Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to deny the enduring power of The Simpsons. They have also proven to have incredible insight about the modern world (Trump’s presidency being a prime example).
One of The Simpson’s most memorable episodes is entitled Marge vs the Monorail, featuring the uber-catchy and aptly-named ‘Monorail’ song. But as well as being an entertaining pop-culture moment, this episode is also a fantastic lesson in how culture can lead organisations to fail.
Culture starts at the top
The episode begins with the town being awarded a large sum of money. Police Chief Wiggum and Mayor Quimby hold a town meeting to decide what to do with it. Marge Simpson suggests they repair Springfield’s roads, which are riddled with cracks and potholes.
This is the way most organisations operate. The employees (or townspeople) follow the direction of the leaders, raising issues if and when they occur. Cautious employees may even present very sound solutions to address future risks (like the number of car accidents increasing due to the poor state of the roads).
The meeting is interrupted by a literal song and dance man, Lyle Langley, who suggests a better option would be to use the money to build a monorail. He charms the town leaders, and the townspeople, with an actual song and dance, promising new jobs and tourism dollars. Marge is the lone voice of objection, but she is told that “the mob has spoken”.
Here we see how the leaders’ behaviours drive the culture of the rest of the organisation. Chief Wiggum and Mayor Quimby are driven by greed (the promise of riches), the excitement of the new and a chance to one-up their competition (the neighbouring town of Shelbyville). The employees are emboldened by their leaders’ enthusiasm and quickly join the chorus. Valid concerns are drowned out by the majority.
There is also no due diligence done before employing another person into a leadership position, where they too can influence organisational culture. If Springfield had done a background check with the other towns that Lyle operated in, it would easily have avoided making the same costly monorail mistake.
The importance of training
Langley puts the townspeople through a dubious training program in order to find a conductor – the clearly incompetent Homer Simpson – while employing grossly underqualified tradespeople to build the track.
Training plays a big part in influencing culture. This is because culture is driven by behaviours. High performing organisations understand that you can train your employees to understand what is expected of them and the consequences of failing to act in this manner, and that this training needs to happen up front, during employees’ initial probation period, as well as at regular intervals thereafter. If you do not offer effective training, your employees will still develop an understanding of the kinds of behaviours that are acceptable, they just may not be based on best practise or, at worst, may be modelled on others’ poor behaviour.
Similarly, when management appoints someone without the appropriate qualifications or skills to do their job, they are signalling to the rest of the organisation that education and experience are not as important as charisma or connections. This can deeply undermine the sense of trust existing employees have in their leaders, generating resentment and disloyalty towards the organisation.
Responsibility and accountability
Fast-forward to the grand opening of the Springfield Monorail and things very quickly go off the rail. As the brakes fail and the passenger-filled train hurtles towards its doom, Chief Wiggum and Mayor Quimby argue over who is in charge in a crisis. Neither yields, and instead of solving the actual problem at hand, they labour over the fine print of their job descriptions. It is up to Homer Simpson to save the day, but in the process, he creates even more damage to Springfield’s streets (and several landmarks).
Although at face value the leaders want to take responsibility for the crisis, they are really vying for the chance to be a hero. Neither has a clear understanding of their role or responsibilities, and in trying to resolve this, they inadvertently create a leadership vacuum. This vacuum also occurs within organisations with no culture of responsibility; although the organisations’ leaders (CEO, boards, senior management) appear to be in charge of decisions, no-one is actually taking responsibility for those decisions or actions.
Ultimately, instead of mitigating the original risk – dangerous roads – the culture has led the risk to escalate further. At the same time, no-one inside the organisation (Springfield) is held accountable. The only punishment that is doled-out is to the one person who has since left the organisation (Langley).
As the credits begin to roll, the camera pans up and away from the monorail and we hear Marge Simpson say: “That was the only folly the town of Springfield ever made. Except for the popsicle stick skyscraper. And the 50ft magnifying glass. And that escalator to nowhere.”
Much like the escalator to nowhere, an organisation in which no-one takes ownership or accountability for their decisions will become a place of continuous escalation. Until, ultimately, something (or someone) falls off the edge.
With all regulators shining a spotlight on non-financial risk, it is now more important than ever to ensure everyone who has an accountable role in an organisation is getting the right information about their responsibilities.
While you are here you may like to check out our:
- FNSSS00013 Business Ethics and Conduct Skill Set. Provides foundation knowledge on ethical frameworks and decision making and includes case studies contexutalised to financial services workplaces.
- Improving culture and conduct in the workplace short course. Designed with individual reflections and group activities to help understanding at team, business unit and organisation level.
Compliance Fundamentals. Understand how Australian Financial Services licensing works, examining the main regulatory guides and offering practical tips for use in the workplace, containing scenarios, checklists and exercises.
- Contact us to discuss your organisation’s requirements.