05/08/2015

The City, Westminster, the IAAF. Why culture is making the headlines

BY Julian Gorham

A big news-week this week, with a banker sentenced for his role in fixing the inter-bank lending rate, allegations about ex-PM Ted Heath and evidence of extensive doping in athletics.

Apart from the depressing nature of these stories and what they say about the human condition, what is the one thing they have in common?

Each story is told in the same context and that is the culture that was present at the time.

We are told it wasn’t just one rogue trader who fixed LIBOR, it was the ‘banking culture’, other people were doing it, and lots more knew what was going on.

The allegations swirling around the late Ted Heath are, themselves, surrounded by talk of ‘the culture’ – an ex-Chief Whip talks about a culture of cover-up in the Commons, one that the Whips carefully cultivated to wield power over MPs.

And the question of the culture in sport and at the IAAF sits at the heart of the story broken by The Sunday Times this week. The suggestion is that a third of medals in endurance events in the last twenty years have been won by athletes with unsatisfactory blood test results.

Culture is important because it sets edges on how people behave. It’s the permission people need from an organisation and the people in it to do this good thing, or that bad thing. If the culture is also a closed one, they are likely to get away with the bad things – at least for the time being, even in our technology driven, super-connected world.

Culture sets expectations and galvanises organisations. Deliberately set, meaningfully communicated and carefully managed, it can have a positive impact on individual and organisational performance. On the other hand, there can be negative consequences when culture is left to drift and develop of its own accord. As we are now seeing in the City, at Westminster and at the IAAF.