Why organisations do bad things

shutterstock_302371769One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of unethical behaviour in our corporations and public bodies. The sale of unwanted or inappropriate products and anti-competitive collusion seems to be rife. Slavishly following process is proving to have lethal consequences in some of our hospitals.

These stories add up to give the false impression that all is bad in our organisations. It isn’t, of course, but trust and patience are running out.

Having followed the various scandals unfolding over the last few years, it is clear that the individuals acting against the interests of their clients and consumers are not professional criminals. They aren’t even petty criminals. They are ordinary people, carrying out ordinary jobs, serving similar ordinary people.

What makes these ordinary people act in a way that is, at times, so unethical? I would suggest the answer is encapsulated in the concepts culture and courage. These people are caught in the wrong culture and they lack the courage to call it out and take appropriate action.

Before I move on to explain my thinking, let me cover a couple of important points.

First, there is, of course, a percentage of people who are quite happy and go out of their way to do the wrong thing in order to line their pockets and further their careers. I’ve come across them in every organisation I’ve worked in. But this post isn’t about bad people.

Second, when I say “caught” in the wrong culture, I don’t mean to imply that the good people doing wrong things are therefore excused because they somehow can’t help what they are doing. Quite the opposite, I believe they do know and can do something about it. This is why I have coupled courage to the culture issue. As I’ve already said, these good people need the courage to step up to the plate and call out the issues.

Now, back to my original line of thinking. Lets first take culture. Good people do bad things partly because it is what is expected of them. Culture is too often banded about in the media as the reasons for organisation failings. This masks what is actually at work in most cases. At the coal face, where the interaction between organisation and customer takes place, cultural forces become focused in the laser-like beam of performance targets.

The actual (not the espoused) values of the organisation, its strategic imperatives, the needs of investors, the needs of its managers to earn a bonus or promotion, all end up being expressed in the form of targets that individual customer facing staff need to achieve.

The achievement of these targets often forms the basis for reward, recognition and even job security. Given the current economic conditions, keeping hold of a job is at the forefront of many minds and so we see how many are dissuaded from challenging the system, even when that system encourages them to do bad things.

Now, targets are not, in the main, set with the direct intention of causing harm to people. the problem is, targets become very blunt instruments when using them to control very complex human systems. For example, a target set on one key performance indicator, inevitably means the lowering of attention on another, non-targeted performance indicator. Unintended consequences often appear when the focus is on one or two key performance indicators. Managers often then set more targets to try and control all the possible variables of process and human behaviour.

The result is an overly complicated, beuarocratic monitoring and control system that rarely achieves its objectives and certainly introduces massive inefficiencies.

An alternative to targets is a values-led or principle-based approach. I’m not going to explore these in this post, suffice to say that very few organisations utilise them. The main reasons for this are our legal and regulatory frameworks, coupled with a prevailing command and control, top-down approach to management.

So, we have culture, expressed in the form of targets. The achievement of these targets leads to reward and job security. Fearful of losing their job or of making a stand, walking out, and then not finding another job, the vast majority of people keep their heads down and push for the target, no matter what the consequences.

This is where courage, or the lack of it comes in. The vast majority of people quite clearly lack the courage to do something about what they can see going on around them. Why? Maybe it is because of fear. Fear can be very debilitating. It stops us doing things we know are right for fear of the consequences. These consequences can sometimes be to highlight the inadequacies of others and for their insecurities to cause them to no longer accept us as part of their tribe. Feeling like one belongs is a very deep human need.

This is where my argument comes full circle back to culture. In order to feel like an outcast, someone needs to do something that is culturally frowned on. Unfortunately, whistle-blowing, rocking the boat, or even simply suggesting improvements to unfair processes are not the done thing in our conservative, undemocratic organisations.

Answer this question honestly: Given the choice between two equally matched candidates, would you hire a) the one leaving their organisation for improved career prospects, or b) the one that whistle-blew on their previous employer, resulting in financial sanctions?

The answer to that question is what drives so many people to stay put and say nothing. More whistle-blowing, which appears to be badly needed, is going to need a culture change in both our organisations and our society.

In ending this post, I’d like to return to the subject of courage. As we wait for a culture change in our acceptance of whistle-blowing and a move to more principle-based management, we might want to consider the development of more courage. My experience tells me that the majority of people believe that courage is the absence of fear. There are many great statesmen and women that would disagree.

One of the greatest of these is Nelson Mandela. Here are his words on fear and the positive impact that developing courage can offer us:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and famous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Proactive culture change interventions are absolutely needed in many of our organisations. At the same time, we all need to stand up and be counted if we are to accelerate the pace of change and ensure those in positions of power are held true to their espoused values.

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