The Culture of FIFA

It’s amusing to see how everybody appears to be at least a little shocked that Sepp Blatter resigned as President of FIFA, even though you could see that coming now that he has the FBI on his tail.  The proverb says that fish rot from the head down, and the same is true for an organization like FIFA, although things are a bit more complicated than that.  Judging by the high number of its officials currently under indictment it is pretty obvious that FIFA has a culture of corruption, but Blatter cannot solely be held responsible for the behavior of his underlings, as he so eloquently expressed at the opening of the most recent FIFA congress:  “I am willing to accept that the President of FIFA is responsible for everything, but I would at least like to share that responsibility with everyone.  We cannot constantly supervise everyone in football … you cannot ask everyone to behave ethically.”

It almost sounds like Blatter knows something about organizational culture.  In everyday language, the word ‘culture’ refers to literature, paintings and sculptures, the performing arts, movies etc.  In other words, cultural products are products of the (creative) mind.   Similarly, leading textbooks usually define organizational culture as something of the mind, for instance Greenberg and Baron’s ‘Behavior in Organizations’:  “Culture is a cognitive framework consisting of attitudes, values, behavioral norms and expectations shared by organization members.  Scientists often think of organizational culture as a set of basic assumptions shared by members of an organization.”  Sounds like all the members of an organization are always aware of its culture, but are they?  Other textbooks, like Richard Daft’s ‘Organization Theory and Design,’ are more cautious:  “Culture generally goes unnoticed.”  Apparently there is more to organizational culture than symbols, stories, rites, values, norms, beliefs etc., but what?

I would suggest that organizational culture first and foremost has a material existence in behavioral patterns.  It is ‘the way things are done’ in an organization, and thus the largely unintended product of the interactions of its members.  Culture is the ‘collective subconsciousness’ of an organization, because it makes people do things in a certain way without them necessarily knowing why they do things in that particular way, other than that it ‘feels right’ and that other members of the organization behave in a similar way.

The FIFA Executive Committee that decided in December 2010 which countries would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups consists of 24 members, the President included.  Undoubtedly a number of those members come from parts of the world where offering and accepting bribes is a normal part of doing business, and they can hardly be blamed for carrying their own cultural habits into FIFA and behaving accordingly.

Sepp Blatter can therefore not be held accountable for the shenanigans of all the members of the Executive Committee, no matter how unethical their behavior may have been by European and American standards, as he indicated in his opening remarks to the delegates.  A leader alone cannot make a culture, but he can set a behavioral example, something that is known as ‘modeling.’  We’ll undoubtedly soon find out what Blatter’s example was.

Hugo Kijne

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