Five Oaks Consulting

Organizational culture

Can Organizational Culture Help Explain Recent INGO Scandals?

In recent years, leading international nongovernmental organizations (INGO) such as Oxfam International, Save the Children, Amnesty International, MercyCorps and others have been implicated in scandals about sexual abuse and other forms of abuse of power and harassment. In this ‘pracademic’ essay, just published in the peer-reviewed journal Nonprofit Policy Forum (Open Access, yes!), I suggest focusing on organizational and sectoral culture as an explanatory variable for these crises, which are particularly hard-hitting for purportedly value-based organizations. In the case of NGOs, these are driven by six factors:

(1) particular individual leadership traits that may be prevalent especially in the emergency and humanitarian relief related sector

(2) the effect of power on leaders’ perspectives and behaviors

3) a culture of silence that makes it hard for NGO staff to speak up about toxic workplace behaviors

(4) the presence of deep power structures within NGOs which are not openly acknowledged and therefore addressed

(5) the myth of own innocence that leads NGOs to treat wrongdoing as aberrations instead of systemic problems; and

(6) a culture of limited individual and team-level accountability practices.

The extent to which these cultural failures can be addressed through formal policy and (self)regulatory measures is limited, given that culture is primarily about informal, covert belief systems. NGOs will have to do sustained and disciplined culture work themselves if the roots of the scandals are to be taken away.

A couple of warnings and notes: this essay is on the longer side. And I do not claim I am an expert in sexual harassment and abuse, either in the workplace or when NGOs interact with program impacted people. I am an expert in organizational effectiveness, dynamics, and culture as it relates to NGOs, and have a background in gender and gender and leadership as well. It is from those perspectives that I have written this essay. What I do is drawing links between organizational phenomena well researched in other sectors (public/government and private) and what can happen equally in NGOs, based on my 30 years of experience in the sector.

Your comments are very much welcomed.

Is hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ the way out for changing our NGO cultures? A skeptical view

Should NGOs hire and promote more ‘rebels’ – i.e. unlike minded characters – if they want to ensure enough adaptive capacity to weather the changes in the external environment? Will that make us better at seizing opportunities?

The case for rebels

Years ago I was part of a Task Force on Culture Change, hosted by the International Civil Society Center. Some participant supported the view that hiring and promoting ‘rebels’ or ‘strange bedfellows’ was the way to culture change. By ‘strange bedfellows’ I mean people who are squarely dissimilar from many NGOs types in background, social identity, cognitive outlook, skill set, industries etc. This approach has been recognized in the academic literature such as that of the organizational culture ‘guru’ Edgar Schein as one avenue indeed. And we know from the innovation literature and practice that when people from very different disciplines and backgrounds are exposed to each other, this can lead to creativity and innovation. See for instance my short interview with Aleem Walji, head of Aga Khan Foundation USA, who himself drove innovation in Google and the World Bank before coming to Aga Khan, in which he describes aspects of this process. Leandro Herrero, of the book ‘Viral Change’ about change management and a frequent, I might say caustic commentator on organizational dynamics, highlights the role of organizational dissenters, such as in this recent blog post. And the recent surge of attention paid to organizational diversity strategies in the private and public sectors also points to benefits in terms of creativity and innovation. In fact, the NeuroLeadership Institute argues that our brains must work harder and consider a broader set of ideas when we are surrounded by people who are different, i.e. ‘rebels’ within our workplace – and thus we do better work.

My skepticism

While I see the point of ‘rebels’ entirely, I am somewhat skeptical of how much space they are typically given in NGOs . In my observation, many NGOs I interact with have a limited ability to work with ‘strange bedfellows’; in fact, they form strong ‘antibodies’ against incoming ‘rebels’ who have been hired to change the culture. We tend to primarily be open to information that originates within our own sector. I wrote about this in a 2018 essay for CIVICUS’s Annual State of Civil Society report. In fact, the view that ‘radical, new leadership’ is critical and the only thing that is going to make culture change happen causes me to be skeptic in two ways. One, can leaders with formal positional power really drive transformational change in our rather leadership-averse, consultative cultures? And two, do our civil society organizations truly accept ‘radical leaders’? Or are we in fact quite good at spitting them out soon after they have entered?

So what to do?

What is your experience with this? And how can we be more open and inviting to rebels, once hired? Have them be sponsored as well as mentored more effectively (by people who already have much informal capital in the organization)? Have important meetings facilitated by outside facilitators so that rebels’ ideas and suggestions are given enough airtime? Let me know!

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Introduction

When was the last time you read that an entire Senior Leadership Team (SLT) of a major NGO offered to resign? This happened recently in Amnesty International (shy of Kumi Naidoo, the relatively new Secretary General). It occurred after Amnesty made public (to its credit!) an independent report on the state of its staff well- being. The report put allegations of unfair treatment of staff, negatively impacted by a recent big organizational change process, and of racism, gender discrimination and bullying front and center as part of a longer standing cultural issue.

Why I write about this

I have followed these developments in Amnesty closely because I was part of a team that between 2014-2017 undertook a two part External Assessment of Amnesty’s Global Transition Program (GTP) . This big organizational change effort, as embodied in its informal name ‘Moving Closer to the Ground’, in effect decentralized Amnesty’s International Secretariat away from London to 11 Regional Offices, led (among others) to the appointment of many more global South staff and leaders, instilled a greater focus on gaining more global South members and supporters and led to the departure of a relative large number of staff who often had been with Amnesty for a long time.  In effect, GTP also led to some redistribution of power within Amnesty.  The Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA, which I directed at the time, undertook the External Assessment. Co-authors in this effort included Ramesh Singh, Steve Lux and Shreeya Neupane. In addition, I also was the co-trainer in an annual Senior Leadership Development Program for major INGOs including Amnesty since 2013, and in that process have heard many observations about Amnesty culture, including when it comes to interpersonal communication styles.

Our Assessment had a much broader scope than effects on staff of the Global Transition Program (GTP) alone, but it certainly included those effects. We included data on persistent and legitimate staff grievances as a result of especially weak change management capacity and practice, particularly during the first (crucial) stages of GTP implementation. We indicated that Amnesty’s Management seemed to consider these grievances in ways that we found to be unhelpful. Our report came out in May 2017, and from the Staff Well-being report produced by the consulting group Konterra which just came out it appears that our work did not make much of a difference – a not uncommon limitation of externally commissioned work!

It should be said that the internal communication culture of Amnesty was known to be ‘confrontational’ well before the Global Transition Program. By this we mean a style of communicating that is dominated by attempts to persuade others through internal advocacy style communication, the use of argumentation and attacks – instead of on skillful interpersonal communication that leads to greater mutual understanding, conflict management and collaboration. This communication culture, anecdotally, is not just reported in Amnesty, but also in some other campaigning NGOs. The phenomenon is described by David La Piana, for instance, in “The Nonprofit Paradox (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2010).

This made me reflect on some things[1]:

  1. Symbolically, the offer of collective resignation by Amnesty’s Senior Leadership Team was a necessary and useful action – this is irrespective of whether it accomplishes anything ‘structural’. It met the emotional needs of some staff (though not all) and the political needs of Amnesty’s  Board. 
  2. It gives the current Secretary General a free hand to start afresh with new leadership – even if Kumi decides to hold on to some SLT members while accepting the resignation of others. This can help with top leadership getting ‘unstuck’ with regard to certain ‘mental models’ of how staff grievances should be understood.
  3. Based on work I have done with other mid to large size NGOs who have gone through big change processes, I wonder if two realities co-exist in terms of whose voices counted or were privileged in the Staff Well-being report: on the one hand, there is a widespread, deeply shared and easily understood set of grievances. At the same time, it is my sense that there is also a set of voices that is critical of all the attention that has gone into ‘looking to the past’, who think that the power imbalances within the movement as well as the very identity of Amnesty needed to change, and who think the Staff Wellbeing report is (somewhat) overblown. The latter people just want to move on with the direction of travel that Amnesty is on, because they deeply believe in this direction and feel that the significant amount of change the organization went through was badly needed. I would have been interested to see in the Staff Well-being report, for instance, whether the latter voices had certain characteristics in common or not?
  4. And I also struggle with this question: on the one hand, a human rights organization cannot be seen to violate staff rights within the organization. And people certainly cannot work productively and contribute to worthwhile outcomes if they feel strongly aggrieved. On the other hand, all this attention is inward looking instead of outward looking, to rights holders who Amnesty aims to support and promote. And this is after the GTP change process itself already instilled a strongly inward looking climate for staff in the International Secretariat for several years.
  5. We all know there is a perennial debate within civil society as to what is the importance of having ‘passion for the cause’ and having ‘the right values’ (reflected in what some call the ‘soul’ of civil society), relative to the aim to professionalize. And it is obvious that mission and values-focused NGO staff are driven more by intrinsic motivations than by extrinsic rewards such as salary.  However, we as staff still need to be competent (professional) in how we communicate and treat each other; and we also may need to be more concerned with external effectiveness, and less with ‘good intentions and passion’.
  6. This in turn reminds me of the time I facilitated a senior leadership training, and we discussed the concept of a ‘psychological contract’. This concept (developed by Denise Rousseau) points to the set of – often unspoken – mutual beliefs and perceptions with regard to the informal obligations that may exist between employers and employees. As trainers, we asked each participant to indicate what their psychological contract was with their NGO employer. I recall how one set of participants indicated that theirs consisted of two things: having passion for ‘the cause’ and a willingness to work long hours for not that high a salary. I remember thinking to myself: but what about actual outcomes for the people or causes you work on? Outcomes did not seem to be part of the equation.
  7. This also brought back memories of the time when I set out to work in the international development field – a long time ago. I never saw myself as a ‘do gooder’ even though that was the assumption that many people had about young people like me. I did want to work on public causes, but I was weary of any notion of ‘saving the world’: the arrogance and ego that was personified in that idea was not something I was comfortable with. II just wanted to do meaningful work well. Please note that I am not saying I always succeeded! But doing work well was my main mission.
  8. Coming back to Amnesty’s current situation, this sentence in an editorial of The Times (after the publication of the Staff Well-being report therefore stuck with me: “Staff and managers employed … may pride themselves more on their commitment than on their professionalism. Being morally right all the time can induce an attitude towards fellow employees which is characterised by impatience and intolerance. Due process can come to be seen as an impediment to doing what seems to be the right thing, rather than as an assistance. Nothing is as “toxic” in the workplace as the resulting arbitrariness.” (The Times, February 6, 2019)

In conclusion, perhaps we as a sector should get better at balancing being ‘morally right’ (which is in any event depending on one’s viewpoint of the world), with being focused on skillfully interacting with our colleagues, so that we may support the creation of better outcomes. Why does our ‘moral outrage’ entitle us to treat others badly? Does this showcase a certain amount of ego and self-gratification, while masking as ‘doing good’? Should we apply a bit more humility, honesty and self-awareness?

This is a highly complex situation. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments and to learning from your perspective.


[1] I am grateful to Catherine Gerard, my colleague at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), who has been my mentor as well as co-trainer in the Senior Leadership Development Program since 2011, for inputs received.

Agile leadership behaviors, leading change and culture in INGOs: a Humentum SocialEx podcast interview

Agility is a much-discussed topic among INGOs these days. This is not just about how to become more organizationally agile, but also how to be more agile as individual leaders. Humentum, the NGO membership organization that supports capacity building in the area of operational excellence, and the Maxwell School recently designed a pilot e-course on Agile Leadership Behaviors which I designed and co-facilitated during the first course run. Full credits for much of the curriculum foundation of this e-course go to Catherine Gerard at the Maxwell School, however!

In this Humentum SocialEx podcast interview, Caitlin Holland, Humentum’s Storyteller, interviewed me about the core concepts behind the new e-course (which will run in April once again). We also chatted about the Maxwell School’s extensive, global experience in the development of government and NGO leadership, and my observations on a few facets of INGO culture as I see them manifested in some of the organizations I work with.

Let me know what your views are on the topics Caitlin and I discussed!

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bisket_Jatra_festival_2018_at_the_Nyatapola_temple,_Bhaktapur.jpg

Countercultural HR recommendations: can what worked for Netflix also work for NGOs?

Should NGOs leaders heed the advice from the former head of HR at Netflix, in their efforts to remain relevant as well capable of innovation and scale?


In an era of anxiety about remaining relevance – at least in some quarters of ‘NGO land’ — I would venture that it is worthwhile to listen in to this podcast with Patty McCorden, who headed HR at Netflix until recently, and now consults with many startups and other companies. Her thoughts and positions are stimulating and at times provocative. Mark C. Crowley, author of the book “Leading from the Heart” as well as the corresponding podcast series, interviewed Patty recently. I appreciate Mark’s podcast interviews, with their focus on the crucial role of emotional intelligence in leadership. And kudos to Mike Harold at Greenpeace, who put me onto Patty McCorden’s book “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility” in the first place!


Here are counter cultural recommendations that NGO leaders should heed:

HR too often is backward looking (‘how was your performance in the past year?’); instead, it should be be forward looking: what kind of people does our organization need in 1-2 years? This may be quite different from what we have at the moment. 

HR should not be focused on retention but on the match between where the NGO will need to go soon and the people (skills, competencies, attitudes etc.) that it will need correspondingly. When current staff – including those who may have been ‘star performers’! – no longer match  what the organization needs, it is the role of HR to start conversations early on about changes that are on the horizon, and support HR can give to staff in the form of connections, references, job search support, etc. for people for whom there may soon not be a match anymore. These conversations and support systems will optimize people’s chances for a good next career move.

it is important for NGOs therefore to be fully transparent about the state of the organization, what key organizational level performance indicators are indicating about changes that may be needed in role, strategy, business models etc. NGOs need to share this data transparently with staff. This way, people can prepare their minds for impending changes and take action accordingly.

Anecdotally, the culture of many INGOs that I interact with seems to make it hard to discuss these aspects openly. Some scholars and practitioners think this is due to the passion that NGO staff frequently bring to the cause their organization represents, and the amount of identity that people thus have caught up with this. I will write more about this aspect in future blogs, because I see this to cause some real problems – which we do not talk about openly enough in our sector, and which causes plenty of ‘dishonesty in our discourse’ in my view.

Our NGO sector should therefore heed some of these HR approaches, because not doing so ultimately limits the impact of our organizations, which is not in line with what we say we are about – maximizing impact. Doing so is also ultimately unfair to staff, because it does not prepare them for necessary and successful transition in this era of disruption, including because of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (a term coined by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, about the seismic disruption purportedly impending due to digitalization, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, biotechnology etc. ).
So, what are you taking away from Patty’s recommendations for your NGO?
And what do you think of Patty’s phrase that HR leaders are the “COO of the organizational culture?” What does this imply for you as HR or OD leader, on a daily basis?
 

Let me know! Sign up for my future reflections. And let’s talk if you want to discuss any of these trends and issues.

 Here are some links to help you dig deeper, as a start:

Lead from the Heart interview by Mark C. Crowley with Patty McCord: http://markccrowley.com/patty-mccord-parting-ways-with-traditional-leadership-rules-is-how-netflix-built-its-hugely-successful-culture/

Netflix’s culture story: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture

McCord’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/patty_mccord_lessons_from_a_silicon_valley_maverick_new_ways_of_working_and_collaborating

Article in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr