The horrendous Jimmy Savile story has recently entered a new phase: towards criticism of the institutions – the BBC, the hospitals, the Department of Health – that allowed him to operate with such impunity.
All across those organisations I imagine people are now asking themselves how they let this happen. And I can hear the reply: “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.
This issue of conformity has come up before in this blog – reflecting similar examples from different fields: for example, institutional racism. The ability of any organisation – like the police, for example – to confuse itself, to collude amongst its members, to “sleep-walk”.
History provides, of course, many even worse examples of self-delusion amongst groups.
The Solomon Asch studies – video here – are shocking to watch. They demonstrate, to me at least, how powerful these effects are. I am pretty sure that if I was the young man in the second video, I too would have gone along.
I have also often seen this kind of sleep-walking in the businesses where I have worked.
In large and in small businesses alike I have seen management (and the staff) sleep-walk into a worse and worse situation. “Wake-up” I want to shout. Sometimes I do shout that 🙂 Sometimes it works. And sometimes not. The zombies sleep on. Walking over the cliff.
And I also worry that I am doing it right now.
Perhaps twenty years from now someone will finally blow the whistle on the biggest scandals of our generation, in a way that sticks. The things we know, but now ignore, will suddenly rise painfully into consciousness.
How, for example, at the beginning of the 21st century did we collectively dream our way through one of humanity’s greatest disasters – the completely avoidable deaths of millions and millions of people – through the wanton destruction of our environment, and by allowing starvation and curable disease to kill men, women and children at unbelievable rates?
Today, in case you were asleep, 30% of the world’s population don’t have access to essential medicines. 13% of people in the world are undernourished. (Source: Oxfam.)
That day, when we all wake up, I, like all of us, will probably try to justify my behaviour and say “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.
There is an argument that this is just part of the human condition. That our failure is inevitable – because we, as humans, are flawed.
But, personally, I think that is only one side of the argument. I do think it is important to accept that we are human and we do make these mistakes. All the time. We are weak.
But it is also, in my view, important to recognise that we are strong and able to do something about all this.
Of course, lots of people are doing things. I really like this recent approach by Oxfam – the doughnut – a simple, graphical model that allows us to contemplate the complexity of a world threatened by multiple environmental disasters and by multiple social and human ills.
I like the model because it is simple. But I also like what it doesn’t show: that as long as businesses operate within the doughnut there is huge scope for innovation and creativity of all kinds. For prosperity and a meeting of needs.
That to me is to the great opportunity presented to business in this sometimes difficult world.