The Acid Test
May 30 2021
Who said this, about what and when?
“All organizations have bad apples but what an organization ….. also has is well paid and exquisitely educated bosses, part of whose job is to spot these bad apples and, if they are spotted, deal with them.”
It could have been said about any number of organizations over the years.
In fact, it was said last week about the BBC. It was said by Andy Webb, the journalist who uncovered the facts about how Martin Bashir got that interview with Diana and the – even worse – scandal of how this was covered up over the years by the BBC.
There is much that is familiar in this story:
- wrongdoing – in particular, immensely profitable (both financially and reputationally) wrongdoing;
- a “star” who can seemingly do no wrong and is protected by his bosses;
- whistleblowers who are ignored or punished;
- a wholly inadequate initial investigation;
- an eventual critical external report, continuing reputational and other damage and one hell of a mess to clean up.
As always, it is the response to and cover-up of the initial wrongdoing which causes most problems.
But it was what Andy Webb said next which goes to the heart of the issue of all wrongdoing and the culture change necessary to minimise it and its consequences –
“It would have been a huge ask of the Head of a News Division, having recently seen the most famous, the most significant piece of news coverage in the Corporation’s history, having gone round the world, having won prizes and plaudits, how much moral courage do you need to pull the plug on the story …. by saying that it was gained through an egregious ethical breach? Who would have been brave enough to do that? It’s my feeling the bosses were not brave enough to do that and it prompted the cover up.”
This is the acid test. A two-part test, really.
- When a high earner, a star, a prize winner misbehaves, will the bosses have the moral courage to pull the plug?
- And are those lower down the pecking order confident that this is what the bosses will always do?
Moral courage is at the heart of professionalism, at the heart of any successful, worthwhile, sustainable culture. It is its absence which so often allows small problems to become big ones. Building, reinforcing and rewarding the courage necessary to take difficult steps, to be open about what you are doing and why are at the heart of any successful culture change programme.
This time the BBC has been found wanting. But how many other organisations can honestly answer yes to both questions?