Ideasroom

And where was the board?

Bullying and harassment at the CAA is no exception in a public sector widely considered toxic. If we want a world worth handing to our children, it will require ethical leadership in our boards, writes Lola Toppin-Casserly.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford is right to point out that to avoid further situations of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) kind we need tougher oversight and boards held to higher standards. But there is more to it than this.

Any cursory reading of governance material reveals boards have been struggling to effectively address organisational culture and ethics issues for decades, and we see continual organisational scandals emerging.

Research increasingly focuses on the need for leadership ‘from the top’ and acknowledges that the buck stops with the board. Some wonder whether more ethical leadership at the top will lead to trickle-down effects and avoid the inappropriate workplace behaviour of bullying and harassment found in the CAA review.

There is some limited evidence to support the trickle-down effect, but we need to know more.

The picture is also more complex. In a board team, as in any team, executive or frontline, there are group dynamics. These affect the decision-making abilities of the team and we know ethical individuals are not necessarily able to translate their ethicality to the decisions and outcomes of the team.

And while we know the chair of a board makes a big difference to the culture, group dynamics and decision-making abilities of the board team, we also know a team is as good as its weakest link. Research is clear that just one incompetent member on a team will bring down the rest of the team’s decision-making abilities.

So the change of guard of CAA’s board chair in August last year is not necessarily going to solve the organisational problems at play. There may still be issues sitting within CAA’s board.

For example, where was the rest of the board in tackling the organisational culture issues? Their remunerated job as appointed board members of a Crown Agency is to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation. Were they asleep at the wheel? Were they free-riding on the status of the role? Are they over-boarded and unable to fulfil the commitment required of a board member? Were they suitably qualified for their board roles, with relevant expertise, and suitably diverse? Research suggests these are significant issues for most of our boards.

The chair’s replacement is likely also to have been too little too late. CAA has been criticised for decades for its ineffectiveness at ensuring our aviation sector is safe. We would be silly therefore to think the organisational culture issues have not affected safety. Culture impacts organisational effectiveness, this is well-known. Why was the board not on to this?

But there are further complexities still. A board is part of a system and system effects have been at play in the CAA case. Research finds that a board is as good as its management team, so if CAA has been riddled with bad management (as the review has found) then the board will struggle to have any impact on organisational outcomes.

Another system failing is the absence of routes of recourse for the victims of bullying and harassment. How did the situation get so bad? Research released in December last year by the School of Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University found that appropriate whistleblowing systems are critical to fixing these issues. New Zealand is behind Australia at this, with disparities between the opinions of leaders and followers on ethical leadership.

We see this playing out across the public sector and CAA is no exception – most of our public sector is considered toxic. Millennials (and older) are leaving our public sector in droves and departments are left to recruit directly from overseas. Our mental health crisis is no surprise and GPs see cases of workplace stress and bullying prolifically.

If we are serious about fixing these issues, it requires more than a ministerial review of CAA.

Yes, it requires stronger oversight and higher standards of boards. It also requires better management across New Zealand and appropriate systems for reporting and addressing these issues. It requires an effective State Services Commission to oversee and courageously tackle these systemic issues, as well as enact some accountability.

I suspect it goes even deeper than this, though. It requires a culture change and a shift in our approach to how we behave as individuals. Do we watch on, cover up, deny, act as bystanders, prioritise our self-interest and our careers as these issues play out around us? No. If we want a world worth handing to our children, it requires ethical leadership of all us, and our boards.

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