Australian cricket’s ball-tampering scandal offers fascinating insights in six key integrity areas: the balance between rules and values; the importance of leadership; psychological safety; organisational justice; trust; and the price of performance.
Cut through the emotional reactions, and the raw nerves exposed by the link between Australian national pride and the behaviour of its cricket team, and the scandal shines a light on broader issues of integrity and ethics at organisational levels.
It is almost a cliché to point out that the integrity and behaviour of any organisation is a fine balance between rules and values. Using a pure compliance approach, we can note that the official punishment for ball-tampering is actually quite lenient (a five-run penalty on field, and a suspension of one-match off it). Yet reliance on the rules will not satisfy the anger and upset over the case. Indeed, the last time an Australian cricket team was subject to such intense ethical criticism – the ‘underarm’ incident in a game against New Zealand in 1981 – involved conduct that was fully legal under the laws at the time.
Why? Because the values of sportsmanship, fairness and honesty which the Australian cricket claims to uphold have been so severely undermined by the ball-tampering incident. Which leads us to Golden Rule #1: working within the letter of the law is never enough if your actions breach the values you are supposed to uphold.
The second issue is leadership. Any ethical leader knows that it is essential to model the behaviours that you expect followers to display. Clearly the role-modelling displayed by Smith and his ‘leadership team’, some of whom appear to have been entirely unaware of the incident, was extremely negative.
It is telling that the deed itself was handed over to Cameron Bancroft, the most junior member of the team, and that the work was undertaken as a conspiracy of a small cadre of players. It was premeditated and sends out the worst possible signals to other players and to spectators.
In other words it breaks Golden Rule #2: talk is cheap and an ethical leader not only sets expectations but lives by them.
The use of Bancroft points to another problem area – the devastating impact of unethical behaviour for psychological safety. Countless articles have been written showing the terrible effects of working in a toxic workplace culture. It creates untold stress and can be extremely damaging to physical and mental well-being. Being the most junior places even more significant pressure to comply.
In fact, it could even have been subconsciously used as an initiation procedure. Would Bancroft have been shut out of the squad had he refused to go along with it? We can’t speculate here but we can see that they have breached Golden Rule #3: positive organisational cultures are opening and reflective; insularity and pressure to conform breeds toxicity.
Talk has already turned to what the appropriate response should be, and this is something that affects almost everybody in every workplace. A negative ethical incident can be magnified many times by the perception that is has not been dealt with properly, especially for anybody who already feels victimised.
This brings us to Golden Rule #4: organisational justice must pervade all levels of reporting and investigation into misconduct. Research shows time and again that integrity blooms when fairness reigns: where communication is open and transparent; when process are fair and accessible; when outcomes are just no matter what decision eventuates.
Ethics in team sports are a complex issue. Values of loyalty, team spirit and individual sacrifice for the common good, mean that individual behaviour that falls within legal or ethical grey areas but benefits the team is often rationalised or applauded by fans. Compare this to an individual sport like golf which is self-policing, even at the highest professional levels.
But once the line is crossed, and we move from a grey area to a black-and-white one, all hell breaks loose.
Every fan of sport needs to be able to trust the competitors, even though most have at least a tacit appreciation that some form of cheating takes place across just about every sport. But more importantly trust never stays still. It is a relational value that must constantly be reassessed and double checked. Golden rule #5: Building and embedding trust is a dynamic process.
The final ball of this particular six-ball over is about the price of performance. Performance is such a key factor in public sector organisations yet around the world we have all read countless stories of gamification of performance data, and perverse incentives. Only Smith and his colleagues can answer whether or not the price of winning a match was worth the cost of reputation. But maybe they needed to think about Golden Rule #6: performance targets alone do not drive integrity: how we achieve success is as important as the success itself.
Cricket Australia’s ongoing response to the scandal is yet to be decided. But punishing the guilty can only be a part of it. It needs to be open with the public about what it is doing and why, take steps to rebuild trust and build a positive culture that ensures that the values it talks about are backed by the actions of its players.
Michael Macaulay is Associate Dean (Professional programmes) at Victoria Business School, Victoria University of Wellington. He coordinates the ANZSOG executive workshop Leading Ethical Organisations, and is subject leader of the EMPA subject Delivering Public Value.