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There is a fuzzy divide in the debate about the erosion of trust in institutions. On the one hand people who think the problem lies overwhelmingly with institutions and their actions; on the other, those who suggest the problem lies more with the perceptions and unfair demands of those who judge the institution. There is truth in both camps for what we can see is a folie a deux; organisational failure, self-serving institutional cultures and unjustifiable behaviours interact with unreasonable and contradictory demands to generate ever more inauthentic, and sometimes, toxic relationships. A consequence, as I laid out in last year’s annual lecture, is the continuing decline of legitimate hierarchical authority; yet it is a source of power much needed to contribute to solving tough problems.

I have tended to be in the camp that lays the blame on the public: put it down to my own role in the establishment and to the easy rhetorical pickings to be found in the contradictory nature of public attitudes. But I have come to see things differently, at least in the sense that if we want things to change it is more promising to look for improvements in institutional behaviour than a step change in public insight and tolerance. But even in organisations substantive change will not come from spontaneous ethical renewal, nor even from a kneejerk reaction to exposure, instead people in organisations need to appreciate what has gone wrong and how profound is the challenge of putting them right. Over the next three posts I will offer a way to approach this thinking…..

A few years ago I spent a couple of very intense weekends undertaking what was in effect a kind of mass cognitive and behavioural therapy session, organised by a well-known and slightly cultish movement. I managed to resist the hard sell attempts to get me to commit a large part of my life to the organisation. The irony being that had the sell been less hard I would have been much more inclined, for years to come, to recommend it to other people.

Nevertheless I gained an interesting insight into human psychology.

The second weekend was dedicated to discovering our ‘story’, the rationale we provide ourselves for our various failings, frustration with which had presumably led each of us to cough up £300 to attend the session. Although we were a mixed crowd with very different kinds of pathologies (anything from sexual infidelity or a violent temper to obesity or shyness), when on Sunday evening we took in turns to come to the front and briefly declaim it turned out our stories had much in common. Each was some variant of: ‘it’s tough being me and that’s why I can’t be expected to change’.

This characteristic of our personality has an echo in the places where many of us work – organisations. If, like most people, you are employed by, or in some way or another dedicate a lot of effort to, an organisation – consider this: isn’t there quite deep in the culture of that organisation a belief that it is struggling against the odds? Economic downturn, fiscal austerity, cutthroat competition, shareholder short term-ism, public mistrust and misunderstanding, media hostility, the sheer pace of change; these are the organisational equivalents of the feelings of hurt, fear and self pity which inhabit our own narrative.

Despite the pain and disappointment we have to find a way to lives so our story contains another element; the belief that our life matters and that we need, moreover deserve, to survive and even to flourish. Similarly, organisations have to believe in the necessity of their own continuation and success. Otherwise we wouldn’t bother to justify ourselves let alone sometimes to seek to change.

These elements – the will to survive and self-pity - are in just about every organisational culture. They are also heavily implicated when things go wrong:

The police have the toughest job in the world, dealing day in day out with criminals and yobs, it is vital that the force’s reputation is protected so….

By spreading the word of God the Catholic church brings comfort and guidance in a world of sin and confusion so…

An ignorant public egged on by a hostile media hates politicians, has no idea how hard and thankless our job is and refuses to pay us a decent salary so…

Without an investigative media wrongdoing would not be exposed and unless we get a sensational story no one will buy our newspaper so….

Shareholders demand profit maximisation and the financial services sector is highly competitive so...

We are forced to meet a hundred and one pointless Government targets at the same time as staying within tight budgets and dealing with difficult people so…

Hillsborough, the cover up of abuse by priests, MPs’ expenses, tabloid telephone hacking, misselling of payment protection insurance, Mid Staffs hospital: it is my contention that not just at one point but over and again in these episodes a siege culture of corporate self pity kicked in and helped tip the scales against acknowledging wrong and choosing to address it.

I guess this might all seem obvious but in the next post I will explore why this way of thinking has contributed to declining trust and what institutions might need to do about it.

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