People in organisations sometimes engage in severe acts of abuse towards people under their control or care, such as subordinates, clients, pupils, or patients. Using a situationist perspective, we developed a theory of organisational control to identify characteristics of organisations that make such behavior more likely. The theory indicates organisational pathways that constitute a slippery slope towards severe forms of maltreatment. To test our theory, we empirically examined the sadistic abuse of vulnerable patients by care home staff, using longitudinal data on 14,000 US care homes. The analysis showed that the neglect of patients, minor rule breaches, and physical restraint gradually escalates into active sadistic behaviour by carers. A lack of both informal and formal monitoring mechanisms gives rise to these pathways. Surprisingly, the analysis showed that forms of formal supervision – both by managers and team leaders – largely fail to curtail abuse. Whereas prior research focused on how organisational measures around control, rules, and monitoring can unleash positive employee behaviors such as creativity and innovation, our findings indicate that organisational context can also unleash the darker inclinations in human behavior.
Freek Vermeulen is a Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. He writes and speaks on topics such as strategies for growth, innovation, and strategy execution. The Harvard Business Review Press described him as “a strategist with a keen eye for the absurd.”
Freek’s research has appeared in various academic journals, such as Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, and the Strategic Management Journal, but also in managerial publications such as the Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
He is a keynote speaker on industry and company conferences and the winner of several teaching awards, including the first ever winner of London Business School’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He currently serves as the Chair of the School’s Strategy and Entrepreneurship Department.