Inside a far-Left organization
Amnesty International started out as politically impartial but those days are long gone. I was a member of it myself years ago. It is heavily Leftist these days. It still does some good work in some genuinely tyrannical countries but also emits gravely unbalanced criticisms of Western countries such as Israel and the United States. They even slam peaceful old laid-back Australia. And they even campaigned against the unfortunate Sri Lankans who were at the time battling a vicious Marxist insurgency led by the relentless Tamil Tigers. And in Israel Amnesty is seen as little more than a branch of the PLO.
Its inability to keep its nose clean is evidenced by the fact that there is actually a Wikipedia article titled "Criticism of Amnesty International". And there is a fuller account of Amnesty's Leftist biases here.
So Amnesty is led by far-Leftists. And what do we know of such folk? We know that they are angry hate-filled people. Just say "Donald Trump" in front of one of them to witness the hate and anger come pouring out. And look at what they do when they gain untrammelled power -- as in the old Soviet Union or Mao's China. They have no respect for life at all. They are vicious mass murderers. They stop at nothing in their thirst for power.
So what do you expect of an organization led by such people? In a word you expect a "toxic" organization full of unhappy people. The report below shows that Amnesty fulfils that expectation. There is nothing surprising, original or inexplicable in it
The report was devastating. The working environment at the organisation was described as “toxic”. There was widespread bullying of staff and a bunker mentality among senior management; 39% of employees developed mental or physical health issues as a result of their work. An investment bank or a technology firm in Silicon Valley?
No. This was Amnesty International, a human-rights charity. Five managers have just left the organisation following the report’s findings.
Workplaces create their own hierarchies, regardless of whether the aim of the operation is to help people or make money. Two female partners at KPMG, an accountancy group, recently left out of concern at the behaviour of a male colleague. Coming from a family of teachers, Bartleby can attest that school staff rooms are beset by bitter rivalries. Universities are famous for their internecine disputes, as captured in the adage that “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
At Amnesty, the problem was not with staff motivation. The report, by the Kon-Terra group, a consultancy, makes clear that many employees regarded their job as a “vocation or life cause” that provided them with “a compelling sense of purpose and meaning”. But that commitment proved to be a double-edged sword.
First, in the eyes of workers, managers believed the importance of the NGO’s work was so great that they did not need to listen to staff concerns. Employees, the higher-ups seemed to conclude, “should be grateful for being able to work at Amnesty”. Second, workers found it difficult to set healthy boundaries on their hours (or on their tolerance of a toxic climate) owing to a deeply held belief in their mission. One cause of stress was a process called the Global Transition Programme, which moved Amnesty’s staff away from headquarters and closer to the abuses they covered. Workers felt that their views about these transfers were not seriously considered and that the implementation of the programme was rushed. As a result, employees found their work patterns disrupted, even as some moved to high-risk locations. Concerns came to a head when Gaëtan Mootoo, a long-time employee, committed suicide, leaving a note blaming work pressures. Another staff member committed suicide shortly afterwards, although inquiries found no evidence that the death was work-related. These tragic incidents led to the commissioning of the report.
So what went wrong? On the surface, Amnesty seemed to offer services to help employees cope with stress. Staff were eligible for five counselling sessions, and an external reporting service for whistleblowing had been created. Programmes were developed to train leaders and to help staff support their colleagues. But these efforts were described as “ad hoc, reactive and inconsistent”. In a survey 85% of employees said they had not been given enough guidance to support the well-being of their colleagues.
The problem clearly came from the top. If senior management is not committed to a caring atmosphere, no amount of discussion groups or special programmes will make things better.
A certain amount of stress at work is inevitable. Most organisations are hierarchical. Deadlines are a part of life, as is uncertainty over whether individual projects are going to succeed. But workers who are stressed and fearful are unlikely to stay in their jobs or be productive in the long run.
Many managers derive a lot of their status from their oversight role. That is, in part, why organisations create such roles: they can reward high-achieving employees with a title as well as with extra money. But power is seductive. Peter Cappelli, a scholar of human resources at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, says that toxicity arises when “the boss acts like a dictator and actively punishes people who articulate different views or express disagreement”.
As Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School explains in her book, “The Fearless Organisation”, the ideal is to create an atmosphere of “psychological safety” where workers can speak their minds. Managers need to learn the art of “respectful inquiry”, where they ask employees questions and listen intently to the answers. The bosses at Amnesty may have listened to the political dissidents whose causes they were championing. But they clearly weren’t listening to their staff.