Derek Bishop


The Fish rots from the head

Date added: 25th Jun 2013
Category: Organisational Culture Change

The Chairman of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), David Prior, has only been in post for four months but has stepped into a baptism of fire.   Not only has a report into failings at a Cumbrian Hospital hit the headlines, it has emerged that criticism of the CQC’s own handling of the initial investigation had been covered up.

With the entire top echelon of the CQC having been replaced David Prior is not mincing his words over the previous failings at the commission or at whose door those failings can be laid.  Commenting that “the fish rots from the head”, he also commented that “this sort of cover up happens in totally dysfunctional organisations where the culture is rotten to the core and that was the position at the CQC at the time”.

That David Prior was prepared to come out in public with such a condemnation of previous practices within his own organisation is a symptom of the current trend towards openness in business and government.  We have previously commented on the way in which the new Barclays chief was prepared to stand up and tell employees that either they had to change their ways or they should seek new positions and it appears that similar brooms are aiming to sweep clean the BBC and even the NHS itself.

With MP’s expenses, phone hacking, tax avoidance and other scandals all hitting the general consciousness within a short space of time, the public, it seems,  have had enough and are looking for businesses and government to change their culture. In fact, when we look back at this decade we may well see it as the time when rules gave way to ethics and a spirit of doing right rather than making a quick buck entered the general consciousness.

This new mood ties in perfectly with the spirit of innovation which we have previously commented on.  When every business accesses the same technology, the only differentiator is increasingly the way in which things are done.  Creating an exceptional customer service has become the driver and profitability stands or falls on public perception and willingness to trade.

But creating an exceptional customer-service centred culture means that everyone within the entire organisation has to change.  And David Prior is right when he identifies the fact that the fish rots from the head.  Front line employees are the ones who have day to day customer contact but unless the conditions are right throughout the organisation then the actions of employees are circumscribed.  And when it comes to some organisations, the leadership team create the very conditions in which cover up and back-covering become a way of life.

When leadership is mistakenly confused with dictatorship the entire organisation gradually swings its culture into one of appeasement.  “Yes men” are promoted and those who raise doubts are dismissed.  Middle management becomes more concerned with filtering news so that their backs are covered and in turn this means that cover-ups, bullying, unrealistic performance pressures and a target-driven culture starts to pervade.  Behind these four horsemen come higher staff turnover, increased sickness, wastage and a fall in product reliability.

When things get so bad then the culture is truly rotten to the core and only drastic action will turn it around.  The new chairman of the CQC has initiated such an action with a public acknowledgement of the organisation’s failings under the previous regime.  Other public figures have done the same and are now working to turn around their organisations.   The fear is that there are still businesses and organisations out there who operate under toxic cultures and whose failings may only come to light when it is too late.

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