Culture is a cruel mistress

By John Preston

Radio—Created by Visnezh—

On the ABC’s Radio National’s morning program the other day, presenter Fran Kelly chided Federal member for Corangamite Sarah Henderson MP.

Henderson used the interview to persistently belt her political opponents rather than debating regional rail links between Geelong and Melbourne—the issue she had been invited onto the program to discuss—and Fran was having none of it.

What struck me, listening to this exchange, was that Ms Henderson’s penchant for deriding her political opponents is a trait shared by her colleagues across the political spectrum. It is emblematic of Australia’s contemporary political culture and, once ingrained, culture is an intractable problem and a cruel mistress.

Torben Rick, in a recent blog, suggests that culture, in this context, can be defined as an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions.

When the goals are limited to electoral success, the role of protagonists becomes limited to that of combatants. The things that politicians do day-today (processes) become combat arenas—shallow media events with the narrow purpose of deriding opponents. Values become encased in base, simplistic ideology. Communication practices are restricted to centrally issued talking points—and nothing more. The attitude of protagonists serve only to reinforce assumptions that this cultural strategy will lead to electoral success—and around we go.

Repetition reinforces culture until, ultimately, culture becomes both self-perpetuating and self-serving—contributing to its intractable nature.

Once it has been identified as detrimental—a major first step—changing organisational culture is a significant challenge.

In the same blog, Rick suggests that culture can be visualised as if an iceberg: only a little is visible and most of its weight and bulk lies beneath the surface. If this is the case, how do we tackle change?

One bite at a time -Artwork by Susannah Bishop—Ethos CRS

Rick offers a clue and a starting point: ‘each little change effects every layer of [the] system’. Little changes are a starting point—eat the elephant, one bite at a time. If positive change can be applied to, say, the writing or policy development sub-culture within an organisation, the expectation is that positive change will eventually permeate the organisation and lead to an overall positive change.

At Ethos CRS, we applaud and support Fran Kelly’s crusade to improve the political discourse in this country. Challenging its culture and pervasive superficiality by chiding politicians who argue ideology and not issues is a good start. We may not be able to influence our politicians as directly as Fran does, but we can help public servants effect change in their organisations—one bite at a time.

You can read more on this issue in ‘The ad hominem delusion that infects our public debate‘ by Ethos CRS’s Susannah Bishop and John Preston. Susannah and John’s article appeared in the Canberra Times on 2 May 2017

Contact us at  if you require a customised a program for your organisation. Ethos CRS provides most of the policy programs for the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) for policy programs through their National learning and development calendar.

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