CultureI’m not surprised by the hullabaloo surrounding the Birmingham schools trojan horse scandal.

It’s an argument that has been brewing for some time.


Because I believe there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the term multiculturalism both at a national and a corporate level, and it’s causing a great deal of frustration and malcontent all round.

It would appear that the positives are literally being lost in translation.

When undertaking a programme of corporate culture change , what the sponsors are usually looking for is a culture, or way of doing things, behavioural norms and patterns that will be best placed to deliver their business goals. In short, they are aspiring to a certain shared way of working that they believe doesn’t currently exist within the organisation or, if it does, isn’t universally applied.

In order to help them get there, ideally we will conduct a culture audit to understand the prevailing establishment norms as they currently present themselves. We will then clarify the ideal culture required to deliver the business goals and go on to co-create an action plan to bridge the gap.

The audit will include the physical environment, prescribed values, competency frameworks, rules and terms as well as any employer brand guidelines. Only then will we look at actual behaviour versus the cultural cornerstones the organisation has outlined, to identify best practices.

In essence therefore, the ideal culture should be as explicit as possible. It should be a key aspect of employer brand and should be reflected in key people processes. It is reasonable to expect that the flexibility or discretion within the system that surrounds it, will also be clear, an especially important point for diverse and multi-national organisations where employees will want to embrace the full range of behaviours and norms in order to maximise the impact diverse employees can have. But this isn’t always the case.

For example, employment contracts prescribing acceptable behaviour, should define standards of conduct typical to that organisation, while local agreements may stipulate modifications tailored to national market norms while remaining true to the essence of the organisation. The aim isn’t to create drones but to provide guidelines and best practices. But if the policies and unique approaches aren’t explicitly communicated and understood (not the same as cascaded) however, misinterpretation will be inevitable and problems will follow.

Take something simple like corporate dress. In engineering organisations, prescribed clothing may be extremely important for health and safety reasons, whereas in office environments, while dress codes may be more relaxed, smart casual guidelines will be prescribed for obvious reasons. The vast majority of leaders will encourage diversity in how these dress standards are expressed. But if the organisation specifies leather shoes, then flip flops clearly contravene the policy. The same applies to behaviour, namely if an organisation includes teamwork as a value, anyone contravening that value simply isn’t “on brand”. Whether they mistakenly call this behaviour multicultural or not, it’s just plain wrong in the eyes of the business. Behaviour may be trickier to manage than process, but its impact is huge.

Multiculturalism is often mistakenly taken to mean “freedom to behave as the individual sees fit”. It isn’t. That’s the definition of anarchy. Yet to criticise this apparent “right” too often implies aggressive censure. At a national as well as at an organisation level, there can only be one core culture defined by the core cultural pillars, namely the formal rule of law and other key processes, values or governance systems (relatively easy to identify) in conjunction with the informal cultural norms (much more difficult to define, especially in more conservative cultures). There can’t be two versions of the establishment pillars (e.g. two voting systems). However the informal norms are open to interpretation and evolution much more readily and it’s here where the diversity-inspired “magic” often happens.

Strictly speaking, there is only 1 rule of law in England and a single political process. Yet there is plenty of room for interpretation when it comes to informal cultural norms especially as most of these have not been enshrined in any form of constitution.

Take freedom of expression and tolerance, often cited as informal UK values. At a UK level, they can be the catalyst for a great deal of creativity, provided the resultant behaviour doesn’t undermine the rule of law etc. However, unless these values have been clearly articulated in some form of constitution (or vision, mission, values and behaviours), informal misinterpretation can cause conflict and issues when applied.

Consider the libor scandal that undermined the FS sector. This is a perfect example of the institutions seemingly reinforcing performance at all costs via the official processes like reward and recognition, while failing to stress the basic cornerstones of the established culture (trust, integrity and the rule of law). The same applies to the Birmingham schools scandal, it would appear, where the allegedly UK-specific value of  freedom of expression has apparently been wrongly applied (judging by the employee interviews) resulting in education practices that appear, in some cases, to be contrary to the formal guidelines.

So who is to blame for the confusion?

Obviously, employees aren’t mindless pawns and as with everything engagement related, it is a two-way process with the individual being responsible for values-based due diligence pre-joining, a commitment to understanding and complying with the core cultural requirements while working and for feeding back issues and suggestions during practice.

But the lion’s share of responsibility rests with the senior leaders both nationally and in board rooms to:

1. be explicit about the goals of the nation/business

2. be clear about the requisite systems, processes, culture and values

3. reinforce appropriate behaviours in support of the above

The nub of the issue for me is that, whether nationally or within the hallowed halls of corporate HQs, brand, identity, culture and engagement are too often inadequately communicated either to new entrants or existing stakeholders, largely because it’s tricky to do so.

And when that happens, scandal and brand disasters are rarely far behind.

Get the balance right though and………..