indicated an open-floor meeting with no fixed agenda, no need to follow the usual protocol. I was doubtful there could be open dialogue, but ever the hopeful, I went to the meeting prepared to engage.

The floor was quickly opened for questions, and the room fell silent. A senior staffer broke the silence with a question I've since forgotten. It was followed by two or three questions from other senior staff about relocation policies and promotions. The back rows were full of young people, and of the faces I recognised — 50 or so — no one was a permanent staff member. We were doing the daily work of our agencies on consultant contracts, volunteer schemes and as interns. Staff promotions were not part of my reality and did not feature in my expectations of the future.

After the first sputtering questions, like a car engine that tried but failed to turn over, the room fell silent again. My doubts about the potential for open dialogue were confirmed. Anywhere else I might have asked a question, just to break the ice, but in my second year with the UN, I had learned my lesson — I was to be seen and not heard. After a moment, a young guy stood up. He introduced himself as an intern from Singapore. As he spoke, what I already subconsciously knew was brought into sharp focus. Juniors, especially interns, do not ask questions. The palpable tension and hostile glances confirmed that. He asked confidently, “As a young professional, why should I choose to work for the UN?”

Ask not what the UN can do for you, but how hard you can work before burn out. This had, since the moment I entered the UN, been the most consistent message: Don’t expect special treatment, because there are many thousands more behind you waiting to take your place. Work hard. Don’t complain. Don’t expect anything in return.

The Deputy Secretary-General was caught off guard. Nothing about this scenario conformed to expectations. I don’t recall her response verbatim, but I remember one phrase with piercing clarity. She reminded the intern that he could not expect great financial reward, but the UN did offer one clear advantage over all others: the opportunity to “work for organisation that has the moral authority”.

Her answer shocked me as much as the intern had shocked her. Months of my own personal frustration seemed to come down to this moment when the leadership of the UN seemed so fundamentally out of step with the values we espoused. I didn't say anything that day, but I wish I had said this:

The young, idealistic, enthusiastic people who filled the back rows of this assembly hall aren't here for the money. And yet we suspect that many of our managers are. We are here because we want to be a part of the organisation with the moral authority and yet, eventually, we will walk away.

We walk away from hierarchy that dictates that we can’t speak in meetings, even though we are doing research, designing projects, writing reports and providing analysis for our agencies.

We walk away because we pour hours into work and watch it get sent away with our manager’s name on it.

We walk away because we see senior staff who seem to care as deeply about their position titles and salary grades as they do the issues of their agency. Respect is accorded on a vertical scale. Effectiveness and decency are not factors to be considered.

We walk away because we see protocol smother opportunities for meaningful engagement, tired of organising seminars where substantive content is considered for a moment and — as if our lives depend on it -we make sure the running sheet reflects seniority flawlessly.

We walk away because we see poorly implemented projects continue to be poorly implemented. We are worn down from producing the lies and spin that fill progress reports and public relations materials.

We leave because our simple ideas of how to make a project better are not heard and not welcome. Initiative is frowned upon and even punished.

Bullying is rampant. As a confident Australian raised on relaxed hierarchy, I thought I could stand up bullies more easily, who were often scared manager passing on the abuse that had come down a long chain from above. My colleagues weren't always as confident and many had a lot more to lose than me. The hostile culture took its toll, while projects often achieved very little. Importantly, staff suffered emotionally and professionally.

We walk away when we watch other talented people walk away. We don’t want to be left behind with those staff who lust for prestige and money and ignore the inefficiencies for fear of disturbing their own good fortune.

We walk away because of a fundamental failure of leadership to shape this organisation to practice the values we preach, to demand efficiency, to stamp out harmful behaviour, and to expect more. Organizational culture is, in many offices, toxic.

My experience working for the UN was in many ways professionally rewarding and emotionally tumultuous: an experience that has led to me to believe that it is morally imperative that workplaces are positive places for staff and at least not harmful to their wellbeing.

In researching this essay I was surprised to find a report from 2000 by the UN Joint Inspections Unit that identified the need to address “work-life” issues in order to increase retention of young qualified staff. I could have been a case study for the situation they described. Recognising that the UN must find a way to decrease the “steady outflow of young professionals through resignations,” the report stated:

Most young professionals enter the United Nations system with great expectations as to the nature of the tasks which they will be asked to accomplish. However,…insufficient structures for integration, orientation and development of staff restrict their ability to make a significant contribution to the work of their organizations, leading to rapid disenchantment…A general failure of management to provide enough support to young professionals and attention their concerns and initiatives, can also lead to frustration and separations (Weiss 2009:111).

I was pleased that it had been recognised, disappointed that a decade later it was still relevant.

I agree with the Deputy Secretary-General’s assumption that the opportunity to work for the organisation with the moral authority is enough to retain staff. Perhaps this is true more so for my generation than any other. We know material comfort, so we set its pursuit aside and get on with the business of finding meaning in our lives through our work. We come to the UN to work for the organisation with the moral authority but we find something else. We are deeply disappointed to find systematic disregard for the values the UN espouses such as integrity, tolerance and respect.

The UN has the unique power to set globally accepted standards and norms of behaviour (Sills 2004:47). Its normative power resides not only in the organisation and the machinery that falls under its auspices, but also, I would argue, with every person working under the banner of the UN. With such power comes responsibility. It is therefore justified to hold the international civil service to the highest standards. “The standard bearer must abide by the standards that it has set for the rest of the globe” (Weiss 2009:119). Just as we expect ethical conduct from our clergy and our judiciary, so we should from the UN.

The position of the UN as the world’s moral authority does present unique challenges to management. Calls for reform of the UN system are frequent and extensive (see Weiss 2009, Gold 2004, Simons 1995, Touval 1994, Jett 2000) and range from addressing the structure of the Security Council to the size of the bureaucracy. However, from my perspective as a worker, the most damaging and apparently overlooked problem within the United Nations is negative organisational culture.

While working for the UN I accepted the daily limitations of the organisation. I knew it would not, even at its best, live up to the expectations it generates. I regularly defended the UN amongst my disenchanted friends. But as I defended it, I also knew that the UN was lagging far behind best practice in organisational management. I had watched talented, energetic, determined and creative young people walk away, frustrated to learn that this organisation did not value what they offered.

In my offices there was no sense of the power of individual leaders to shape the organisation. There was scant awareness of the need for leadership. Having since joined a government department in Victoria, Australia where leadership is discussed daily, its absence at the UN is even more apparent.

Some managers were excellent leaders when it came to determining the intellectual direction of a project. The problems existed in the way the offices operated. No one set the tone, there were no clear standards for professional conduct and some of the worst abuses were perpetrated by those who should have been setting those standards. This generated a confused culture in which people ignored their personal needs and the needs of others. Respect between individuals wasn't valued, and the appearance of achieving goals (a separate consideration to actually achieving goals) overshadowed every other consideration in the office. Aggression, unkindness and disrespect for colleagues were excusable in the pursuit of achievement. What we were doing was ‘more important’ than sparing the feelings of individuals.

A sound organisational culture is the key to effective organisations (Wood 2004:436). “Management scholars and consultants increasingly believe that [culture] can have a major impact on the performance of organisations and the quality of work life experienced by their members” (Wood 2004:436). Organisational culture is shaped by the behaviour of leaders and a set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behaviour (Schein 2004:1). “These dynamic processes of culture creation and management are the essence of leadership and make one realize that leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin” (Schein 2004:1). Leaders define organisational cultures (Hogan 2007:2) and according to Herzberg, the most important demotivator in an organisation is incompetent and abusive managers (Herzberg 1966 in Hogan 2007:105).[1] Reflecting on my experience with the UN, it was moments of incompetence and abuse within management that constituted the greatest challenges to morale.

A model utilising leadership to redefine organisational culture could revitalise the UN bureaucracy, and it is not an impractical claim. The quality and effectiveness of the staff is “a variable that can be altered far more easily, swiftly, and cheaply” than other aspects of the complex UN system (Weiss 2009:112). Furthermore, employees are the main strength of the UN and they are also the main expenditure (Weiss 2009:192), therefore, by focusing on its people, we could see revitalisation across the UN system.

As a part of revitalising the organisational culture, I believe the UN should return to the concepts of idealism and dedication of the international civil service originating with the League of Nations in 1919 and growing in sophistication by the time of the inception of the UN (Weiss 2009:191). This revitalised international civil service would place integrity at the centre of its actions, with a clear sense of the values of the UN, and leaders who regularly reinforce those values. Joining the international civil service would involve an explicit acceptance that you would be held to higher account. Therefore, modelling ethical behaviour would become a central feature of organisational culture.

Setting such high standards, which will not always be met, is a sobering task. But I suspect that it’s the trying that matters most. The UN starts from a strong position. Even with ongoing criticism the UN still has an aura. Intelligent, enthusiastic people all over the world dream about working for the UN. These are not conditions many organisations can boast.

A positive organisational culture amongst a workforce as large and diverse as the UN will never be an easy thing to guarantee. Furthermore, discussing organisational culture in cross- and multi-cultural environments is a complex task that will have critics. But the UN must try harder and its efforts must consider the role of leadership. If the organisational culture of the UN does not improve, the current and future generations of humanitarian actors — people who are genuinely motivated to play a role in shaping the world to reflect equality and justice — will be compelled to do so elsewhere.


[1] “A review of climate survey literature reveals a very interesting generalisation. It does not matter when the study is done…it does not matter where the study is done…it does not matter what occupational group is studied…the results are always the same. About 75% of the workforce surveyed will say that the worst single aspect of their job, the most stressful aspect of their job, is their immediate supervisor” (Hogan 2007:106).