The most recent annual report issued by the Confederation of British Industry, for the year ending 31 December 2021, set out the principal risks faced by the CBI at the time. 

Lem Bingley

Lem Bingley

These included external factors such as economic and political shifts, its own ongoing relevance as an industry body in a changing world and even the risk to its reputation from an internal lack of diversity.

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of the rather large albatross that has since come home to roost: that it had hired “culturally toxic people” and singularly failed to safeguard other employees in their presence.

It also failed to foresee that corporate members might exit in droves in reaction to such an abject failure.

The CBI is by no means the only organisation to have fallen from grace as a result of complacency, or a misplaced feeling of immunity from the law of consequences.

Corporate hubris is never hard to find – as the current management of RICS would readily concede as they strive to rebuild the institution’s reputation.

The arrogance of the Volkswagen Group’s Dieselgate scandal also springs to mind, through which the company aimed to hoodwink customers, regulators and investors on a grand scale.

Closer to home, a cabal of demolition contractors who colluded to fix prices probably also thought they could outsmart the authorities but were not as devious as they thought. This month, they were hit with fines totalling almost £60m, plus director disqualifications, following an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority. Eight of the 10 firms fined admitted culpability.

Of course, most of us can feel confident that the bulk of organisations in the property sector exhibit better behaviours, greater governance and a stronger moral compass than the examples above.

But it is a rare business that is completely honest and transparent – not just with its stakeholders but with itself.

How many of us live within the letter of the law, for example never speeding or exaggerating our abilities on our CV.

Simply consider how great a gap typically exists between corporate HR policies and the vexed reality of managing other human beings. Or how often a corporate mission statement genuinely reflects business priorities. Or if you’ve ever crossed your fingers while telling your client about the wonderful service you’d deliver.

Nobody gets fined or goes to prison for these unremarkable transgressions. They are part of life.

But still, existential threats can come along to bite us while we’re busy focusing on smaller issues.

One of the Insight comment pieces in this edition, by Basil Demeroutis of FORE Partnership, hits hard in this vein. The text valiantly calls out complacency around net zero goals.

“Small steps make us feel just good enough to say we are doing what we can, rather than what we must. This no longer meets the threshold of credibility. [We are] on track to miss by light years the target of 50% carbon reduction by 2030.”

In an open letter this week, CBI president Brian McBride admitted: “In assessing performance, we paid more attention to competence than to behaviour.”

Focusing on the wrong things is common enough. Unfortunately, the consequences can be catastrophic.