In Stalin’s Russia the agricultural production targets went up every year and each year they were met or exceeded providing evidence of the success of communism whilst the people starved. Those at the top though the most effective way to increase production was to set ambitious targets, those responsible for delivering targets feared the consequences of not delivering. The result was a disastrous and deadly gap between reality and reported performance. This is an extreme example, a more typical scenario from my own experience was a Director who routinely “ rounded up” the performance figures in the annual report.
He was concerned that the organisation and his leadership should not attract criticism so for a number of years he ensured performance returns matched or slightly exceeded the previous year. He believed that as long as performance didn’t dip or dramatically improve there would be no awkward questions or unwanted scrutiny. Clearly falsifying the figures is wrong but what if you simply omit the negative or unhelpful stuff. That is the message managers picked up from a pre inspection briefing by the chief executive who emphases the need for managers to ,” show the organisation in the most positive light”. It not hard to see how an organisation’s culture would be adversely influenced by the legitimising of this type of behaviour by those at the top.
Whether such behaviour is motivated by self interest, misguided loyalty or an attempt to protect the organisation from damaging, distracting and disproportionate criticism the impact further down can be very damaging. The tone set defines the organisations commitment to openness, honesty, integrity and ethical behaviour. How would such an organisation respond to a whistle blower? Support and encourage or identify and stigmatise? How would such an organisation approach a merger or major reorganisation? Open and honest communication or need to know only bases? How would such an organisation go about making a reality of its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policies? With frank and fearless self examination or a dismissive “ we treat everybody the same”? It’s not hard to imagine the levels of trust and cynicism running through such an organisation.
In these difficult and challenging times it is tempting for an organisation to become defensive, for its leaders to seek to show their organisation in the best possible light, to minimise the short comings, to say now is not the time for soul searching and brutal honesty but a time for presenting a united and positive front to the world. So it will be difficult for those at the top to set the right tone and all the more important that they do.