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Red Arrows, Red Flags and how to address toxic cultures.

Over the past few days news reels have been talking about a toxic culture in one of the United Kingdom’s biggest institutions. On this occasion policing was spared, with the focus this time centred on one of this country’s national treasures, The Red Arrows. 

A story in the Times, UK confirmed that more than 40 personnel, including young female recruits, gave evidence against the aerobatic display team. 250 hours of evidence were provided to an inquiry which began earlier this year, and which described the Red Arrows as “toxic”.

In response Military police were sent to the Red Arrows base to educate members of the team on “consent” in wake of the claims which included sexual assault and misogyny.

As someone who has had a specific focus on the prevention of violence and abuse for the last decade, I can’t help but think about ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’.  We seem to rely on just parachuting in these types of responses thinking that lecturing groups of individuals is going to work.  The evidence simply says it doesn’t, but we keep doing it. 

There is also often a reliance on e-learning to deliver these types of topics.  Now I understand the challenges large organisations such as the Royal Air Force (RAF) face when training large numbers of staff, however the harm caused to individuals and the organisation, requires a more focused approach and one that involves both conversation as well as using the psychology which helps us both understand these behaviours as well as how we help those around victims and harm doers to intervene early to stop the harm.

Reading the story about the Red Arrows I am clear that these events demonstrate certain dynamics that often lead to individuals crossing ethical lines, regardless of, and in spite of organisational expectations and values that are drilled into individuals who join organisations like the RAF.

In. a recent article written for the Harvard Business Review, Clinical psychologist Dr Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg discussed the challenges faced from omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect.

All of us, whether well-meaning leaders or individuals often fail to consult our moral compass in our busy lives both as professionals as well as in our personal lives.  As we all know both of these life spaces often collide.

So how do you know when you, or your team, is on the road to an ethical lapse?  Here’s more on how to identify omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect in yourself and on your team.

Omnipotence: Many moral lapses can be traced back to this feeling that you are invincible, untouchable, and very capable. Rules and norms are meant for everyone but them. Crossing a line feels less like a transgression and more like what they are owed. They feel they have the right to skip or redraw the lines.

The higher you go in an organisation, the more this can become a liability. Also certain roles within an organisation can create this situation. A member of the Red Arrows team certainly brings with it a certain status. And when fewer and fewer of the people around you are willing and able to keep you grounded, if no one tells you “no,” you have a problem.

Sometimes, simply having someone to speak to you honestly can be the counterbalance.

Organisations should work to cultivate groups of trusted peers who will tell an individual the truth even when it is unpleasant. This sense of critical loyalty is essential.  The opposite as we know is blind loyalty which often leads to behaviours not being addressed.

Cultural numbness: Most of us possess a range of healthy personal values, however we are all susceptible for our moral compass to shift toward the culture of your organisation or team.

I was aware of this at times in my policing career fitting in and acting according to a code.  In some case this can go too far, mimicking the culture and getting caught up in the groups values system.

Overtime you stop seeing bad language as a problem and you start to behave in ways that you would never have thought possible.  This is particularly true in teams where individuals don’t think they will be held individually responsible if in a group.  Groups can create ‘deindividuation’ or the loss of sense of oneself.  When people lose touch of their own values and standards the normal constraints on bad behaviour are removed.

A tip I’ve learned is to get better tuning into ‘self’ and be aware of when your morals are being captured by deviant norms from others in the group.  Maybe also do the ‘Gran’ test “Would my gran be proud of me for this?”.  I suppose another test would be if you would be happy justifying this at a discipline or criminal hearing.  Just a thought.

Justified Neglect – Humans are experts at justifying minor infractions, especially when a reward is at stake and when the risk of getting caught is low.  The slippery slope starts when you as an individual begin to justify actions both to yourself and to others.  This downward spiral can lead to certain behaviours becoming part of who you are or the moral fabric of a group, or do they?

We often act in ways that are driven by the behaviours of others.  We discussed this above.  I know I felt uncomfortable in the past joining in with expected group behaviours and I also felt uncomfortable when I walked away not challenging certain behaviours.  So, does justified neglect lead to a lack of control?  We know what can happen when we are not in control.  I think it does and it’s something that plays on the minds of many people.

We can all combat this by surrounding ourselves with people who together form social contracts that obligate both you and your colleagues to do what is right. 

Active bystander-ship and peer intervention training will help organisations help their staff create such social contracts.  By the way the formation of these contracts often starts with you as an individual.  As a leader make it ok for your team to speak to you when lapses are observed.

Right, back to the Red Arrows.  It’s clear that all the above points are relevant to ongoing issues within the RAF and other branches of the British military.  They are also relevant to policing in the UK.

These organisations have a further thing in common.  They are all male dominated institutions.  In such organisations we often see what was described by researchers in 2018 as a Masculinity Contest Culture.

This kind of culture endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness. These norms lead people to focus on polishing their personal image and status at the expense of others, even their organisations.

This is why many of these organisations get caught up in illegal behaviours, harassment, and toxic cultures. The contest persists because the rewards to the person are so strong that people feel compelled to keep playing the game. And when a person questions the contest, they are seen as a loser which clearly puts people off when it comes to pushing back.

Simply dropping in a diversity programme or in the case of the RAF a ‘consent’ class won’t cut it.  Leaders need to perform deeper, more committed work to examine their cultures, and act where it’s needed.

Dropping in a diversity programme or ‘consent’ classes’ is unlikely to create long term change.  Therefore, current responses too likes of sexual harassment typically fail.  In some cases, such responses can lead to even more harassment. 

Real change requires organisations to shut down the contest.

To accomplish this, organisations need to work to examine and diagnose their cultures. These efforts must be led by those who have the power to spark serious reform. It is crucial to generate awareness of the masculinity contest and its role in creating organisational problems.

People tend to attribute certain harmful behaviours to a ‘few bad apples’ and ignore how organisational culture contributes to the behaviours and at times rewarded the behaviours.

When organisations do not tolerate bullying and harassment, the bad apples are kept in check and good apples do not go bad.  Often, we only hear senior leaders communicating a lack of tolerance to behaviours.  This is important but we also need to hear those who are present at all levels in the organisation.  As I often say ‘top down and bottom up’ is better.

What works in addressing these contest cultures, includes:

  1.  Establishing a stronger focus on the organisation’s mission. Current trainings backfire, because they simply focus on compliance and “what not to do,” and are often framed as trying to “make things better for women and minorities” rather than for everyone.  Some trainings seem unconnected to the organisation’s core mission.  A consent workshop would be an example of this.

Also, organisations need to

  • Dispel misconceptions that “everyone endorses the contest.” Men struggle to challenge the harmful behaviours of peers.  Men have been conditioned for centuries not to ‘rock the boat’ when it comes to their male peers.  As a result, everyone ‘goes along to get along’, publicly reinforcing norms they privately hate. People laugh at a joke they think is offensive. Because people publicly uphold the norms, it appears as though everyone endorses them.

Research suggests that often men wrongly perceive what other men think.  Many think their friends support sexist comments when in fact they don’t.  This presents a perfect storm for good men to do nothing and for harm doers to feel they have the support of the group.

Organisations can remedy this misperception by publicly rejecting masculinity contest norms and empowering others to voice their previously secret dissent. But they also need to walk the talk by modelling new behaviour, and punishing the misconduct previously overlooked or rewarded. Leaders also need to ensure that people who speak up are no longer punished or retaliated against for doing so, either formally (job consequences) or informally (by reputation and isolation).

When it comes to men, what doesn’t work is telling men not to commit harmful acts or that bad things will happen if you do behave harmfully. What does work according to US psychologist Dr Alan Berkowitz is correcting the misperceptions men have about their peers and giving men the tools to challenge harmful behaviours and attitudes.

Much of the bystander training provided to organisations like the RAF is online and simply focuses on giving tools to intervene at time of an incident. This game of whack a mole often waits for incidents to open whereas a better approach is for men to role model respectful behaviours and challenges the behaviours and attitudes that often form the base for other forms of abuse such as sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The likes of the RAF and other big institutions would make long term differences by looking too psychology for responses that work.  All too often such organisations knee jerk to incidents and the potential for negative news stories.  Often these responses contribute to the problems they are trying to solve. US Psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this the ‘Big Mistake’.

In the US all departments of the US military have made use of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Programme.  The MVP programme is one that doesn’t seek to educate individuals more it works to break down peer cultures that contribute to toxic cultures and harm.  In the US, Law Enforcement make use of the Active Bystander in Law Enforcement (ABLE) Programme to develop safe and supportive workplace cultures.  Both approaches provide evidence of success.

A focus on toxic cultures requires more than simply a focus on individual behaviour.  It requires a focus on the individuals within these cultures, the majority of which don’t agree with the harm we see.

Note: The author is a retired police officer who now specialises in active bystander training. He works across different organisational settings including law enforcement, public and private sector delivering evidence based peer intervention and active bystander-ship training.

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