Culture Needs Nurturing

14/07/2018 2:09 PM


We are familiar with the recent issues involving CommInsure, Commonwealth Bank, which have been splashed across the tabloids and in the media generally for weeks.

A fascinating article headed “Ethical culture should be nurtured” was written by Dr Benjamin Koh, the chief medical officer and whistle-blower at CommInsure, Commonwealth Bank.

One of Dr Koh’s key insights involved commenting that “It (corporate culture) adopts a passive view of culture and neglects the fact all employees are active players in shaping company culture (my emphasis).”

Dr Koh introduces the background and outcomes of an experiment conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.

The experiment was undertaken in the early 1960s to examine the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.

Milgram’s experiment involved placing participants in a room and directing them to deliver electrical shocks to a “learner” located in another room. What the participant did not know was that the person receiving the “shocks” was actually in on the experiment. They simply were acting out responses to those so-called shocks. Milgram found that 65 percent of participants were willing to deliver the maximum shock level upon being ordered to do so.

Although this study occurred many years ago, it seems that in essence a like result is consistently obtained when there is the influence of an authority despite the presence of causing potential harm to another person.

In May 2015, Kendra Cherry, an author and educator with over a decade experience helping students make sense of psychology, wrote an article raising the question of “Why do people sometimes follow orders, even if it means doing something they know is wrong?”

Cherry importantly raises a very useful discussion about the notions of obedience, compliance and conformity. All of these aspects have an important place in culture.

Cherry comments as follows:

“Obedience is a form of social influence that involves performing an action under the orders of an authority figure. It differs from compliance which involves changing your behaviour at the request of another person; and conformity which involves altering your behaviour in order to go along with the rest of the group.”
The question was posed as to “How Does Obedience Differ from Conformity?”

Cherry says that –

“Obedience differs from conformity in three key ways:

Obedience involves an order; conformity involves a request.

Obedience involves following the order of someone with a higher status; conformity usually involves going along with people of equal status.

Obedience relies on social power; conformity relies on the need to be socially accepted.”

More recent work by researchers suggests that while people do tend to obey authority figures, the process is not necessarily as cut-and-dry as Milgram depicted it.

The psychologists Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher were published in PLoS Biology in November 2012. They suggest that there is a degree to which people are willing to obey the questionable orders of an authority figure. That degree will depend in the main on two key factors:

How much the individual agrees with the orders; and

How much they identify with the person giving the orders

While it is clear there are very important elements at play in looking at the role of culture in an organisation, it is far from being passive.

All people within an organisation can be and often are susceptible to the various “influences, persuasions, and obedience dictates” which are present in all organisations.

Yet this does not mean that people are some kind of mindless robot awaiting the next order or directive from their ‘master’.

Psychologist Gina Perry comments on why Milgram’s experiment, despite being questioned and challenged, seems to be still influential today. She comments that the study has taken on the role of what she calls a “powerful parable.”
For the purposes of our discussion of culture and to move things significantly forward Milgram’s work does still offer useful food for thought.

As many suggest it may not hold the answers to what makes people obey or even the degree to which they truly obey, but it challenges our thinking about what makes some people follow orders and some to question authority.

Milgram’s own views and explanation for such high levels of obedience in his experiments were as follows:-

  • The physical presence of an authority figure dramatically increased compliance
  • The fact that Yale (a trusted and authoritative academic institution) sponsored the study led many participants to believe that the experiment must be safe
  • The selection of teacher and learner status seemed random
  • Participants assumed that the experimenter was a competent expert
  • The shocks were said to be painful, not dangerous

Koh went on to comment:
“It (Milgram’s experiment) also suggests many of us have an almost innate behaviour to do as we are told, especially from people of perceived authority. An implicit message from the experiment was that the culture of what is acceptable behaviour is dynamic and continually being re-enforced.

Old-school views of culture are that they are prescriptive rules and, if breached, carry consequences. Here, individuals are considered passive unthinking players – mere pawns and victims of that culture.

Contemporary understanding, however, is that culture is constructed daily through interactions between individuals and their surroundings, within their cohort and with society at large.”

Ultimately of course as Koh acknowledged “(S)enior leaders in companies must recognise that both their words and actions shape the company culture daily. It is an active and dynamic process.”

For all of the above the elephant in the room may well be how someone like Dr Koh is recognised, treated and received by CommInsure, Commonwealth Bank.

For this surely becomes the key to the culture’s strength and robustness.

Macquarie University’s associate professor and former banker Elizabeth Sheedy and psychologist Barbara Griffin conducted anonymous surveys of more than 30,000 bank staff concerning “risk culture”.

A key outcome of the study concerned the importance of corporate culture. This was distinguished from the policies and rules put in place by the Boards and senior leaders.

Further and importantly in the light of this article’s discussions the study raised the serious issue of a culture of “avoidance”.

Unfortunately this type of culture is anathema to the life and value which a whistle-blower offers to their organisation. Importantly it strongly suggests that there is a huge deficit in transparency and a very wide gap in embracing good and bad feedback.

For what is a whistle-blower before they become a whistle-blower? Surely all organisations welcome having employees who feel free to express their concerns about workplace issues that may or may not be wrongdoing. This allows an organisation an early opportunity to address the issue(s) before they become problems.

It seems clear that the strength of an organisation’s culture may well reflect its capacity to accommodate openness and transparency; and its welcome that it offers those that provide feedback on any and all matters within the organisation’s operations. The integration of this as part of the whole of the organisation says something about the maturity of the organisation and its view of culture.

Our challenge remains to moving past the great deal of ‘noise’ which is occurring, which sadly may well suffocate any sound actions, to identifying those actions and importantly implementing them to good effect.

For more information contact Damien Smith on 03 8862 6315 or at

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