As one financial institution after another is finding itself embarrassed by the current Royal Commission into the sector in Australia, we hear a lot of commitment to ‘changing the culture’ in the future. Unfortunately, the likelihood is that these large banks and investment firms will find culture change far more difficult than they make out.

As we have learnt in our work in cultural transformation over many years, culture change across an organisation is much more complex than simply saying, ‘Now … just behave this way’.

Let me give you an example.

A while ago we were working with a second-tier law firm that was struggling with a culture issue leading to a high turnover rate amongst its staff, particularly its young articled clerks – the very people who should have been the future of the firm.

After being asked in to intervene and support the organisation to better understand what was occurring, we took our first step with a meeting involving the managing partner and senior partners.

We started as we always do by asking everyone around the table to think about an organisation they had worked in that was a place they really wanted to be. An organisation in which there was a strong sense of working together towards a common goal, and in which discretionary effort was commonplace. An organisation that in our world we would call ‘above the line’.

We also asked them to think of the opposite – a ‘below the line’ organisation. Such organisations are typically difficult to work in, characterised by blame, defensiveness, justification and denial. In cultures like this, people tend to ‘switch off’ emotionally, physically and mentally and simply do what has to be done – even if at times that goes against their personal values.

As we discussed the contrast between these two situations, emphasising the benefits of working above the line, the managing partner suddenly stood up and stopped us. He walked up to the whiteboard and jabbed at it, pointing at the list of below-the-line characteristics.

‘This is our job,’ he said with force. ‘This is what we are trained to do. It’s what our clients expect and it’s how we earn our money.’

And of course he was right. In the legal profession, it can certainly be perceived that outmanoeuvring ‘the other side’ is the way things work. We can debate the rights and wrongs of this situation, but for these lawyers that was simply the reality. As their leader said, it is what they are trained to do.

What followed was an open and honest discussion about this circumstance, and in particular the way this external culture – the way the lawyers were expected to act for their clients – was negatively affecting the internal culture.

The good thing was that the partners realised it didn’t need to be that way – that it was possible to operate above the line internally while following the industry norms (again, rightly or wrongly) externally. We set about working with them to do exactly that.

We only have to look at some of the stories coming out of the Royal Commission, or the parlous state of political debate in many countries, to realise that our example from the legal profession is hardly unique. There are so many aspects of life in which below-the-line behaviours of blame, defensiveness, justification and denial are regarded as normal, if not essential. These behaviours have become systemic in the ways that people are trained and rewarded.

We would argue that the world would be a much more productive, effective, sustainable and harmonious place if this were not the case. Perhaps one day above-the-line leadership will prevail and we will see a wholesale rise in emotional health levels around the world.

In the meantime, the point I want to make is that you don’t need to wait for the world to catch up in order to build an above-the-line culture within your own organisation, regardless of the industry you’re in. However, you do need to be aware of the influence that your industry’s culture is having on your internal culture.


Photo by Verne Ho on