Matthew Sherrington: Has concern for the 'greater good' given toxic cultures a pass?

Charity staff care about the mission and their beneficiaries, but this can sometimes get in the way of calling out bullying and other bad behaviour

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Another week, more stories about bullying. The NHS sees a 35 per cent rise in the number of reported cases in four years, with fingers pointing to "chronic staff shortages and systemic pressures" as an underlying factor.

Amnesty International is the latest household-name charity to have to confront a ‘‘toxic’ work environment, described as "adversarial". The others don’t need listing again: to be in the public eye suggests something is at last going right at these places. People coming forward, investigations, reviews and a degree of openness are, I hope, signs that bullying is being taken seriously and steps are being taken to do better.

Other charities that haven’t yet hit the headlines are either deluding themselves or murmuring "there but for the grace of God …" and hopefully getting on the front foot.

Cases of egregious bullying by an individual have always emerged from time to time, But over the past year it’s the issue of safeguarding that has finally opened up the space to examine not just specific allegations of harassment and inadequate procedures, but also the issue of underlying culture that allows unacceptable behaviour to take place.

This in no way excuses people who behave badly and worse, but it does highlight the responsibility of organisations and their leaders to set the right tone and model the right standards and behaviour.

So this week’s announcement by Acevo, the body for charity chief executives, and the Centre for Mental Health is welcome and timely. They are launching a government-funded research project on why bullying happens in charities and why such behaviour is not challenged.

Bullying can be obvious, but isn’t always. How does an adversarial culture eat away at people? Who hasn’t been at the receiving end of a shouter, or seen disagreements between teams degenerate into denigration of each other’s competence and value? Some people are happy with and even embrace a good argument to thrash things out. Others find any sort of confrontation difficult and prefer to think rather than argue things out.

It is no surprise that a charity culture can feel adversarial. Someone wiser than me observed that charities are full of rebels, people who have opted out of the rat race to change the world with idealism, passion and principles. With those come commitment, strong opinions and a work ethic that can verge on martyrdom. There’s always more to be done in pursuit of the mission. When these characteristics reach leadership, they can set up unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of and demands on staff.

What happens when positive forces of mission and values clash with growing demand, pressures of funding cuts and admin ratios and an inability to say no? Workload is a common complaint, and it is driven by both leadership’s failure to prioritise and take decisions and people’s own reluctance to not do things they think matter. We "double-down", determined to do more with less so as not to let down those we exist to serve. It’s the curse of vocation.

And I suspect the same sense of vocational duty has helped to keep toxic culture and bad behaviour under wraps for so long. That old canard about putting brand reputation before beneficiaries is lazily flung at charities when there’s a bad news story, with the insinuation that they’d do anything to protect their fundraising. But it’s not that at all. It’s the mission – those very beneficiaries – that matters to charity people, and they understand that adverse publicity can affect a charity’s ability to serve those same beneficiaries. It’s a big deal to call out a problem, and no doubt those people who behave badly play on that.

Charity people will always find it hard to raise difficult issues if there’s a danger of damaging the vital work they care about. But it’s also hard to live with the dissonance of values preached when they are not practised. Charity leaders have a lot to do to re-set organisational cultures and not let staff unfairly bear the brunt.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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