News of the World: When Organizational Culture Takes the Helm


It’s not often that a crystal clear lesson concerning corporate culture and organizational failure makes headlines worldwide. Certainly, we have come to understand how an organization can fail because of overall mismanagement, poor or untimely decisions or even the occasional leader mismatch. But it is a rare case when the sum of the parts, so to speak – the culture itself – has evolved into such a beast that it actually does the dirty work by itself. In the case of the UK’s News of the World, it seems that the terminally ill corporate culture was indeed the culprit.

Can a sick culture be cured?
In a sense the culture of New of the World was so vile, that even the surrounding environment closed ranks and acted – similar to that of a lone mutated cancer cell within the human body. This was a catastrophic failure of culture, not unlike an insidious mental illness left unchecked and untreated. Apparently the lack of regulation surrounding the British press was all the prodding required to bring about an organizational break with reality, decency and control.

The question remains as to whether this organization could have been cured. Mr. Murdoch (its owner) decided that this was not to be – for various reasons related to a much bigger picture. At the very least, we can surmise that the illness permeated to the quick of the organization and that transforming it into a healthy state was most likely impossible. For Mr. Murdoch, the damage to his reputation and his future business dealings, were being weighed in the balance. In a deluge of public disgust and disappearing advertisers, he pulled the plug on a 168 year old tabloid.

More than a leadership issue: When the culture takes over
Personally, I have always held the belief that the culture of the organization was determined by the people at the helm – and could be saved by the helm as well. When asked as a young psychologist as to the quickest way to ignite a needed organizational culture change, I responded that it was to replace those at the top of the organization. But in a situation such as this, it appears that in the end, the culture operating as a rogue offender did the deed on its own.

As time goes on, it is certain that more News of the World employees will be brought to justice for their role in the specific crimes committed against innocent individuals. But, in the case of the organizational culture gone bad, many of the associated crimes (disrupted careers, financial ramifications) will most likely remain unpunished.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. You can also find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

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