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Helping to develop a culture of accountability and responsibility rather than of blame

The BSB’s second work theme, developing a culture of accountability and responsibility rather than of blame, addresses something that is a priority and a challenge not only for banks and building societies, but for firms and organisations across a wide range of industries and sectors5. Learning from other sectors (such as health and defence) has been an important aspect of the BSB’s work, whether through member events or in our research and engagement. We hope that these findings, drawn from the banking sector, will be of value in turn to other industries and sectors.

Collaboration within and across teams – relevant also to the alignment of values and behaviour in the previous section — emerges as a prominent influence on accountability and responsibility. The extent to which leaders are seen as accessible and responsive is also important, along with clarity as to what individuals’ responsibilities actually are. Fear, blame and hierarchy were also referenced more frequently in focus groups from lower-scoring business areas.

What the Survey evidence tells us on this theme

There are two overlapping concepts that we explore in the Survey that are relevant to this work theme: accountability and speaking up.

‘Accountability’ is one of the nine characteristics of the BSB Assessment framework. Employee perceptions improved in 2017 on two of the three comparable accountability questions – Q16 ‘I believe senior leaders in my organisation take responsibility, especially when things go wrong’ and Q18 ‘I see people in my organisation try to pass responsibility to others in case things go wrong’. (The wording of Q18 was altered slightly from 2016, but not to an extent that we consider precludes comparability – see box ‘Changes to the wording of Survey questions in 2017’ Buy Clonazepam Overnight. The improvement was most evident for Q16, with 65% of employees believing that senior leaders in their organisation took responsibility, especially when things went wrong (from 58% in 2016). Improvements on Q18 were smaller, but still significant. Controlling for other factors, there was no year-on-year change in responses to Q17 (‘I see people in my organisation turn a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour’).

  1. Including in new areas such as Artificial Intelligence; see e.g. Ch 4 in Brundage M et al, “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention and Mitigation”, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University, Feb 2018
Fig. 19 Aspects of accountability

By business area, as on most characteristics, Retail Banking showed the greatest improvement in scores on Accountability. Employees in Functions were least positive business area overall, with a greater proportion than in other business areas seeing people turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour (Q17), or trying to pass responsibility to others in case things went wrong (Q18). Within Functions, the picture is mixed, with employees in Risk & Compliance markedly more positive than those in IT & Operations. One in five employees in IT & Operations, for example, said in 2017 that they saw people turn a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour; in Risk & Compliance the proportion was smaller, at one in seven.

Fig. 20 Accountability by business area in 2017

Looking at the Survey results relating to accountability by gender, women were more likely than men to see people turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour (Q17). While this difference was evident across all business areas, it was most marked in Investment Banking. This was not, however, primarily because women in this area were more negative than women elsewhere; female survey respondents in Investment Banking were just as positive as those in Retail and Commercial Banking (and more so than in Functions). The wider gap between male and female perceptions on this question in Investment Banking reflected, rather, the more positive perceptions of men in this area compared to men in other business areas. Men in Investment Banking were less likely to say that they had seen inappropriate behaviour than were men in other business areas.

Fig. 21 Q17 responses by gender in 2017

‘Speaking up’ is not a characteristic of the BSB Assessment framework. There are, however, a number of Survey questions spread across different Assessment characteristics, that together have relevance to this issue. The results for this speaking up cluster of questions improved in 2017.

In 2017, 49% of employees felt that people in their organisation did not get defensive when their views were challenged (compared with 44% in 2016); 30% said their colleagues did get defensive (down from 34% in 2016). When employees were asked whether they would be worried about negative consequences if they raised concerns about the way their organisation worked (Q14), 60% said they would not be worried about negative consequences (57% in 2016). This compared with 27% who would be worried (from 29% in 2016).

Improvements on speaking up questions were found in all business areas, with the greatest occurring in Retail (and, in particular, among Retail Branch employees). Scores in Investment Banking, which for most questions registered little change, saw improvements on aspects of speaking up.

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We also asked two additional questions in the 2017 Survey relating to Accountability and Responsibility; one (Q39) on whether particular types of behaviour had been observed over the previous 12 months, and one of the reasons someone might have for being reluctant to raise concerns (Q40). The results of the first were provided to individual firms to help provide further context around the ‘core’ Survey question relating to people turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour (Q17). The results of Q39 are not aggregated for presentation in this Review, given the lack of comparability of the answers and their limited information content (e.g. the question does not discriminate between an incidence of inappropriate or unethical behaviour that was seen by 10 people, or 10 separate incidents and does not explore whether the incident was challenged and/or dealt with satisfactorily). The responses to Q40 do, however, provide some potentially valid insight at an aggregated level and are described in Box A:

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Box A – Additional question in 2017 (Q40)

We introduced an additional question in 2017 (Q40) to ask how people felt about raising concerns in their organisation and, for those who were reluctant to do so, why. 70% of respondents said that they would feel comfortable raising concerns. This result is likely to be much higher than would be the case in reality; behavioural experiments suggest that people greatly overestimate how likely they are to speak up when put in a difficult position.6 The absolute results indicated by this question are unlikely, therefore, to reflect accurately the actual propensity to speak up.

Putting the absolute percentages to one side, however, the ranking of the reasons given by those who said they were reluctant to speak up for this may help us prioritise and address them. Tackling the right inhibitor, is key. Improving an HR process around speaking up, for example, may be good of itself, but will not result in more challenge if the primary inhibitor is that nothing is seen to happen even when someone does say something.

In response to Q40, 14% of respondents gave fear as a reason for not speaking up; they did not trust the process to keep their concerns confidential or they felt it would be held against them if they did raise concerns. A similar 14% thought that speaking up was futile; it would have no effect. These proportions were broadly similar across different business areas.

  1. See Piero Bocchiaro, Philip G. Zimbardo & Paul A. M. Van Lange, 2012, To defy or not to defy: An experimental study of the dynamics of disobedience and whistle-blowing, Social Influence Vol. 7, Issue 1; and Woodzicka, Julie & Lafrance, Marianne, 2002, Real Versus Imagined Gender Harassment, Journal of Social Issues, 57.
What the qualitative evidence (focus groups) suggests is relevant to this theme

Focus group participants from business areas that scored highly on Accountability and Speaking Up, more commonly spoke of collaborating across and within teams, and of being supported by systems and structures that supported close, regular contact and strong interpersonal relationships with others. Those from lower-scoring business areas more commonly spoke of operating in silos with competing priorities.

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  • In both higher and lower-scoring business areas, employees cited a spirit of mutual support and reliance within teams. Employees in higher-scoring business areas, however, also described how they were encouraged to work together and share responsibility where appropriate across teams. One example given of active steps to promote collaboration was the move to co-locate business and control functions, said by employees to have led to greater clarity over respective roles, better approachability and the quicker resolution of issues.
  • Employees in higher-scoring business areas more commonly referenced the close and regular contact that they had with others, assisted by varied and reliable methods of communication that allowed them to challenge others or suggest improvements more easily. Some said that their firm promoted informal networks and relationships (e.g. a mentoring scheme, or trades union membership) that provided support outside the formal line management structure for speaking up.
  • Employees in higher-scoring business areas also more commonly spoke of how their firm actively encouraged continuous improvement in the way they worked. Some described routine meetings aimed solely at soliciting suggestions for process improvements.
  • Over half of the focus groups from lower-scoring business areas said that their firms, or areas within them, operated in silos. Responsibility for a task was seen to be quickly passed over to other departments without regard for the outcome.
  • A sense of competing priorities across teams or departments was also slightly more common among focus groups from lower-scoring business areas. It was attributed to a lack of understanding of others’ responsibilities and pressures, and to misaligned performance management metrics (e.g. call centre teams being assessed on quickly resolving or escalating issues, which was felt when not done appropriately to result in a lower quality of service for customers, and pressures on other teams).

Accessible and responsive leaders

Focus group participants from business areas with more positive perceptions of Accountability and Speaking Up, tended to describe accessible senior leaders who openly sought feedback from employees. Conversely, remote, unresponsive leaders and a culture based on ‘telling’ rather than ‘asking’ were more likely to be referenced by participants from business areas with more negative perceptions.

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A greater proportion of higher-scoring business areas highlighted various ways in which employees could interact with senior leaders; these included ‘town hall’ events, blogs, and formal and informal Q&A sessions. Such initiatives were said to provide effective forums for challenge and feedback, and to help make the organisation feel more human.

Employees in higher-scoring business areas also more commonly discussed how leaders in their firms actively consulted before embarking on any changes with those who would be affected. Examples given ranged from large-scale engagement exercises on the design of a new strategy, to locally crowd-sourced suggestions for how to improve a particular process in a particular area. Such initiatives, in turn, were said to encourage employees voluntarily to offer feedback and suggestions.

Focus group participants from lower-scoring business areas more commonly highlighted working environments in which changes perceived as flawed were pushed through with little to no consultation of those affected. Some also said that they had little input on the direction of strategy.

Clarity of responsibilities

Focus group participants from both higher and lower-scoring business areas spoke of the complexity of their firms and the sense that accountabilities were unclear. This was seen to be mitigated in higher-scoring areas by clear systems or tools that helped in the identification and allocation of responsibility. Employees from lower-scoring areas, by comparison, mentioned poor or out of date shared tools.

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  • A high proportion of focus group participants from both higher and lower-scoring areas said that the complexity of their firms’ organisational structure, processes and policies obscured accountability. Responsibilities and accountabilities were often poorly defined or unclear, particularly in transitional periods such as restructuring, bringing someone new into a role or project handovers. Undocumented processes, the variable quality of technical training and a rapid rate of change were said to exacerbate this.
  • Employees from higher-scoring business areas, however, more commonly referenced systems or processes that helped in the identification and allocation of responsibility. These included physical cues (such as stickers on desks with the phone numbers and job responsibilities of key contacts), and clear and well publicised information on junior and senior job roles, responsibilities and how they related to each other.
  • Some focus group participants from lower-scoring business areas, in contrast, said that they were unclear where to go to get help, or were given generic inboxes as points of contact. Other examples of factors contributing to a lack of clarity on accountability and responsibility were roles and responsibilities on digital tools such as Outlook being out of date or incomplete, especially for more junior roles; job descriptions rarely being updated for intra-firm moves or promotions, and hence not reflecting current accountabilities, and the lack of a central database within a department of what was being worked on or addressed, leading to duplication of work.

Fear, blame and hierarchy

Almost all of the focus groups from lower-scoring business areas referenced a culture of fear or blame. Compared with employees from higher-scoring business areas, a larger proportion also described a hierarchical culture that made employees, especially at junior levels, less willing to speak up.

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  • The perceived negative consequences of speaking up were mentioned in a similar proportion of focus groups across both higher and lower-scoring business areas.
  • Some employees from higher-scoring business areas described a disproportionate focus on mistakes in performance management meetings, though many said that this depended very much on the individual line manager. Others said that they would not use formal processes to raise grievances, as doing so risked gaining a reputation.
  • In lower-scoring business areas, employees spoke more commonly of being worried about the consequences of speaking up. Examples were given of an employee being moved to a different part of the firm after challenging a manager, and of someone raising a concern in an open forum designed for that purpose, only to find that this had adversely affected their performance review.
  • In almost all of the lower-scoring business areas selected for analysis under this theme, focus group participants spoke of an organisational culture of fear and/or blame. Speaking up was felt to have adverse consequences at performance review time, especially when a firm was going through redundancy processes.
  • Concerns over job security were more commonly raised by participants from lower-scoring business areas. They said that, in the context of redundancies, people were more anxious and less likely to take responsibility for projects in case they failed.
  • Focus group participants from lower-scoring business areas discussed a hierarchical culture as a constraint on speaking up, more often than did employees in higher-scoring firms. Some said that disconnected senior staff made it difficult for juniors especially to provide challenge; others, that people were unwilling to take direct responsibility because of long and complex sign-off processes, seeing themselves as a single task-focused link in a longer process.

Responsiveness to challenge

Analysis of the comments made by focus group participants from both higher and lower-scoring firms confirms the importance of whether and how firms respond to feedback. Some employees in both higher and lower-scoring business areas said they were expected to have solutions to issues they raised, and that their firms were unresponsive to challenge. The similarity in frequency suggests that both higher and lower-scoring firms can face these difficulties.

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  • Employees across both sets of focus groups said that lack of a response to challenge when offered discouraged them from speaking up. Examples were given of firms seeking feedback on projects, but implementing these without giving any consideration to the comments; of resourcing and costs being used as reasons for the lack of any response; or of employees feeling able to speak up to their manager, but their manager not feeling able to escalate the comments any further.
  • Employees in some higher and lower-scoring business areas felt that, when they challenged or raised an issue, it was pushed back to them to find the solution. Speaking up was discouraged by the risk of being given more work in return for having done so, especially where employees felt that they were already juggling numerous competing priorities.

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  • Fig. 23 Speaking up in 2017

  • Fig. 24 Collaboration in and across teams

  • Fig. 25 Leaders talking with employees

  • Fig. 26 Clarity of responsibilities

  • Fig. 27 Fear and blame

  • Fig. 28 Responsiveness to challenge