While frameworks, charters and official policies set out a company’s aspirations, culture can be more vital in preventing lapses in governance oversight. Corporate anthropologist Michael Henderson explains how boards need to pay attention to the ‘lore’ of their organisations if they are to avoid falling off the ethical cliff.
For the past 15 years, we have watched in dismay as one organisational lemming after another has walked, unrestrained off the edge of the ethical and sound-business-sense cliff. The list is astounding and includes many big brand, multinational organisations. It is still evident today with the likes of Volkswagen and Toshiba added to the list.
How is this possible? Why is blatant disregard for ethical and legal practice still occurring? How is organisational governance still so vulnerable to misaligned decision-making and improper behaviour in this day?
The answer to these questions is, of course, both complex and contextual. One area that seems to be continually overlooked as a contributing factor is the obvious point that, when it comes to the power play between ethical and legal requirements, law is no match for lore.
Law is, of course, meaningful, but it is rarely motivational. Instead, human motivation drives behaviour and decision-making.
In other words, the rules of engagement (law) – no matter how well-intended, legislated, communicated, reiterated, referenced, measured and monitored – lack the necessary power and influence to cut through to the nemesis at the heart of human corruption: human nature.
Law is, of course, meaningful, but it is rarely motivational. Instead, human motivation drives behaviour and decision-making. Not logic, nor rationale, but raw, powerfully-resonating motivation. When this motivation is shared by three or more people, it forms a culture. At the heart of every culture is lore (as in folklore). Lore is the tales people tell themselves about what they are experiencing, why things are happening, and what they could, or should do in response.
In anthropological terms, folklore develops quickly, and can be transferred with great speed. Unlike human genes that are passed relatively slowly by comparison, from one generation to the next, folklore (our shared beliefs, language and narrative paradigms) is captured packaged and passed on through the cultural phenomenon of memes. A meme is an idea. In the age of social mobile connectivity a meme can form and travel significantly quicker than its biological equivalent, the gene.
Popular memes become lore in a culture. When a meme is strong enough, believed in enough and shared enough, it gathers momentum and becomes Folk-lore. Folk-lore is what motivates people to see the world the way they do, and act according to this perspective with encouragement and blessing from peers.
This same social lore phenomenon occurs inside our own modern tribe; in society’s organisations. Leaders and employees adopt or develop the idea that they can, or deserve to get away with shortcutting
For example, there is a traditional tribe in the coastal mountains of Colombia in South America whose folklore teaches that they must pray intensively every day to ensure the sun comes up and the earth continues to spin on its axis. Whether these prayers are actually responsible for the earth to spin on its axis is certainly open to debate. What is not debatable is that this tribe fundamentally believe this to be true. This is demonstrated by the decade-long training their acolytes endure, in order to ensure they have the right spiritual intent and intensity to pray full heartedly and keep the earth spinning. Folk-lore as demonstrated in this case, transitions people from a shared belief, to habitual behaviour, into a way of being in the world.
This same social lore phenomenon occurs inside our own modern tribe; in society’s organisations. Leaders and employees adopt or develop the idea that they can, or deserve to get away with shortcutting or circumnavigating the inconveniences of some of the official and legal rules of the business game, the laws of the land, or even the ethical charters they have signed.
These people know that what they are doing is against the Law, but that will not necessarily stop them with Lore on their side.
Unless boards place more emphasis on an organisation’s understanding and awareness of company culture (rather than simply ignoring or playing lip service to it through cosmetic evaluation attained by shallow, meaningless employee engagement surveys) there is more trouble ahead.
From a governance perspective, to work solely on a robust and rigorous framework to ensure adherence to the law, and ignore its ‘kryptonite’ of lore, is an expensive and wasteful folly.
Michael Henderson is a corporate anthropologist, who advises organisations on enhancing workplace culture.
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