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I’ve written about this stuff before but I am prompted by the impressive and entertaining Brene Brown who spoke at the RSA today (she clearly had a lot of fans in the audience). Part of her evidence for the importance of getting in touch with our vulnerability, and seeing it as a source of strength and humanity, lies in the finding that most people could recall moments of  profound and scarring shame occurring during their school years.

We tend to associate psychological damage with people who suffer mental illness and have experienced extraordinary hardship as children, but as Brown’s research shows, we all of us experience moments of fear and shame as children which powerfully shape our future world view. This in turn is linked to an inner voice I believe most of us hear from time to time, particularly when we are finding it tough to do what we sense is the right thing, or to resist the temptation to do the wrong thing. This is the voice that says ‘you know, it is really hard being me’.

So far, so obvious: the dimension I have added to this basic psychology links it to the apparently inexorable rise in cases of organisations suffering reputational damage after having their internal decision making exposed to an unsympathetic world; think the police and Hillsborough or Stephen Lawrence, the Catholic church and paedophile priests, Starbucks and tax, the CQC and hospital negligence, banks and credit default swaps, bonuses, Libor ,PPI etc.

My contention is that the human voice has an organisational echo. Public services bodies, charities and companies also have an inner voice saying ‘it’s tough being us’. This is the voice that is murmuring in the background when misbehaviour is glossed over, ethical corners cut, cover-ups concocted and citizens exploited. The problem for organisations is that a combination of declining deference, rising education and social media is making it harder and harder to hide away their disreputable decisions.

I made this point during a speech to a business breakfast this morning. No one responded directly but it must have set off a subliminal response. One drinks firm representative said it was trying to do the right thing in selling fewer cheap strong products but its competitors were taking advantage and investors werecomplaining. An energy firm said all its good work tended to get ignored when prices had to rise across the whole sector. A bank said it was almost impossible to make an honest buck and still provide free banking. As I left a woman whispered to me ‘did you notice how they all did that thing about how hard it is being them?’.

The first step to doing the right thing is owning your shame/vulnerability/self-pity; being alert when the voice gets louder. The tendency is to assume the second step is a commitment to change. Well, up to a point. The voice reflects very deeply held feelings and its message is often subtle and disguised. Relying on will power alone, we will often succumb to its siren call.

Step two is drawn from social psychology and behavioural economics and calls for a shift in what is sometimes called ‘choice architecture’. Noticing the moments when the voice is loudest (which are also the moments of vulnerability to doing the wrong thing) we have to rearrange the prevailing pressures and incentives so that it becomes that much easier to do the right thing. An example of such a strategy is the decision of Unilever to abandon quarterly reporting (at least in the US) and urge short term investors to take their money elsewhere.

This leaves a question. What if it is very difficult to realign incentives, if it seems impossible to make it any less hard being the organisation we are?  The answer depends on the starting point for the process of inquiry and change. Is it a commitment or merely a good intention?

If the latter and realignment proves to be tough it is likely what emerges will simply be a cleverer way of disguising the voice and obfuscating the dysfunctional behaviour which results. If it is the former the organisation mustaccept it might emerge with very radical conclusions, including the need essentially to kill off the organisation as it is and grow something completely new; or to put it in the more prosaic language of the corporate sector to ‘re-design the business model’.

It is fear of these radical conclusion which means so much corporate self-examination is superficial (something often legitimised by self-serving management consultants) and why I fear the cases of organisational failure and negligence will keep coming.


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