It’s “tone at the middle” not “tone at the top”

29 October 2015

With the recent spate of corporate scandals in mind, many of which have been behaviour-related, it is worth referencing a report published earlier this year by Thomson Reuters (written by Dr Roger Miles, an expert in behavioural economics and conduct risk) entitled “Tracing the true origins of bad behaviour: new ways to predict conduct risk exposure”. https://risk.thomsonreuters.com/sites/default/files/GRC02407.pdf

The report, which itself references other behavioural research mostly focused on the banking sector,  challenges the assumption that “tone at the top” is the strongest indicator of how effectively an organisation is committed to embedding good behaviour and mitigating conduct risk.  It is “tone at the top”, Dr Miles observes “but tone in the middle” that legitimises bad behaviour.  “In other words, staff don’t just make their own sense of what you show them – they also watch closely for signals from people directly around them before they decide if ‘this rule really does apply to me’.  Yes, risk is a matter of culture, but this turns out not to result at all from the carefully formulated culture that senior managers hand down. 

Interestingly we are currently conducting a piece of research, in which we are, amongst other things, scoping out/designing a more holistic engagement / internal communications role, which, if a candidate (plus team) of the right calibre is hired into it, will have greater influence and impact on the conversations that are being had at a more granular level in an organisation. Two aspects of this role are particularly pertinent to this issue:

  1. The first is employee insight, part of which involves identifying and understanding the conversations that are being had at a more granular level of the organisation and why

  2. The second is using this insight to help shape these conversations and facilitate better conversations at all levels

Internal comms and broader engagement initiatives suffer when they are predominantly managed and designed as a top down process and the thrust of many job descriptions are still predicated on a top down dynamic.

Given that the research alluded to in the opening paragraph (and bear in mind that there is a very clear correlation between the regulatory agenda and compliance / conduct in the banking sector) it is worth highlighting a quote from one of our research participants. In our conversation she observed that “compliance can be quite heavy-handed and often lands without context. Rules and codes of conduct may be well-meaning, but are also patronising, impracticable, over optimistic and thus irrelevant. The more you bear down on staff the more likely they are to ignore the rules”

Dr Miles’ research also alluded to what he coined as the “tribal network culture”, observing that “it is the behaviour of a personal work group that most strongly determines what “normal” means for them personally…the work group includes people of equal status working in the same space and also, crucially, includes line managers. It excludes senior management”.

The fact that “tribes” form and will often ignore all interventions from corporate control systems is not in itself a revelation. But there is surely a message here about how organisations should think through their approach to communications and engagement as well the effectiveness of their listening and intelligence gathering. A content/delivery focus on internal comms (by no means obsolete yet), one that is top down and lacks a deep understanding of and sensitivity to culture, behaviours (and the motivation behind them) and employee sentiment and mood, must be supplanted by an insight driven approach. Some companies have reorganised and re-skilled around this approach but many persist with an approach which should by now be obsolete. Indeed it is the reason why so many internal comms functions are still seen as somewhat peripheral.  

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