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Why legislating or banning won't change culture

This article extends a subject we were asked to comment on for a piece published by the International Business Times on 2nd January 2018.  We were asked to comment on the recent decision by Rochdale Council to overturn a previous "ban" on swearing, intended to develop a culture of respect and community. 

We often resort to legislating - creating rules, quotas, bans and procedures when we want to shift deeply established patterns .. and it nearly always ends badly!  Whilst Rochdale Council’s intention behind banning swearing was probably good, it was misplaced. Banning things doesn’t work! 

Prohibition taught us that human beings are perverse creatures. When we officially ban something, it often has the opposite effect. The banned “thing” (or in this case behaviour) often acquires a sort of cache which elevates it rather than diminishes it. Also, the more focus something has, the more we are likely to do it by accident. It is a bit like saying “don’t think of an elephant!” – chances are you are now thinking of an elephant, and it’s unlikely that you would have been otherwise.  

We all want workplaces which are socially comfortable and promote genuinely equal opportunities for all, and this means feeling that we are safe from bullying, discrimination and inequality. Often, swearing is associated with “macho” cultures which can be pretty toxic which can contribute to some of the gender-equality difficulties we are seeing daily in the press. 

However, turning something into a rule which is somehow going to be externally enforced reduces the integrity of internal thinking and social reflection that would otherwise go on. In the workplace, this can have a detrimental effect. In short, we get lazy; a bit like relying on spell-checkers or SatNavs. When a ban is put on something like swearing, or a quota forces certain recruitment practices, we tend to either comply blindly, or find opportunities to “get away with it” by being non-compliant when we can. Neither response is adult, thoughtful, mindful or attentive – to ourselves or others. 

Across all sectors, 2017 has seen a long list of failures; from faking test results, to corruption and other ethical challenges. Already 2018 has unleashed a new and sad list of new problems from BBC pay problems to German car manufacturers allegedly using animal testing to try to create data to pervert diesel emissions test issues. 

We need to rethink the way we deal with these problems.  More corporate, political and community dysfunction would be avoided if people concentrated not on banning things and expecting someone else to uphold the ban or new rule – but instead challenging each other in the moment with quality questioning and the difficult work of standing up and speaking our truth. This is hard as it risks disturbance and argument, even rejection and punishment, but it is central to rigorous work.

Easier said than done?! 

How do we challenge if the behaviour is rooted in "unconscious bias" which we are not ourselves aware of?  What do we do to support those who are so disempowered by the current practices and behaviours as to have too big a hurdle to jump in order to speak out?  What if it isn't just the "bad guys" who enact all this terrible stuff, but ALL OF US as we wilfully "go blind" to things that we would suffer real risk should we choose to name?

What provides for safe, rigorous and disciplined societies and workplaces is a combination of processes that connect us and nurture appreciation and compassion, but also allows us to challenge one another and speak truth to power even when inconvenient.  These cultures develop NOT through rules and bans, but through experiential nudges, stories, new imagery and investing in rigorous processes of reflective work.  Through this we can raise awareness, build new narratives and normalise practices and leadership which support respect, integrity, ethics, safety and equality.

Caryn Vanstone
Leadership & Organisational Change Specialist, Lacerta Consulting Service Ltd