UK: Culture Is Key To Balancing Winning And Welfare

Last Updated: 8 August 2017
Article by Craig Beeston

Craig Beeston of ICSA says a strong culture and positive environment is needed to prevent abuse of elite sportsmen and women.

The report of the independent review panel into the climate and culture of the World Class Programme (WCP) in British Cycling raises questions over the price paid for one of the UK’s most celebrated sporting successes, while underlining further the importance of monitoring and nurturing an organisation’s culture alongside its policies and processes.

The report’s release coincided with a spate of allegations of bullying, sexism, abuse and racism at a series of British Olympic and Paralympic programmes.

In April, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson’s duty of care review asked tough questions about whether the current balance between winning and welfare is right, and what the UK is prepared to accept as a nation in the pursuit of sporting success.

The incoming Chair of the funding body UK Sport, Dame Katherine Grainger, acknowledged there are ‘huge concerns’ over athlete welfare, while in June its Chief Executive Liz Nicholl denied allegations of a ‘winning-at-all-costs approach’, calling such accusations ‘frankly disturbing’.

Behind those recent stories also looms the appalling spectre of the allegations of historic abuse in football.

International success

Since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, British Cycling has performed remarkably, becoming the poster national governing body for publicly-funded elite programmes.

As well as yielding enormous international success, including 38 Olympic and 63 Paralympic medals, the scheme has established cyclists as household names and spurred on mass participation drives.

“Some staff referred to a ‘culture of fear’ and some interviewees gave the impression of having been traumatised.”

Yet the independent review panel criticised the poor governance at board level; an environment lacking in transparency and accountability; the use of discriminatory or derogatory language towards personnel on the WCP; and a lack of support for staff who felt vulnerable and without an effective avenue for voicing complaints.

Some staff referred to a ‘culture of fear’ and the panel went so far as to note that some interviewees were distressed at recounting their experiences and some gave the impression of having been traumatised.

The independent review observed that the single-minded pursuit of medal targets underpinning funding from UK Sport had a ‘blinding effect’ with regard to culture in the WCP.

It criticised the board’s ‘abrogation of duty’ in failing to address the cultural and behavioural concerns raised in an internal 2012 report, which also identified that any semblance of management structure had disintegrated.

Clearly demonstrated in the review is the double-edged sword of dominant personalities. On the one hand these can drive the pursuit of excellence, but on the other, they can intimidate, subdue and – if left unchecked – assume an air of impunity, ultimately to the detriment of the organisation.

Crises and scandals

British Cycling and sport in general are not isolated in facing governance crises and scandals. Banking, retail, charities and manufacturing have all experienced damaging episodes in recent years.

Since then there has been a growing awareness of the importance of good governance across all sectors and the need to address not only the policies and processes that an organisation has in place, but the culture that underpins their enactment.

The OECD’s Principles of Corporate Governance, King IV, the UK’s Corporate Governance Code, and the upcoming revised Charity Governance Code all stress the importance of ethics and the establishment of an appropriate organisational culture.

“When the pressure is on to achieve results a strong, ethical culture may prevent the wrong choices being made”

Principle 4 of the Code for Sports Governance requires that ‘organisations shall uphold high standards of integrity, and engage in regular and effective evaluation to drive continuous improvement’.

The rationale behind this is that having the right values embedded in the culture of the organisation will serve to protect public investment and enhance both the reputation of the organisation and stakeholder confidence in it.

Yet it arguably has the power to do much more. When the pressure is on to achieve results – be they sporting or commercial – a strong, ethical culture may be the one thing that prevents the wrong choices being made and avoids inappropriate, or even illegal, behaviour taking place.

In 2016, a Financial Reporting Council review noted that ‘while legislation, regulation and codes influence individual and corporate behaviour, they do not ultimately control it’.

A recent report by ICSA on assessing cultures within charities concurred that ‘behaviour is determined not only by rules, but also by the culture of the entity concerned’, adding the warning that ‘in the worst cases, that culture can be one of wilfully ignoring and seeking to bypass rules’.

Competitive cultures

At its simplest, culture is ‘the way things are done around here’ – an agreed set of customs and values that inform, and are evident in, the behaviour of those who work in and for an organisation, and the activities of that organisation.

Far from being a burden or an afterthought, a strong culture could, according to the FRC, also be a valuable asset, ‘a source of competitive advantage … vital to the creation and protection of long-term advantage’.

The independent review panel’s position that the development of a positive culture, far from jeopardising performance, can serve to enhance medal-winning prospects has been supported by UK Sport, which accepted the report’s recommendations and released an action plan in response.

“There were polar-opposite cultures within teams under the same roof at the Manchester Velodrome”

Agreeing and establishing a clear, consistent and coherent culture which is transmitted and embedded throughout the organisation should be a core task for the board, assisted by the management team and, where appropriate, the human resources department.

To do so can take time, planning and communication. A telling observation by the independent review panel of the WCP was the emergence of polar-opposite cultures within teams under the same roof at the Manchester Velodrome – separated by just 50 metres.

Too damn hard

Fixing this requires commitment, from the top and throughout the organisation.

There is a scene towards the end of the movie ‘Scent of a Woman’, where Al Pacino’s irascible retired army colonel is defending his young assistant in a quasi-judicial school disciplinary hearing.

Reflecting on his own experiences, and his own failings, Colonel Slade admits: ‘I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard.’

That is an important factor. Although the right course of action will not always be the hardest, it will probably not be the easiest either. This applies to all sectors of the economy, not just sport.

It may be tempting to bend the rules rather than to accept falling just short of success. Entering into questionable behaviour or dubious relationships may seem less troublesome than explaining a reduced bottom line to your shareholders.

Developing and nurturing a positive environment may require more effort than to harangue, bully and generate a culture of fear. The decisions which individuals and organisations make when faced with such choices will depend in no small part on the culture in which they operate.

The potential fallout from poor choices – reputational, financial and legal, as well as the experiences of those who work with and for an organisation – makes the establishment of a strong culture an essential part of the governance framework.

Craig Beeston is Policy Officer (Not-For-Profit) at ICSA: The Governance Institute

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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