When bad drives out good – reflections on Oxfam


The torrid situation at Oxfam has been well documented and played out in the full glare of International media attention.

I don’t want to comment on how Oxfam got into this situation, but rather focus on some of the issues it raises for all organisations.

The first issue is – as the title says above – bad drives out good. No matter how well an organisation performs or the good it has done in the past, when something bad happens that good work carries very little capital.  The good is forgotten and driven out by the bad.

Conversely, the bad stays with them and can take an awfully long time to overcome. It’s called crawl out cost – what is it going to take to get back to a position of trust and investor confidence.

Look at BP. The crisis in the gulf not only brought the company to its knees, but destroyed its reputation and the cost of the clean-up is only one aspect of what will be a long and painful crawl out.

The other day I was in conversation when the subject of Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill came up. I mentioned how powerful I thought it was and asked my colleague if he’d seen it.

“No,” was the reply. “And I’m not going to.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, he wasn’t a very nice man, was he?”

So the perception of Churchill before the war in this person’s mind completely outweighed his success in the war years, even to the extent of not wanting to see a possibly Oscar winning performance.

Another issue raised by the Oxfam story is why do organisations to go off the rails?

My first question is – who/what are these “organisations?” When commentators say on TV that business needs certainty and business won’t be happy with decisions, I wonder where these “businesses” are, what exactly are they?

Margaret Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society” and was criticised for being heartless. But what she meant was that there is no such thing as an amorphous thing called “Society”. When things go wrong, it’s all too easy to say it’s society’s fault but we can’t because there is no such entity.

What she was trying to say is that society is made up of individuals, families and groups and we all have a stake in, and a responsibility for, what happens around us.

It’s the same in organisations.

How many times do outcomes get blamed on “the Organisation” or “The Corporation” as if somehow there is this entity outside human control which is making all the decisions?

Oganisations, like society, are made up of people and the people working there have a responsibility to do the best job they can and improve performance. No one (well, most of us) goes to work to hurt people or to rip people off or to exploit people.

So what happens? In many cases, senior management become remote from the day to day and remote from their work force. They lose sight of what it’s all for, what they are there to do.

They lose sight of their values in the complexity around them, or they start to believe the end justifies the means (such as making a profit).

So the lessons from Oxfam I would recommend to all senior management teams are:

  • Bad drives out good – you can lose your reputation overnight and it takes decades to get it back
  • Organisations don’t exist as separate entities making decisions – people do that and management must take responsibility for decisions good or bad.
  • Values are what make organisations and are the reasons why people want to work there and engage with them. Don’t compromise on your values.
  • And most of all, listen to your staff and your customers – it’s why you are in business.
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