Changing organisational culture: a moral and disciplinary project

This post is another contribution to thinking about organizational culture in preparation for the Complexity and Management Conference due to be held 7-9th June this year, 2014, which will be dedicated to this theme.

The Christmas period provided a very good example of the dominant thinking about organisational culture change, which I wrote about earlier in a previous post on this blog here. The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Anthony Jenkins was the guest editor for BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, and he used the opportunity to draw attention to ethics, leadership and organisational transformation. You can find some of the clips from the programme here.

The banking world in general and Barclays in particular have been rocked by a number of scandals, including mis-selling of financial products and the manipulation of the inter-bank lending rate, LIBOR. Jenkins sees his task as rebuilding the bank and restoring public trust by ‘transforming the culture’ of the bank away from short-termism and a narrow definition of maximising shareholder value which he feels has predominated over the last 30 years, towards an understanding the banks serve society at

To achieve this Jenkins has started a review of all the bank’s activities and has set alongside it an organisational change programme called Transform. The Transform programme sets out what Jenkins describes as five core values: respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship. All of these are to be ‘embedded’ in the organisations and measured episodically with numerical scores to give a reading of the bank’s progress towards operating differently. To give a token of his seriousness, Jenkins argues that he and his colleagues have developed a set of ‘explicit behaviours’ which staff have to exhibit in order to demonstrate the values. They will be recruited, promoted and developed according to these standards. According to Jenkins this change in culture will take up to ten years.

As we have been arguing previously this sort of approach is now endemic across all sectors of the economy. For example, there are a great many similarities with the recent change programme set out for the health service by the Department of Health and the NHS Commissioning Board. In their programme entitled Compassion In Practice there are six values, care, competence, compassion, communication, courage and commitment, which are again defined by ‘behaviours’, against which employees will be measured, recruited, promoted and disciplined. The Compassion in Practice document talks about creating ‘cultural barometers’.

For both programmes a particular conception of leadership is considered to be key, which often appeals to the religious imagination. Jenkins invited the Archbishop of Canterbury onto the programme to be interviewed with him. He also invited a nun living in Nairobi, who works with children with HIV/Aids, onto the programme to talk about her work and presented her as a role model for his senior managers: he obliges them to visit her to learn about moral vision and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. What he thought he recognised in the nun’s work was clear moral leadership to change minds. Equally, he identified with Justin Welby’s observation that where there are good vicars present, so the diocese flourishes.

In both cases, leadership is understood to be a capacity that certain individuals have, often ones with particular moral capability, and at the same time it is ‘distributed’ throughout the organisation. Everyone has to exercise leadership for such culture change programmes to succeed.

As I have argued previously[1], this kind of thinking brings together the church and the corporation: on the one hand there is an appeal to belief (in the new values), to morality and prophetic vision, and on the other this quasi-religious language is tied down in corporate metrics to ‘measure success’. This is mythos and logos combined.

Interestingly and at the same time there are areas of bank activity that Jenkins feels he cannot transform: for example, bankers bonuses. Although he argues on the one hand that good leaders exercise moral leadership and are prepared to think the unthinkable, clearly there are still things which are unthinkable to him. There are certain market activities which are so taken for granted as to appear natural to him, even just, though a group of six former school students to whom he was speaking to pointed out to him that even bankers’ bonuses were also reformable.

We might draw a number of temporary conclusions about the discussion of culture in this particular bank, and in the NHS which we covered previously.

Firstly, there appears to be a common acceptance that organisational change involves culture change, which is a planned process guided and shaped by leaders and managers. Progress can be measured against metrics, which are based or prescribed ‘behaviours’. These can be presented and audited, leading to organisational transparency. Leadership is both a unique and individual attribute which is located in individuals and is worthy of high reward on the one hand, and on the other it needs to be widely distributed throughout the organisation. Everyone needs to be a champion for change. Organisations are understood in systemic and spatial terms, so new values have to be ’embedded’ in them.

Secondly, culture change programmes appeal to the religious imagination and morality on the one hand, but also disciplinary control on the other. In other words, staff are invited to leave their bad selves at home, to be good, even pious, but if they don’t they are threatened with dismissal or being sidelined. Culture change introduces an apparatus of scrutiny and supervision.

Thirdly, culture change programmes are ideological projects which are based on judgements which draw distinctions between what is natural and given, and what is considered worthy of change. Of course all ideology involves calculations about politics, and those instigating change would need to take a pragmatic view about what they can get away with, and what they are prepared to reveal and conceal. Even if one did want to do away with bankers’ bonuses, and it was possible to do so in isolation, then it may not be politic to reveal this straight away.

And finally, following the second and third points above, although culture change programmes are ideological in their appeal to morality, the religious imagination and what is natural and given (and thus what is unreasonable to try and change because ‘that’s the way things are’), they are attempts to cover over contestation and difference. In claiming the high ground, change projects couched in moral language are difficult to argue against.

From a complex responsive processes perspective, such change programmes are understood as a powerful gesture towards staff, but ones which will call out a variety of different responses. For example, any apparatus of scrutiny and control, particularly one which rewards and punishes and allocates resources, is likely over time to provoke a variety of gaming responses from employees. These gaming responses will involve improvisational activity aimed at conforming to the scheme as well as that which tries to undermine it. Sometimes plans for organisational change introduce irrationalities into the workplace, where employees are obliged to meet targets and standards which distort their work. And although disciplinary schemes may have an influence on how employees behave outwardly, they may have little impact on people’s sense of identity and belonging to other, perhaps more important groups.

Current orthodoxy about culture change in organisations raises as many questions as it answers. We will discuss some of these issues more fully in future posts.

[1] Mowles, C. (2011) Rethinking Management: Radical Insights from the Complexity Sciences, London: Gower.


9 thoughts on “Changing organisational culture: a moral and disciplinary project

    • Jenkins’ editorship provoked much hilarity in the FT diary, with the diarist expressing his doubts about culture change in banks much more cynically than I have above.

  1. Can’t wait for the next instalment Chris. I have a personal attraction to the quasi-religious nature of culture change – I believe ‘good’ organisations will eventually prosper over ‘bad’ organisations. But I would run a mile if I thought I was going to be performance managed (let alone promoted!) on what others perceive as my moral behaviour. As you say, a system that creates punishments and rewards around behaviours will lead to gaming – the psychopaths will still rise because they’ll adapt and adopt to fit the system, concealing their real selves from view. Whilst I think banks (for example) should have a better culture (i.e. one which is not based on greed, fraud, or gambling other people’s money) I would feel uncomfortable working in an organisation that wants to create a mono-culture of right-thinking, right-acting employees through reward and punishment. It would be easy to relate this to Orwell’s Big Brother where individualism and dissent is crushed. The mythos and logos combination reminds me of the story of the then neologism ‘television’ which, as one commentator maintained, is ‘half Greek and half Latin so no good can possibly come of it.’ I fear Barclays efforts will rebound and Transform will be shelved.

    • I suppose there is a question about whether ‘culture’, whatever one means by it, can ever be thought to exist in one organisation. Clearly a CEO is someone likely to figure large in the symbolic imagination of many Barclays Bank employees. However, given that there are 140,000 of them there is a limit to how much the overwhelming majority of them are going to be influenced by what Jenkins says. Their most pressing concerns will be local ones. Interesting, however, to try and understand this overt co-optation of the religious into the discussion.

  2. Thanks for your very insightful comments Chris. As an OD manager within the NHS, the notion of “embedding values” is increasingly becoming the next panacea.

    Organisational policies and procedures appear to be the most explicit means of articulating organisational values. As a litmus test of implicit versus explicit intentions, I advocate dropping these documents in to Wordle which will reveal the most frequently used language and hence the alignment or not between top management values and actions.

  3. I was reading a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb (a conservative American historian beloved of Gordon Brown of all people) the other day, and she argues that we have moved from a discussion of virtues (i.e. Aristotelian virtue ethics) to a discussion of values in the modern age. She sees this as a consequence of the individualisation of society, since values are supposed to be something which individuals ‘have’. This individualisation of virtue puts the public discussion of values/virtues off limits, since it is considered an individual and private affair.

    In what are the values embedded?

    • Perhaps they are not embedded in anything. Could they be part of our individual and collective perception of past and current reality. Therefore existing between us and subject to our continuous negotiation of reality and choice?

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