A culture of cultures

From banking to bad taste, the usual suspect when things go wrong is the culture of an organisation or group. Investigating and fixing cultures has become our main hope of salvation. But this is a convenient distraction from questions of moral responsibility, consequences, and of how people can take mature, constructive steps together to make things a bit better.

Peter Johnson
3 July 2012

Consider the following:

Mr Blunkett ... insists that ‘the failure to deport immigrants who have served their sentences exposes a culture of incompetence ... that has plagued the Home Office ... for years.’ (Daily Telegraph, April 2006)

Mr Devine said ... there appeared to be [in the Nursing and Midwifery Council] ‘an ingrained culture of bullying and racism as a means of preventing good governance...’ (BBC online, March 2008)

It is cultural and it is systemic. (David Elstein on why obscene telephone calls were made on a radio programme, oD, October 2008)

The life of the Catholic Church is being poisoned by a culture of ‘secrecy, deception, stonewalling and spin’, according to the Catholic writer Russell Shaw (Daily Telegraph, October 2008)

Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat MP, ... [said of Haringey Council’s dismissal of a senior officer] ‘Hopefully it marks a break with the culture of secrecy, failure and deceit that failed Baby P.’ (BBC online, December 2008)

‘The blame culture that currently pervades our society means that [one cannot put on a concert in a country church when it is dark outside].’ (BBC online, December 2008)

The Culture of Excess. (Title of a book by J.R. Slosar, October 2009)

We can see we need a real change in the culture of the industry. And that will require two things. One is leadership of an unusually high order and changes to the structure of the industry. (Sir Mervyn King commenting on the twin banking scandals of LIBOR fixing and product mis-selling, June 2012)

One could go on indefinitely. But what is this language about? What are we being told about our public and private lives? What does it mean for our understanding of intention, ethics, and truth? And what has it to do – if indeed anything – with the possibility of a response, either personal or in public policy?

Parlez-vous culture?

The quotations above are examples of what might be called culture-talk, which seems to have entered everyday discussion of even the simplest practical matters. As is clear from the quotations, culture-talk has several important aspects: it carries moral judgments, it describes, and it explains.

For its moral content, culture-talk is usually, though not always, used to condemn people or institutions when something has gone wrong. Positive culture statements tend to be made in the first person and to be aspirational. A company or school brochure asserting a culture of excellence is an example. We tend to discount such statements and are more likely to pay attention to negative culture-talk about others. We never hear negative culture-talk in the first person, as self-blame. Culture-talk is biased.

Do we imagine people get up in the morning purposing to be excessive or racist or incompetent or obscene or secretive? Except in the case of entertainers who may spend their morning bus ride thinking up rude jokes, probably not. Do we believe that employers have designed work practices specifically in order to waste resources, discriminate, foul up, insult, or blame? Likewise, generally no. Whatever the conspiracy theorists may say, there is no evidence of that kind of perversity in public life.

The descriptive content of culture-talk is therefore mostly about (a) habitual behaviours and (b) attitudes that have developed informally within and possibly as consequences of institutional or legal structures. Whilst behaviours and attitudes may inform each other, they are not the same and relate back to different aspects of our moral code. For example, one may habitually stand when someone enters a room, without having a very clear attitude connected with that action; and we may have plenty of well defined attitudes that we do not care to realise in action. However, in culture-talk the two aspects often overlap and it is consequently easy to speak as if things done and things thought were the same. Culture-talk – intentionally or lazily – confuses thinking and doing.

Culture-talk arises in response to a problem that has a social dimension and enters public discourse. It would be odd to say to a neighbour ‘I see your garden suffers from a culture of neglect.’ The stakes are just not high enough (which may also be true of his delphiniums). It is characteristic of culture-talk that it deals with Big Problems.

In terms of explanation, in spite of the relentlessly growing mistrust of politicians and corporations, we clearly do not generally believe that individuals act negligently or maliciously. Culture-talk is more about the system or organisation (a formally recognised system) that allowed or encouraged bad actions. The terms ‘culture’ and ‘system’ have indeed become loosely interchangeable, although they do not refer to the same thing. Whilst a culture is something implicit that has arisen spontaneously, without intention, from human interactions, a system is more likely to have been explicitly designed or at least be comprehensible in terms of rules. That is why attempts to change cultures by changing the rules generally fail.

To the pragmatist, a system approach has advantages. It simplifies (there being fewer systems than people), makes it easy to categorise and define a given problem, and points the way to improvements. But the confusion of culture with system also misleads. Rule-based explanations suggest rule-based remedies, but these can only obliquely address beliefs, attitudes, or mental states. (This is the problem with the second part of Mervyn King’s banking remedy above.)

It is also possible that the systematisation that accompanies much culture-talk produces not only inefficient solutions to problems, but also unjust ones.

Culture-talk contains a number of propositions about a given situation:

1. People have behaved badly;

2. They did so because people had undesirable attitudes;

3. The matter is grave;

4. We can stop it happening again.


People have behaved badly. It may be undeniable that this has happened, and the fact that bad things have been done should often be made public. But we should be wary of the generalisation contained in culture-talk. It is untrue, for example, that nursing regulators are generally bullies, or that the Catholic Church is generally deceitful. This not mere nit-picking: one cannot start to analyse problems unless one is prepared to gather and distinguish facts accurately. Since culture-talk combines explanation and morality, the path from generalisation to judgment is short, and as the quotations mostly show, wholesale condemnation can be the start rather than the conclusion of the analysis.


Undesirable attitudes led to the bad behaviour. All social structures embody attitudes, and some of those may be unhealthy. The important part of the diagnosis, however, is the claim that culture causes behaviour. On the other hand, behaviours characterise and reinforce a culture, and this is a two-way street. If it were not, we would need to explain how culture arises in the first place. This casual social determinism gives a far too simplistic account of the interrelationship of intentions, opinions, actions, and people.

But even if one believes that culture causes behaviour, what does that actually explain? Just the main strands of attitudes present in any organisation interact in the most complex ways and are highly influenced by the people involved. Even in a small organisation it would be almost impossible to describe this interplay. The grounds for pointing to one moral view or psychological phenomenon as the cause of behaviour are very shaky. For example, the ‘culture of excess’ may have helped some banks abandon prudent trading and adopt irresponsible compensation policies. But had they not done so, they would have lost their capital and prestige employees and shortly after, their companies. Then everyone would have been out of work (except, perhaps, the highest flyers). Overseas funds were desperate to buy a stake in the game from anyone with chips to sell. Jobs were being created and taxes were being paid. Governments, central banks and regulators nodded through inflated balance sheets and accountants came up with incomprehensible asset valuation standards that supported them. Trickle-down economics and light-touch regulation were the order of the day. Yet not all banks, even if they shared these policies, ended up equally insolvent, presumably because they were managed differently in other respects. Sure, a ‘culture of excess’ was a big factor, but was it the only factor? Of course not. Motivations and influences, not to mention the mechanics of business, are much more subtle than that.

There is also the question of responsibility. The ‘culture’ diagnosis dilutes the importance of personal choice and responsibility both in deciding to do something and in understanding afterwards what was done. If culture is the main determinant of action, individual transgressions are likely to become merely failures to understand the code – mistakes or errors of judgment. Moral weakness, so to speak, is transferred from the individual to the culture.

No rounded discussion of an action or pattern of behaviour can exclude the moral responsibility of the people concerned. To go further, I think it is not only an error but unethical to take away any responsibility that cannot truly be mitigated. Culture-talk offers us a collectivist view in which no one is guilty because all are guilty. It encourages people to be irresponsible and requires no shame after the event. (This is a picture of the prefect system Tony Curzon Price lately wrote about. Though if gentlemanly capitalism ever existed, it was a capitalism of mutually beneficial peculation masquerading as stiff-upper-lip honesty. Current scandals are at least partly about how the myth of uberrimae fides has been exposed as the lie of honour among thieves. It is also the case that many of the most successful City traders now are not from traditional elite training grounds, even if their bosses often still are.)

And this world-view exists beyond public affairs and at the coal-face in a company struggling for business. For instance, a common corporate response to a difficulty, whether external (such as declining market share) or internal (an awkward employee), is to reorganise, as if the people concerned had little influence on the matter. Whilst this is sometimes a good thing to do, it can often be a tactic to keep the plates of responsibility spinning.


The situation is grave. By definition, one might think, any matter that reaches public consciousness should be. In the context of culture-talk, it is not that a person did something stupid or wicked or obscene: the whole system is flawed. This leads to strange distortions.

If we talk about the culture rather than about concrete causes and effects, there is a risk that everything becomes equally serious. A trivial but therefore interesting example in the UK from 2008 is the coincidence of the Brand-Ross affair concerning the BBC and the credit crisis. The discussion of the culture, or lack of it, of the BBC went on for more than a week (a very long time in anyone’s attention span), during which the cultures of excess, irresponsibility and the like disappeared into the background. One might have thought for a while that making vile phone calls to a retired comedian was more important than preventing global economic collapse.

The consequence is that ‘culture’ issues end up seeming more important than the mere competence and moral responsibility of individuals. They address the problems of society, require long inquiries and detailed, expensive responses that are hard to follow up. The habit of expanding the scope whilst diluting the content is extremely attractive, for varying reasons, to the political class, the general public, and commentators. It is increasingly hard to imagine, for example, what the Leveson Inquiry, Twitter feed and all, will ever achieve.


It must never happen again. A constant refrain, but what is done? The blurring of culture-talk and systems talk leads us to discuss problems, actions or conflicts in bureaucratic terms. When we want to improve things, we have an inquiry, we legislate, we tighten controls. If necessary, and if the outcry is loud enough, we dismiss somebody. In summary, we obtain a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong and then we change the rules so that history cannot repeat itself. But history does repeat itself. Why?

The language of bureaucracy is legal and procedural, and whilst it is good for precisely setting out and qualifying obligations and intentions, it is not well suited to exploring ethics or stating simple truths. On the one hand, ethical discussions require an uncertain, subtle, balance of perspectives; on the other, some truths are so plain that they cut through debate, just as Dr Johnson answered Berkeley’s clever philosophy by kicking a stone with ‘I refute it thus!’

So even if one believes that ‘the culture’ is the problem, a rule-based, bureaucratic, approach to a solution will miss the mark. Treating culture as a system whose rules can be rewritten will fail, because cultures are not systematic. The attempt is more likely to be counter-productive, once people perceive that obedience to rules is a more important measure of performance than (possibly cultural) integrity: their values and responsibility have been degraded while their personal exposure has increased. There is ample evidence that this has happened in the public sector, notably education, social services and healthcare. Coercion is not persuasion and enlightened consciousness cannot be produced from a rule-book.

Solutions may also be wasteful. If a person turns out to be irresponsible or incompetent in their office, they can be corrected or punished or removed. If an enterprise commits fraud or breaks the law, it can be fined or closed down. This may cure the problem and also ensure people are more careful next time. There is no need to invent new rules for everyone else.

That’s all very well on a small scale, but we can’t deal with international banking like this, can we? Up to a point, I think we can – or we might start as if we could. Amidst all the noise of rescue plans, stimuli, better regulation, new accounting standards, and more accurate forecasting, more capital, much the same people are in much the same positions. Governments presided over growth and were caught unawares by events. Taxpayers borrowed up to the hilt in the good times and now have to borrow even more in the bad. Regulators demand new powers when they couldn’t use the old ones. Accountants were merely providing information, and will gladly design and sell an upgraded audit service. Economists were so busy adjusting their models they forgot to warn us what might happen. It is hard to see why new rules would be the answer. There has been a blur of finger-pointing, but if nobody is responsible nobody will change his or her behaviour. The financial crisis and recession, for example, have been discussed in a way that blames many but calls few to responsible action.

(Curiously, professional sport displays a fetish of personal responsibility. When something has gone wrong – the team lost a match or maybe a player got drunk – people ‘put their hands up’, they will ‘step up’ to perform next time, etc. But I suspect this is mostly about the emotional state of those in the public spotlight who are often expected to be role models. The schoolboy language and formulaically contrite press conferences suggest that the moral content may be only skin-deep.)

The urge to write new rules is often a response to pressure groups. But there an amount of public benefit in correcting a specific ill below which it is unjust to require citizens at large to comply with laws when the compliance is a cost or burden to them. Culture-talk leads to an unbalanced view of the relative importance of ‘fixing the system’ and of preserving the freedoms of the people who inhabit it. New rules are never costless, but since the hard costs are spread broadly among business or householders, and the civil costs are intangible, it can be difficult to argue that the promised benefit does not represent a good trade. Culture-talk has a tendency to ignore democratic process.


Of course, culture influences people in carrying out their private or public duties, management systems may be flawed, and reorganisation can be beneficial. However, whilst it is always desirable to improve the way things are done, this is often only a partial response or even a distraction.

It seems to me we have lost sight of the human beings who do things. We have put accountability in the place of responsibility.

Let me briefly explore this. I have argued that discussion and policy response are often too focused on procedures and rules derived from a culture-talk view of the world to be helpful in understanding problems or useful in solving them effectively. But can one realistically imagine living out an alternative? This is easier said than done and easier done in private than in public.

The climate is not good for raising the moral and intellectual standard of public discussion, but surely it’s worth a try. In essence the culture of cultures needs to change; and this will be hard, because there are no rules to tweak.

It is about the careful, principled, and honest exploration of complex issues on all sides: those whose behaviour is under scrutiny must participate and take responsibility along with those who scrutinise. Where appropriate, this should be part of the public discourse. It implies a bigger role for reasonable discretion and a smaller role for mass-market legislation. It calls for solidarity in pursuit of a common goal.

Nor is this an activity only for the privileged. Far from it: almost anyone can engage in the proper discussion of things they are concerned with, if they are treated with respect and not threatened with coercion, ridicule, or condemnation.

Here is an example. Our cities contain numbers of poor and ill-educated people with little to do, maybe with violent or criminal habits, often enough dependent on drugs or the state or both. Many conscientious professionals and volunteers work in this difficult field, but what, in general, do our housing or benefits or education or political systems actually do for such people? How do other citizens, public officials, shopkeepers, agencies, doctors, or politicians relate to them? How exactly is the message of ‘We’ll take away your benefits unless you behave like someone who doesn’t need them,’ going to help? Public policy will surely only relieve their self-perpetuating condition by combining material help with a commitment to respect and develop these citizens as morally competent members of the community.

The same applies in more private matters. One of my introductory quotations was about the worry that people at an evening concert in a country church might fall on the path through the churchyard and sue somebody. So having conducted a ‘health and safety review’, the church decided it was not worth taking the risk. No concert, no collection. Surely the only way past this self-defeating impasse is to rediscover the habit of treating each other as people who can be entrusted with choices, risks, the responsibility, and the rewards of using our own judgment.

Case study: Barclays

Even as the extraordinary story of Barclays’ manipulation of LIBOR unfolds, we can see the pathology of culture-talk at play.

1. People at the bank rigged the interest rate market, and all agree that was bad.

2. They did this, driven to it by the ‘culture of greed.’ This remains the official position even given the likelihood that high-ups in Whitehall (in plain English, government ministers), via the Bank of England, were giving Barclays the wink to ‘tweak’ their interest rate reporting. Talk about a licence to print money!

3. Everyone agrees it’s serious.

4. We can put it right. Indeed, as Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne commented on radio on 3 July, whilst the problem is endemic, scandalous, and dangerous, it can nevertheless be fixed up in legislation at end of the year and all will be well. A few new laws will turn the culture of greed to a culture of.... what?

It is just possible – and I’m optimistic about this – that the scandal is bad enough for something meaningful to emerge: criminal investigations and prosecutions, a break-up of banking operations, removal of licences, disqualification of directors, disconnection of City and political parties... all should be on the agenda. Whatever its motivations and however cumbersome the process, the Labour party’s call for a full-blown Leveson-style inquiry may turn out to be the best course. It is far more likely than Mr Osborne’s regulations to inform the public and create a mood in which proper, serious reform can be undertaken.

More politics, please

But we’re still some way from that. Culture-talk remains a method of interpreting events that omits political and moral concerns in favour of generalisations and procedure. By de-politicising in this way it glosses over difficult problems, marginalises and oppresses people, and entrenches irresponsibility. Culture-talk is essentially immature and it is about time we grew up.

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