Breaking the rules can result in a competitive advantage, and some organizations or teams will therefore designate a specific member to engage in unethical or illegal activity. These designees occupy “illicit roles.” Although most organizational roles are formalized and have well-defined responsibilities, illicit roles resist formalization for a variety of reasons, including the fact that any organization that formalized them would be admitting that they sanction illegal or unethical behavior. Furthermore, formalizing the role could implicate other members of the organization in the illegal activity.
ILLICIT ORGANIZATIONAL ROLES
New research (Stuart & Moore, 2017) examined illicit roles and how they impact an organization’s performance. They analyzed the performance of professional hockey teams. Most hockey teams unofficially designate one or more players as “enforcers.” The role of the enforcer is to fight members of the opposing team. The enforcer fits the definition of an illicit role, as fighting is explicitly forbidden by hockey rules. Nonetheless, the enforcers fill an important role on the team and provide a competitive advantage, as their presence is intimidating and motivates opponents to “back off” from members of their team.
The researchers examined what happened to a team’s performance when an enforcer was unable to participate in a series of games due to injury. They found that the absence of an enforcer tended to disrupt the team’s performance more than the absence of a person occupying a formal role on the team (e.g. captains, defenders, centers, etc.). The only exception was the absence of a goalie, which tended to disrupt team performance about the same amount as the absence of an enforcer. They also found that when teams try to replace an enforcer, the team’s performance tends to recover at a slower rate. Finally, they found that the more experience an enforcer had with a team, the more disruptive their absence was to the team’s performance.
ILLICIT ROLES CREATE VULNERABILITY
Although the hockey enforcer represents one instance of an illicit role, the authors believe that we can draw conclusions about illicit roles in general. They argue that individuals occupying illicit roles are difficult to replace, which explains why their absence disrupts performance so significantly. There are a variety of reasons why it is difficult to find replacements. People in illicit roles engage in risky work, which makes their role undesirable. Furthermore, people in illicit roles can’t easily train replacements, as allowing them to do so would be implicitly endorsing their actions. Finally, anyone occupying an illicit role has to be highly trusted, and it takes time to form those bonds of trust. The researchers argue that the absence of a goalie affected team performance about the same amount as absence of an enforcer because there are few replacements for goalies.
Furthermore, the authors say that even when a replacement is found for an illicit role, it takes that replacement time to help performance recover. By its nature, the tasks and expectations of a person involved in an illicit role are not formalized and are therefore vague. This makes it difficult for others to pick up their work and integrate it with the efforts of others on the team. To effectively execute an illicit role, one must possess nuanced knowledge of the social context. This is because someone in an illicit role has to know when, where, and how they can breach the official rules. Indiscriminate rule-breaking behavior could draw unwanted attention to the organization’s activities. Obtaining this nuanced knowledge takes time, slowing the rate at which an organization’s performance recovers.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS AND REGULATORS
Practically speaking, this study shows that organizations that include an illicit role are taking a risk. While the illicit role may confer a competitive advantage, the role also destabilizes the organization. When the illicit role goes unfilled, performance is significantly disrupted. If an organization already includes an illicit role and the occupant of that role leaves, it may be best to leave that role unfilled and restructure the organization in such a way that the role is no longer needed. Furthermore, the research suggests that unethical and illegal activity tends to be delegated to a small number of people in illicit roles. For regulators, discouraging organizational misconduct is likely to require targeting these individuals for prosecution. Another implication is that regulators ought to carefully study whether individual acts of unethical or illegal behavior are unofficially sanctioned by an organization. People are often put in illicit roles as a way to protect others from punishment. Regulators may be able to discourage bad organizational behavior by ensuring that illicit roles do not provide this protection.
Stuart, H.C., & Moore, C. (2017). Shady characters: The implications of illicit organizational roles for resilient team performance. Academy of Management Journal, 60(5), 1963-1985.