Why is having a healthy organisational culture so important – and how can it prevent a crisis?

11 October 2022  |  Insights
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On 5 October the Church of England published a review which found hundreds of cases of alleged abuse by Church of England officials, mostly against children and vulnerable adults. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York apologised for the “brokenness and failings” of the church.

The reputational damage caused by a crisis like this is nothing in comparison to the physical, spiritual and mental damage suffered by the victims and survivors. One of the key outcomes of the review was that there weren’t just failings in policy and practice, but in the culture of the church.

In this Q and A, independent Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight’s Joint CEO Justin Humphreys explains the importance of creating a healthy organisational culture - and how it can prevent a crisis from happening.

Safe and healthy cultures can be seen as the soil in which we plant our best intentions. For the soil to nurture the growth of whatever we plant, it needs to be cared for, cultivated, fed and weeded. This requires ongoing and persistent attention.

Safe and healthy cultures don’t happen by accident. The alternative to having nurtured a safe and healthy culture is that we have potentially overlooked toxins, parasites and other things that threaten healthy growth. We can't always see them, but they will be causing damage somewhere.

Often the crises that we see have been taking root for some time and the problems caused have become entrenched in accepted or tolerated beliefs, attitudes and practices that threaten the culture and environment that we hope to maintain. It’s always better to invest in prevention rather than cure/response.

Don't wait until the wheel has clearly come off or is evidently about to. Invest time and commitment in keeping your culture under review in the hope that you might be strengthening what is good rather than repairing what has gone bad.

What does a healthy organisational culture look like? In your experience, what impact does this have on a church or charity’s reputation?

Your organisation can demonstrate a safer, healthier organisational culture in a range of characteristics and practices such as (not exhaustive):

A church or charity is at risk of both harming individuals and its own reputation if it doesn’t ensure its best intentions are grounded firmly in healthy attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that can be demonstrated clearly. A good reputation takes years to develop and can be destroyed in a heartbeat – the same can be said of the wholeness of the human condition.

What are some of the warning signs that your organisation has a culture that could allow a crisis to incubate/develop?

Any organisation can suffer from a disconnect between what it thinks its culture is and what its culture actually looks and feels like to those within it. Some signs that might indicate a greater danger of this disconnect could be (not exhaustive):

Is it possible to change your organisational culture? What challenges could your organisation face when trying to do this and how can you overcome these?

Yes, although once a poor or unhealthy culture has been given the chance to take root and become accepted, the harder it will be to re-create something healthy. Assessing and committing to cultural change within an organisation that has experienced problems will not be easy. There may be those who either don't see the need for change or who don't want to embrace change regardless.

Sometimes, cultures and the systems and structures that have been built upon them afford people too much benefit or power. This is hard to let go of and will almost always be resisted by those that stand to lose status, influence, or power. Using a mapping tool to assess your culture systematically and regularly will be helpful, considering areas such as:

(Taken from Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures, Oakley & Humphreys, SPCK, 2019)

If you’re facing a crisis that’s been enabled by an unhealthy culture, what are the steps you should take urgently to start to repair the damage?

As above. Don't deflect, divert or distract from the fact that damage is being done in any environment where the culture is unhealthy. This is the antithesis of an environment where people flourish and grow. As a gardener knows that weeding must happen regularly, so it is with culture. Weeds only seek to take ground and strangle whatever surrounds them. Unsafe and unhealthy cultures will eventually take over and facilitate harmful practices and attitudes. Implement a process that is inclusive, decisive and thorough. Explore where things have gone wrong and why. Identify what needs to change and how. Don't be afraid to seek help – the task is likely to be daunting.

How can you communicate that you’re doing this in a way that safeguards both your reputation and the people damaged by the crisis?

Show genuine humility. Take advice about the best and most appropriate ways to be open and transparent about the difficulties and how you plan to address them. Publicly commit to change. Apologise for any damage that may have already occurred (personally, individually and organisationally) and your part in it where that is the case. Consider whether it is appropriate for you to lead this change or be involved in it at all, or whether it would be better led by others. Create safer spaces for people to share their experiences and knowledge. Set up mechanisms that support those that have already been harmed by what has taken place.

What is Safeguarding Sunday and how can churches use this opportunity to review the health of their culture?

Thousands of churches across the UK will be highlighting the importance of protecting vulnerable people as part of Safeguarding Sunday, an annual awareness-raising national campaign organised by Thirtyone:eight.

Last year, churches who took part reported greater positive awareness of safeguarding among church members, an increase in the number of people feeling able to disclose abuse for the first time, more volunteers coming forward for safeguarding vacancies and to support with children’s and youth work and an increased number of people completing safeguarding training and criminal record checks.

This year's Safeguarding Sunday campaign will take place on 19th November 2023. Church workers will be able to download a free resource pack to help them plan the event, whether they can just give a few minutes or dedicate the whole service.

You can also sign up to the Safer Places Pledge and commit to making your organisation a safer place for all.

This guest blog was written by Justin Humphreys, Joint CEO Thirtyone:eight

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