Culture is key to healthy community organisations

Posted on 15 Oct 2018

By Denis Moriarty AM, group managing director, Our Community

Words, like people, have their good times and their bad times. This is a very bad year for the word "culture", largely because of the banking royal commission.

CDC Denis
Denis Moriarty says trust is key to dealing with troubled culture.

Every media article on Mr Justice Hayne's name-and-shame extravaganza uses the word at least twice: a "toxic culture" here, a "poisonous culture" there, a "culture of greed" all around.

It's not just banks either. The RSL, the ABC, private schools, and the Catholic Church have their own cultures, and all have been taking their lumps over problem behaviour. The Liberal Party has continuing problems with its culture of bullying and secrecy.

But companies, charities and community organisations that haven't yet been hauled over the coals should probably meditate on the significance of the word "yet".

Consider for a moment what would happen if something major were to go wrong in your organisation, community group, sports club or school, and the public were to get a good look at your culture. How would that play?

Hopefully you have nothing to worry about. But it's worth thinking for a moment about organisational culture, and how you would go about fixing it.

It's not as simple as just obeying the law, even though inquiries do tend to concentrate on the times when people haven't complied. To obey the law, or to blow the whistle on other people when they don't, isn't enough.

You might even say that culture begins when the law stops. No law can go into the kind of detail that will distinguish between a toxic culture of greed and rivalry, and a respectful and accommodating culture you'd like to work in.

There is a lot of overlap between a destructive culture and a difficult workplace or organisation. People don't support each other, because they're set against each other. They're reluctant to share information, because trust is lacking. People want credit, but not responsibility. Tearoom and party room gossip outranks official announcements. Good people leave, nasty people prosper. There's little sense of community, except where everybody's grumbling together about their idiot bosses.

You might assume that not-for-profits would have a major advantage in designing a humanist people-focused culture, where money isn't a primary goal, and people don't get bonuses for fleecing the vulnerable.

Yet while not-for-profits aren't driven solely by money, they don't like losing it either. And cover-ups tend to be driven by fear that if the news (of whatever scandalous thing) got out, then donors would flee and the budget for all the good things the organisation did would collapse.

The more revered the institution, it would seem, the more need to bury scandals; and so people double down, avoiding washing their dirty linen in public.

Getting on top of this vicious circle and developing a healthier culture is a matter of trust, internal and external.

A sound organisation is one where a whistleblower can trust management not to punish them for blowing the whistle, and where management trusts stakeholders sufficiently to believe that it will cope with a public airing of a problem.

An organisation with a healthy culture has values that can't be shuffled to avoid embarrassment, and it has enough self-respect to apologise when necessary. It has rules and guidelines, and it has the flexibility to recognise where those rules and guidelines are providing misguided incentives.

Like so much else in business, and politics, and life, it comes down to common human decency. And like so much else, it involves continuous vigilance.

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