Zero tolerance to mistakes only leads to cover-ups and misconduct. If we hope to run our businesses ethically, we need to foster no-blame risk cultures. And listen out for alarm bells before the whistles even need to blow, writes our editor Lauren Gow

I failed mathematics in my final years at high school. Not just a minor failure. I mean a full-blown D-minus, parents-called-to-the-school kind of failure. Up until that point, I had quite enjoyed it and had done reasonably well.

Where I went off the rails was in not showing my workings. My maths teacher, Mr C, tolerated no mistakes. Being a self-conscious teenager, I didn’t want to show how I came up with my answer because I was afraid that it would also show my mistakes. I became fearful of showing where I went wrong so it was easier to keep my mouth shut and fail.

You are probably reading this thinking: “That’s great, Lauren, but why are you telling me this?” The reason I am sharing is because during a recent StrategicRISK roundtable on ethics and risk culture, one participant noted that ethical failures often occur because mistakes are made but not owned up to, as many organsations lack a ‘no blame’ culture.

Which made me wonder – when did we all stop showing our workings? In some of my previous jobs, I have been terrified of making a mistake and if I have, I dreaded owning up to it. I never wanted to be asked difficult questions or have my failure scrutinised. Upon examination, I have now realised that my fear was born out of the risk culture of the business I was working at. The tone from the top was always ‘mistakes will not be tolerated’, which created a culture of fear amongst staff.

In one role, I was a whistleblower. I stepped forward to highlight a damaging sexual harassment and discrimination culture by senior management in my department. It took months for me to gain the courage to speak up but ultimately I felt it was the right thing to do because it was clearly a historical and ongoing issue.

Unfortunately when I came forward, I was greeted with the so-called Big Stick Approach to whistleblowing. I was not welcomed or listened to, and my claims were dismissed outright without investigation. It was then suggested that I should “start looking for opportunities elsewhere”. I now realise I was an early member of the #MeToo movement.

For anyone with whistleblowing experience, this example is, unfortunately, hardly unique. While there are a few individuals who may use this medium for an axe that needs grinding, the vast majority of whistleblowers are genuine and are trying to highlight an issue. Businesses who fail to have a robust whistleblowing system miss vital opportunities to learn valuable lessons from mistakes.

But having a robust system on paper is not enough. This type of system needs a strong risk culture foundation of ‘no blame’. Long before a whistleblower feels the need to speak up, there are small yet vital indicators that something is amiss, but businesses often fail to take note. No ethical failure occurs as a one-off incident in a vacuum. There will always be alarm bells ringing along the way.

This starts with changing the language around failures and mistakes. Instead of approaching risk management as: ‘How do we stop bad things from happening?’, instead ask: ‘How do we make sure things go right?’. Nobody wants to share bad news with a chief risk officer. After all, they say for the Queen the world smells like fresh paint. But making it easier to talk about failures in order to gain valuable insight should be a key motivator to assist you in your work and this all starts with culture.

As risk managers, ensuring there is a robust risk culture is a key part of your role. After all, you can’t be everywhere at once, so having localised ‘risk champions’ could help with this. By having these champions on all levels in all parts of the business, you are laying the foundations for an open and honest risk culture. From this, people will begin to feel comfortable showing their workings. If only Mr C tolerated mistakes. Who knows how different my life might have been…