Peter Drucker, the legendary management consultant and writer, once wrote that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. That’s true, but I now realise that culture can also eat the truth for a mid-morning break!

The Post Office has shown how a powerful, but sclerotic organisational culture created conditions where seemingly good people refused to acknowledge, share or own up to the truth. As a result, over 900 innocent sub-postmasters were taken to court and unjustly convicted. Of those, 236 went to prison.

Unfortunately, the Post Office is not alone. Boeing was fined $2.5 billion for hiding vital information from safety regulators in 2019 following fatal crashes of its 737 Max, Volkswagen executives systematically distorted information about exhaust emissions from its cars, Wells Fargo employees were found to have created millions of fake accounts in response to executive pressure to hit unreasonable sales targets.

Why do (I assume) good people lie and deceive in this way? Research has shown that various factors, including a lack of strategic clarity, unjust accountability systems and poor organisational governance can all play a role in influencing people to hide the truth (see ‘4 Ways Lying Becomes the Norm at a Company’ by Ron Carucci, Harvard Business Review, Feb 2019).

But the biggest factor that drives people to lie and deceive is a lack of cross-functional collaboration. Organisational silos not only weaken business performance, but they also inhibit honesty and hide the truth as a result of internal rivalries and conflicts.

Your organisation’s culture is more – far more – than a set of values hanging from posters on the office walls. A good definition is that an organisational culture is a shared set of rules, values, expectations, systems and behaviours. And a litmus test for a healthy organisation culture is how likely people at all levels are willing and able to tell the truth without fear of reprisal.

Boeing, Volskwagen, Wells Fargo and the Post Office all failed that litmus test. How confident are you that your organisation would pass the test and that culture isn’t eating the truth in your business?

Off The Record: Little Lies by Fleetwood Mac

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies,

Tell me lies, tell me lies – tell me lies,

Oh no, no you can’t disguise,

No, you can’t disguise,

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.