Do the right thing

July 4, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA 

I’ve written about this stuff before but I am prompted by the impressive and entertaining Brene Brown who spoke at the RSA today (she clearly had a lot of fans in the audience). Part of her evidence for the importance of getting in touch with our vulnerability, and seeing it as a source of strength and humanity, lies in the finding that most people could recall moments of  profound and scarring shame occurring during their school years.

We tend to associate psychological damage with people who suffer mental illness and have experienced extraordinary hardship as children, but as Brown’s research shows, we all of us experience moments of fear and shame as children which powerfully shape our future world view. This in turn is linked to an inner voice I believe most of us hear from time to time, particularly when we are finding it tough to do what we sense is the right thing, or to resist the temptation to do the wrong thing. This is the voice that says ‘you know, it is really hard being me’.

So far, so obvious: the dimension I have added to this basic psychology links it to the apparently inexorable rise in cases of organisations suffering reputational damage after having their internal decision making exposed to an unsympathetic world; think the police and Hillsborough or Stephen Lawrence, the Catholic church and paedophile priests, Starbucks and tax, the CQC and hospital negligence, banks and credit default swaps, bonuses, Libor ,PPI etc.

My contention is that the human voice has an organisational echo. Public services bodies, charities and companies also have an inner voice saying ‘it’s tough being us’. This is the voice that is murmuring in the background when misbehaviour is glossed over, ethical corners cut, cover-ups concocted and citizens exploited. The problem for organisations is that a combination of declining deference, rising education and social media is making it harder and harder to hide away their disreputable decisions.

I made this point during a speech to a business breakfast this morning. No one responded directly but it must have set off a subliminal response. One drinks firm representative said it was trying to do the right thing in selling fewer cheap strong products but its competitors were taking advantage and investors werecomplaining. An energy firm said all its good work tended to get ignored when prices had to rise across the whole sector. A bank said it was almost impossible to make an honest buck and still provide free banking. As I left a woman whispered to me ‘did you notice how they all did that thing about how hard it is being them?’.

The first step to doing the right thing is owning your shame/vulnerability/self-pity; being alert when the voice gets louder. The tendency is to assume the second step is a commitment to change. Well, up to a point. The voice reflects very deeply held feelings and its message is often subtle and disguised. Relying on will power alone, we will often succumb to its siren call.

Step two is drawn from social psychology and behavioural economics and calls for a shift in what is sometimes called ‘choice architecture’. Noticing the moments when the voice is loudest (which are also the moments of vulnerability to doing the wrong thing) we have to rearrange the prevailing pressures and incentives so that it becomes that much easier to do the right thing. An example of such a strategy is the decision of Unilever to abandon quarterly reporting (at least in the US) and urge short term investors to take their money elsewhere.

This leaves a question. What if it is very difficult to realign incentives, if it seems impossible to make it any less hard being the organisation we are?  The answer depends on the starting point for the process of inquiry and change. Is it a commitment or merely a good intention?

If the latter and realignment proves to be tough it is likely what emerges will simply be a cleverer way of disguising the voice and obfuscating the dysfunctional behaviour which results. If it is the former the organisation mustaccept it might emerge with very radical conclusions, including the need essentially to kill off the organisation as it is and grow something completely new; or to put it in the more prosaic language of the corporate sector to ‘re-design the business model’.

It is fear of these radical conclusion which means so much corporate self-examination is superficial (something often legitimised by self-serving management consultants) and why I fear the cases of organisational failure and negligence will keep coming.



  • Matthew Mezey

    Some RSA colleagues and I were talking with Brené after her fantastic lecture – about vulnerability, fear of failure and suchlike…

    It came up that talking about ‘failure’ at the RSA is something that some people seem to feel rather vulnerable about, and perhaps mainly just don’t risk doing…?

    Brené talked about how she’d been working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – who got very interested in her book ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’ etc.

    As a result, the Gates Foundation has decided to run a ‘Failure Fest’ – which sounds like it could be a lot of fun, and a great learning experience.

    She suggested that the RSA run its own ‘Failure Fest’…!

    There certainly seems to have been a lot of interest in this issue amongst Fellows at times, eg when the RSA Fellowship Council chose ‘The Glory of Failure’ as a project it was keen to support.

    It’s interesting – to me – that Prof Bill Torbert, also focuses on the issue of vulnerability in leaders. He looks at how the ability to sit with one’s vulnerability, to even share one’s vulnerability with others, seems to be a characteristic that only emerges with the appearance of later stages of leadership maturity. But this vulnerability is a crucial to enabling leaders to vulnerably enter into an authentic mutually-influencing relationship with others, that can enable the deepest of transformations (including of whole organisations). Or something like that…

    I rather suspect that the ability to show vulnerability, and to accept – or even promote! – ambiguity, are key characteristics of the new kind of Generative Leadership, or Complexity Leadership, which aims to create ‘ecologies of innovation’ and work in more appropriate ways with complex adaptive systems, such as… the 27,000 RSA Fellows! ;-)

    I’ve just started reading ‘Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership – Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation’, by Jeffrey Goldstein, James K. Hazy, and Benyamin B. Lichtenstein, on this topic. I finally seem to have begun to understand what this Complexity-aware networked leadership is all about! A bit.

    Matthew M

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  • Scott Torrance

    You make some interesting points Matthew.

    After yesterdays talk I was left wondering how receptive businesses and organisations are to having truly vulnerable leaders and employees when it is so hard for us to achieve it on a one on one basis with the loved ones in our lives.

  • Michael Sillion


    Inspired me to write about Empathy and a Failure Fest

    The Way of Empathy [The Beast With 2 Hearts]

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