Organisations need outsiders to challenge their dysfunctional narratives

By Martin Vogel

Groupthink is rarely healthy
Groupthink is rarely healthy

I’ve been reconnecting with my work on narratives in coaching for a seminar I held this week for a City law firm. I was struck by how the prism of narratives helps us understand the enduring power of organisational cultures that foster corporate scandals – and by the questions this raises for our ethical orientation as coaches.

The problem of dysfunctional organisational cultures just won’t go away. Dysfunction is such an anodyne word, it barely scratches the surface of the harm that is wrought by self-serving organisational cultures. This week we heard how a cover-up at the Care Quality Commission of its own failings in inspecting a hospital in Barrow contributed to the needless deaths of at least eight mothers and babies. An organisation that exists to protect the public interest in health care put protecting its own reputation above the safety of patients.

Narrative awareness helps us understand how this comes about. The pioneers of narrative psychology – such as Michael White – highlighted how the way we make sense of our lives and the world around us is shaped by the stories that emerge from our families, our cultures and so on. We can embody contradictory narratives simultaneously. As the offspring of two different immigrant cultures, a part of my identity will always be that of an outsider; yet having been born and brought up in the UK, my sensibilities are also throughly British. In the past, the way we interpreted the world was largely shaped by institutions such as the Church and country. Nowadays, these grand narratives have less hold on us. But the central place of work in giving meaning to our lives, means the narratives of the organisations that employ are especially significant.

Over the past thirty years, corporations have become immensely powerful institutions. They behave with a sense of entitlement both with respect to society at large and with respect to the individuals who work in them. They are so important to us as employees, we give up so much of our conscious lives to them, that we literally identify them – our identities are bound up with the organisations for whom we work. The narratives we encounter at work crowd out the other narratives that inform our lives, at least for the time we are at work. In this way, people who may hold quite upright values in their personal lives can regard it as appropriate to behave at work in ways which they would regard as abhorrent outside it.

Hence, we hear of nurses who treat patients with cruelty rather than compassion; of journalists concealing their own criminal phone-hacking instead of uncovering wrongdoing. We hear of bankers who, having bet their enterprises and the economy on risky investments that went spectacularly wrong, think nothing of raiding the public purse to reward themselves with inflated bonuses while taxpayers tighten their belts. While we look on bemused, they remain enmeshed in a narrative of a global competition for banking “talent” that justifies their sense of personal entitlement amid the collective failure of their industry.

One of the problems with stories is that they have the quality of a given reality. They seem immutable when really they are the constructs of a particular time and place. The narratives that arise from managerialism, shareholder value, free market capitalism – call it what you will – are especially hard to challenge as they have become the common sense of our age. They provide the mental constructs by which we make sense of our society. But I believe that era is coming to an end.

It’s striking that the most resonant critiques of the ideology of managerialism have come from commentators who are friendly to capitalism. The Conservative MP, Jesse Norman, is a staunch critic of what he calls “crony capitalism” and advocates a moral case for the “real capitalism” which fosters trust and equity. Colin Mayer – author of Firm Commitment – reminds us that the concept of the corporation is of an organisation licensed by society to enjoy privileges in return for benefits they generate for individuals and society as a whole. He sees the interests of both society and corporations as lying in a return to this foundation of long-term stewardship. Gary Hamel has documented the crisis of trust in business and explores examples of firms that are doing well by rooting themselves in moral values.

These ideas are signs of an incipient paradigm shift – a shift that will be protracted and contested. In one of his last books, Ill Fares the Land, the historian, Tony Judt, reminded us how social democracy used to be the common sense of the age. When it collapsed in failure in the 1970s, it took ten or fifteen years for the free market consensus to take hold. A similar transition is occurring now, as the consensus that has favoured unbridled corporate freedom and a marketised society breaks down. This is less apparent in Britain, than in countries like Greece and Spain where the social contract is rapidly disintegrating and the public realise how little investment they have left in the current order. But it is reflected here in our disgust with tax-avoiding corporations and anger with the serial failings of the NHS.

Many organisations, though, are so locked in their narratives of corporate self-interest that they are blind to how the zeitgeist is turning against them. We remain mired in scandal after scandal because the values of organisations and of society are increasingly misaligned. Even when corporate leaders become alert to the dysfunction they must address, they underestimate the necessary depth of change.  As the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards noted this week:

“Profound cultural change in institutions as large and complex as the main UK banks is unlikely to be achieved quickly. Bank leaders will need to commit themselves to working hard at the unglamorous task of implementing such change for many years to come.”

Corporations need to change. But they are unlikely to find the resources within to accomplish this, precisely because of the groupthink that flows from their dominant narratives. As Margaret Heffernan has documented, wilful blindness is, to some extent, hardwired into our psychology. Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated a tendency for people to gravitate to the group view, even when their rationality tells them it is wrong. The problem in many business cultures is that the group view people gravitate towards is that of their corporate collective rather than broader society.

If organisations wish to renew themselves, they cannot avoid engaging people who hold themselves outside their systems who can bring disinterested inquiry and are licensed to challenge assumptions and cultures. They need coaches and consultants to step up to be cultural auditors who, like financial auditors, serve the client organisation by aligning themselves with externally validated ethical standards in order not to be overwhelmed by the client’s agenda.

Coaching professionals like to see themselves as grounded individuals bringing an ethical frame to their work. But who do they see themselves as serving in contracting with organisations? When they see themselves as client-focussed, they usually acknowledge a tension between their responsibility to their coaching clients and that to the contracting organisation. When they claim to be ethical, that implies they hold themselves accountable also to society. How do coaches hold their responsibilities to these three tiers of interests: client, organisation and society? In my experience, this is not much discussed in the professional development of coaches.

In fact, coaches still tend to work within the framework of shareholder value – construing their work with individual coachees in terms of broader organisational return on investment. To the extent that they do this without grounding their work in the social purposes of business, do they collude with wilful blindness and miss opportunities to reflect back ethical dilemmas and society’s needs of business?

It is fashionable to hold economists to account for failing to provide advice which would have prevented the financial collapse. But what about coaches? What roles were they playing in banks, the media and the NHS as institutions in these sectors succumbed to systemic lapses of ethical judgment?

Healthy organisations are those that accept that coaches have a responsibility to challenge their received wisdom. Coaches can help coachees lift the veil that keeps them colluding with wilful blindness – and thereby enable them to make more informed choices about whether to conform or to challenge. This benefits the organisation by fostering diversity of thought, a nurturing of empathy and imagination, that can avert reputational disasters. Coaches can prise open groupthink by broadening the narratives available to coachees with those from beyond the dominant culture: they can highlight alternative values or organisational sub-cultures that are in play; they can introduce ethical or emotional perspectives that are normally marginalised in the corporate discourse; they can put the focus on the customer or end-user’s perspective, or that of society at large.

Beyond that, lies the question of the model of leadership society now requires of businesses – and by extension, the model to which coaches should work? The managerial ideology presented a self-serving model. Coaches routinely support clients to pursue the alluring incentives and career progression that managerialism holds out. But, at its best, coaching also puts on the agenda a higher purpose.

Should coaches, taking Mayer’s model, advocate for the meeting of obligations which flow from the privileges of corporate status? Perhaps they should reach back to the servant leadership model of Robert Greenleaf. Back in the 1970s, he anticipated the tensions that could arise when power was concentrated in large institutions whose leaders had an inadequate grasp of the social implications of wielding their influence.  There are current examples of reformist leadership, such as Paul Polman at Unilever who stopped quarterly reporting and sought investors who are prepared to take a long-term perspective. How can coaches learn from such examples to challenge businesses to do well by adopting more socially-beneficial strategies?

There are interesting challenges ahead as the paradigm shifts. We need to define a professional stance for coaches which enables them to serve corporate narratives while upholding the societal expectations of business implied by the licence to form a corporation. The resolution lies in working creatively with the tensions between corporate self-interest, empowerment of individuals and advocacy for broad societal expectations.

Image courtesy Michael Dawes.