Why Corruption Is a Part of Government that May Never Go Away

Sunrise at the U.S. Capitol as the federal government shut down goes in to its fifth day on October 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. The House will vote today on the measure to restore back pay to federal employees who have been furloughed during the shutdown before recessing until Monday. The vote is expected to pass with bipartisan support. (Photo by Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images)

Photo by Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images

It’s hard to argue that many of the world’s businesses and governments have deeply-seeded issues with corruption. While there are many efforts in place to put an end to it, or at least mitigate the effects, new research suggests that corruption may in fact be unavoidable. A study published in The Leadership Quarterly last year indicates that even the most honest among us are susceptible to corruption. The study itself, conducted by John Antonakis and his colleagues from the University of Lausanne, specifically examined how power influences those in leadership positions, and the likelihood that they will act in an ethical manner.

To reach their conclusion, researchers “used incentivized experimental games to manipulate leader power — the number of followers and the discretion leaders had to enforce their will. Leaders had complete autonomy in deciding payouts to themselves and their followers. Although leaders could make pro-social decisions to benefit the public good they could also abuse their power by invoking antisocial decisions, which reduced the total payouts to the group but increased the leaders’ earnings.”

What the research team found is that those who were less honest had a higher likelihood to become corrupted, and even those who were deemed to be more honest fell victim to the same temptations, given enough time. The basic question was whether or not power actually corrupts individuals, or whether corrupt individuals are drawn to power. The answer, it seems, is both.

In a practical sense, what does this mean for businesses and governments? Can structural safeguards be put in place to help ward off corruption? That is the conclusion that Antonakis arrives at. “We think that strong governance mechanisms and strong institutions are the key to keeping leaders in check,” he said.

“Organisations should limit how much leaders can drink from the seductive chalice of power.”


The video above was released along with the study, to further illustrate the methodology and dig into the details of the findings. It starts by defining corruption as you might expect: the abuse of power for personal gain, while causing harm to the greater good. Power, on the other hand, is defined as having the ability to enforce one’s will over others. Pretty straightforward definitions, and from that starting point, the study was able to get traction.

Again, researchers did find that power tends to corrupt, no matter how honest individuals are deemed to be at the beginning. But not only did the study delve into the shifting levels of power and corruption within organizations, it also took one other interesting agent into account: testosterone. “Honesty did not shield leaders from the corruptive effects of power,” Antonakis said. “Interesting too, we found that testosterone augmented the effects of power on corruption.” Take that how you will, but it is an interesting caveat.

Since many people count corruption as one of the biggest problems facing big business and government today, particularly in America, what practical knowledge can be gained from a study like this? That is, now that we know almost no one is really shielded from corruption, what can we do about it?

Antonakis and his colleagues recommend implementing governance mechanisms — a series of checks and balances, if you will —  in order to keep people in line. While our government is built with a system of checks and balances built in, many businesses and other organizations do not, or there are relatively easy ways to counteract them. Whether or private organizations are willing to adopt new anti-corruption mechanisms seems to be the key question, and it’s a question that may be impossible to answer.

There are some possible solutions to tackling America’s corruption problem. For example, if testosterone has been shown to be linked to augmenting the amount of corruption within the ranks, hiring more women into leadership roles may be a good idea. Women are finding themselves in high-ranking positions more so now than ever before, and studies like this one show that it may pay off in a way many never have considered.

As far as putting checks and balances into private organizations, the options are really unlimited. One way business could potentially do this is to take the government’s model and improve upon it. Separate executive authority, and let responsibility lie in the hands of many, as opposed to a few. Of course, many companies probably do this or at least some version of this. But for those that are truly corrupt, or are afraid of becoming corrupt, embracing a new business structure is likely the way to go.

As the findings suggest, governance mechanisms and a solid structure — read that as a solid set of rules and ethical codes — need to not only be in place, but also referenced and respected. If corruption truly is inevitable, as the study suggests, then having firm mechanisms in place is of paramount performance. They can’t be ignored when someone screws up, as they often are.

Corruption isn’t going away, and the majority of people seem to be prone to it. After all, everyone has their price, as they say. Since this is the case, putting safeguards into place, and planning for the worst appears to be the best solution. We certainly shouldn’t treat everyone like a criminal as soon as they come into office or a position of leadership, or even assume that they are, or will be, corrupted. But by working together to ensure that everyone within a given system or organization is on the same page, and that things remain transparent, corruption can be tackled before it becomes a much more serious issue than it already is.

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