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| 1 minute read

How rearranging furniture helped change a culture

This is a story of unlikely success, with many lessons to offer.

If there is one institution that is symbolic of dysfunction, the U.S. Congress has to be it. The political discourse has deteriorated so much that it took 15 rounds of voting to elect a Speaker of the House. Yet hidden among the bickering and grand standing was a success story: The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a committee that was set up to fail, yet delivered nearly miraculous results in a hostile environment.

How did they do it? I count at least three critical interventions:

  • Listening. The committee chair started by meeting every member of the committee one by one and, after the events of January 6, 2020, a space was created where everyone felt heard as human beings.

Corporations - like politicians - are not known for listening and making people feel heard, yet one of the greatest organizational ethical challenges today is conflicts among different values and principles. Think of a time when you have felt heard: it is the most fundamental form of respect. What are we doing to listen to our employees?

  • Work with behavioral scientists. The committee "reached out to very-outside-the-Beltway" culture and clinical psychologists. While many in the ethics and compliance profession are gaining appreciation of behavioral science, too often we think we can be the scientists.

Working with my behavioral scientist colleagues - Dr. Caitlin Handron and Mr. Nitish Upadhyaya - at the Insights Lab has been one of the most enriching professional experiences: their intellectual rigor and deep professional knowledge help put together intricate and nuanced perspectives and applications in ways lay persons without years of rigorous study and research cannot.

How can behavioral scientists help us change or evaluate culture, incentives, risks, investigations, training, communications? (Just ask my colleagues!)

  • Rearrange the furniture! Churchill was right - our buildings do shape us. The committee changed the way its members and its witnesses interacted with each other by moving from the elevated dais to integrated roundtable seating where everyone can look each other in the eye, and Democrats sit next to Republicans instead of opposite from each other.

We might not all be able to rearrange furniture, nor are the problems we are trying the solve the same as the committee's, yet are there small physical or digital changes that can help us achieve our goals?

As Winston Churchill put it: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”


ethics, behavioural science, risk and compliance