‘Just cultures’: transforming the way we work

Published Date: 
Tuesday, 13 October 2015

What do Volkswagon, FIFA, and the Roman Catholic Church have in common?

An organisational culture of fear, bureaucracy and hierarchy, according to business commentator Margaret Heffernan (right), is reducing individual responsibility and enabling unethical conduct to flourish – as highlighted by the recent high profile failings of these and other organisations. How this culture sets in, and what can be done to stop it, was the subject of Heffernan’s Windsor Ethics Lecture ‘Just Cultures’: Transforming the way we work delivered at Cumberland Lodge on 13 October. 

Heffernan argued that the groundwork for unethical conduct is established during our childhood. Rather than being encouraged to think creatively, explore ideas and ask questions, students are instead taught that there is only one right answer to the problems that are posed in class. Fear of giving the wrong answer reduces the critical thinking skills of our students. This problem follows the students into the workplace, where they are afraid to stand up, speak up, and think for themselves.  A workplace bureaucracy that rigidly defines roles means that employees do not feel responsible for the outcomes their work produces because they had no hand in defining their own role. Heffernan claimed that such a bureaucracy contributed to the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal because specifically defined roles for different agencies left no-one feeling responsible the children. Heffernan argued that, by contrast, people who make decisions about their own work feel accountable for their actions.  

According to Heffernan, workplace hierarchy exacerbates the problems caused by bureaucracy.

This is because hierarchies diffuse responsibility, and mean that there is always someone else higher up in the organisation to pass the buck on to. A workplace need not be characterised by fear, bureaucracy and hierarchy, however. Alternative models exist, and workplaces that are populated with critically thinking employees who ask questions, hold themselves responsible and admit to mistakes are ‘just cultures’. In a just culture, Heffernan said, we are all leaders.  

One example of a transformed workplace that Heffernan cited is the aviation industry.

 Following the 1972 plane crash near Heathrow, which was caused by widely known underlying problems, the industry decided it needed to create a culture where its employees felt they could speak up. Instead of diffusing responsibility throughout the organisation, the aviation industry insisted that any employee – whether a pilot or a cleaner – who saw something concerning needed to tell other staff members. Workers were also trained to disrupt the hierarchy, and speak up to their bosses when they did not agree. This new workplace culture improved safety standards. In 1960 there was a one in one million chance of dying in a plane crash. By 2007, that number had fallen to one in 20 million.  Heffernan’s call for a critically thinking mass who are prepared to stand up to hierarchy and ask questions resonates with the post-World War II message articulated by Cumberland Lodge’s founder, Amy Buller, in her book Darkness Over Germany. Buller argued that German universities had not provided their students with the critical thinking skills necessary to challenge Nazi ideology. She founded Cumberland Lodge in 1947 to prepare young people for their future responsibilities, and encourage ethical discussion. While Buller does not use Heffernan’s words, she too appears to have been acting in pursuit of a just culture.