Yes, organisational culture is important – but getting it right is not easy. Recent stories of ‘culture problems’ are aplenty, including in Cricket Australia where, following Cameron Bancroft’s ball tampering shenanigans, a review found that Cricket Australia’s culture was ‘toxic’ – the coach and chairman subsequently resigned. The banking royal commission found that Australia’s ‘big four’ banks failed the ‘good culture’ test, calling for a deep organisational culture change within the banking sector. The Coroner’s report into the Dreamworld disaster described the organisation’s culture as ‘culpable’. At the Crown casino inquiry, Crown board member Andrew Demetriou, described Crown’s wrongdoings as ‘a failure of culture’. And just this week, commentary on the ADF’s Inspector-General’s report into suspected war crimes suggests that defence will be tasked with ‘breaking down systemic cultural issues within the special forces teams’.

These (and many other) examples demonstrate the far-reaching consequences of culture on organisational success – or not.  But what can be done?

An organisation’s culture is reflected in what consultant Steve Simpson calls the ‘unwritten ground rules’, or UGRs, that implicitly exist within organisations. Organisational culture develops over time (deliberately or otherwise) in response to various influencers, including (1) organisational systems – for example, reward systems, performance management systems, organisational design, etc; (2) organisational focus – what constitutes organisational ‘success’ (what gets checked gets done); and (3) leader behaviour – noting the actions of leaders set the tone and enable UGRs to ferment, and even as adults, we still play ‘follow the leader’. Strong alignment across these influencers results in strong [read ‘entrenched’] cultures, both good and bad.

The aviation industry knows this well. A presentation by Boeing at a 1979 NASA conference identified that that a high number of perfectly serviceable aircraft were crashing, not because of mechanical problems or poor flying skills, but because of an industry culture which tacitly promoted autocratic leadership of aircraft captains, which resulted in captains not seeking or heeding advice from subordinates, and subordinates not correcting their captains even in dire situations.

This conference was a turning point for the aviation industry, and prompted an industry-wide culture change program to improve operations on aircraft flight decks by flattening hierarchies, sharing workloads, and improving information sharing, communication and teamwork. This was not rocket science; these programs just improved interactions between humans. The key ingredient to these programs was changing traditional leadership paradigm and predominant leader behaviours. Thankfully, aircraft safety has been improved to the point that, today, you and I are more likely to come to grief when driving our car to the airport than when travelling as a passenger in a commercial aircraft.

The changes that the aviation industry has implemented over the past 40 years has been a personal fascination, one which I have studied, and one which has culminated in the publishing of my book, The Human Factor. In the book I outline how the aviation industry has addressed the issue commonly known as ‘human factors’, to address human fallibility and manage error; and how these same principles can be adopted by any organisation to improve organisational performance and resilience.

Imagine if we could reduce the number of errors that occur everywhere by half. Half the number of missed business opportunities or avoidable business failures, half the number of house fires, half the road toll, half the number of industrial accidents, half the amount of time spinning our wheels correcting errors. Imagine the suffering, the trauma, the heartache and the wasted time and effort that could be avoided. Imagine the joy and prosperity that could result!

Of course, this would require change, and if the aviation industry is any indication, this would include a change in the way leader behaviour is managed.

Even though leader behaviour is generally acknowledged as a significant contributor to organisational culture, in many organisations this issue is not addressed systematically. Often, expectations of leader behaviours are vague, implicit or non-existent, reflecting individual preference rather than an articulated set of explicit leader behaviour expectations.

My research suggests that if organisations want to improve their culture, a good starting point is getting serious about leader behaviour. Yes, removing leaders (as Cricket Australia did) might be part of this, but entrenched cultures extend down into the substrate of organisations. As a result, changing culture requires a more holistic approach. The aviation industry knows this well.