What can we learn from Auntie and the Dog about values?

Blog posts

14 Jun 2021

Astrid Allen, Research Fellow

The Dyson Investigation into the Martin Bashir scandal at the BBC, and the recent accusations levelled at BrewDog, remind us of the importance    of company values. Organisational reputations hang on a thread and can be broken by the staff they employ. If organisations do not demonstrate their values in the daily decisions they make, their reputation can sustain major damage that is difficult to repair and can even have devastating consequences on people’s lives. 

The BBC’s modern-day organisational values put trust front and centre: ‘Trust is the foundation of the BBC. We’re independent, impartial and honest.’ Of course, the BBC has undergone major change since 1995. No fewer than three royal charters have been replaced during the intervening period and numerous reviews and reports published. However, the Dyson report found that, even back in 1995, editorial Guidelines of ‘straight and fair dealing’ were in place; guidelines which it found Bashir to have breached.

BrewDog’s values are set out as a series of ‘beliefs’ and include a statement on being a good employer: ‘We believe in being a great employer. We completely believe that our long term destiny will be dependent on how well we look after our amazing people. We care about great craft beer and incredible people. Without that we are nothing.’

However, in an open letter issued by 61 former staff, the brewer is accused of building its success on a ‘culture of fear’. The letter states: ‘…we have never seen anything that made us feel like BrewDog has lived the values is purports to uphold.’

Embedding values is difficult and BrewDog and the BBC are recent high-profile companies who have been accused of this policy to practice gap. There will be many more that have not been so publicly shamed. So, how do organisations ensure that their values are meaningful?

IES is about to publish a report exploring how values can be made a reality in organisations. In the report we consider existing literature on techniques for embedding organisational values and provide practical examples from organisations.  Some of our findings could help the BBC, BrewDog and others, to develop a better understanding of how values are developed, what the most successful approaches are for communicating and embedding values, and how success can be measured.

How success is measured is key; it is not workers’ knowledge of values that should be an organisation’s yardstick, but how the values are applied in their everyday practice.

The Dyson report suggests that the pursuit of the ‘truth’ was prioritised above everything else. Ironically and tragically this included the honesty of its reporters. The use of unethical means was tolerated in order to achieve the desired ends. Similarly, the letter to BrewDog claims that the organisation had a ‘growth at all costs’ mentality that ‘…allowed the ends to justify the means, time and time again’.

Wider organisational culture can lead to individuals making poor decisions and behaving uncharacteristically. The Dyson report found that, not only did an individual reporter fail to operate ethically, but the wider organisation did not respond appropriately when this was reported. Although we may question whether the right checks and balances were in place to discourage unethical behaviour among individual reporters, the action of some of those people in senior positions with knowledge of the transgression, suggest that this was bigger than a ‘rogue reporter’. Indeed, as recently as 2016, the BBC re-hired Martin Bashir, despite a catalogue of problematic behaviour (including, by his own admission, his “wholly unacceptable” comments broadcast on US news and chat network MSNBC in 2013). Similarly, the open letter to BrewDog says that ‘…good people have done bad things to achieve the job set before them, in such a way that benefits only the company.’

These incidents show that organisations can become (or accused of becoming) too focused on outcomes and not focused enough on the practices used to achieve those outcomes. This groupthink can counter the values and mean that reports of poor practice have nowhere to land, as there is an unwillingness to admit (perhaps privately as well as publicly) that unethical behaviour has occurred. It is notable that the letter to BrewDog suggests that the organisation’s leaders themselves started to believe the lies they are accused of telling.

As far back as 1971, Janis Irvin described a key characteristic of groupthink as ‘remaining loyal to the group by sticking with policies to which the group has already committed itself, even when those policies are obviously working out badly and have unintended consequences that disturb the conscience of each member’. This phenomenon is of particular concern in the context of organisational values as groupthink can create a culture where values are given ‘lip-service’, but daily practice does not change. Cultures can be created where the ends justify the means and securing a big sale (or that award winning scoop) are rewarded, despite the contravention of values that may have occurred along the way.

Furthermore, it could be argued that the very process of embedding values may encourage a greater propensity towards groupthink. A central premise for embedding values is to encourage a shared understanding and influence group attitudes and behaviours. The result can be to downplay and avoid conflict relating to the values. While our research identifies many approaches that organisations can undertake to embed their values, they must also provide mechanisms to challenge behaviours, rather than seeking to silence dissenters. The experiences at the BBC and BrewDog highlight the need for effective mechanisms that encourage debate and allow for whistleblowing, so that staff can challenge the behaviour of others without fear. Be careful not to muzzle the lone wolf who cried foul, they may turn out to be your best friend.

The paradox of organisational values is that, ultimately, it is more important to avoid a shared mindset, than to encourage it. Generating informal, and formal, opportunities to challenge behaviours you don’t want is just as important as creating mechanisms to encourage the behaviours that you do want. Just as it is critical to work to embed values, it is also essential to provide the space for their use (and their application) to be challenged.

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 Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.