A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

On Thinking Institutionally

By Mason Spirit contributor on October 1, 2008

Hugh Heclo, Robinson Professor of Public Affairs

While corporate and political scandals and abuse of trust wear on the country’s citizens, Heclo’s latest academic work provides a thoughtful analysis of how Americans can better serve the organizations and institutions they depend on and participate in, setting a positive example for leaders and citizens alike.

Heclo’s book, On Thinking Institutionally (Paradigm Publishers, 2008), discusses the stalemate between a society that distrusts institutions and the need to work within those very institutions.

“[We] have grown more suspicious of almost all our society’s major institutions. That includes business, unions, public schools, the legal and medical professions, religious institutions, journalism, and nonprofit organizations,” he says.

Using sports as an example, Heclo playfully opens his new book by describing the behavior of fictitious athletes named Berry and Cal. Where Berry is interested in breaking records and self-promotion, Cal is businesslike and professional in his approach to the game.

The example sets out to show that playing by the rules is respecting the game; however, thinking institutionally requires a deeper “respect in depth” than just by playing by the rules.

“To love the institution—whether it is your company, politics, or sports—and never dream of doing harm to it because it has been so good to you, is thinking institutionally,” Heclo explains.

Leaders of Enron, Bear Stearns, and the mortgage industry engaged in groupthink and did not behave respectfully toward their institutions, Heclo says.

Referring to the demise of these companies, he adds, “It’s not just institutional failure, it’s people failing institutions.”

—James Greif

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