The Risk and Reward of Culture—in Life and at Downton Abbey

The Risk and Reward of Culture—in Life and at Downton Abbey


Bonnie and I were late to the party with regard to the Masterpiece Classic presentation of Downton Abbey on PBS Television. Thankfully, it’s available on DVD, so we were able to dive right in, at the urging of our friend, Jennifer Duston, Executive Director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

The star of the drama is one of the great country houses of England — Highclere Castle in Northeastern England, Hampshire County — dubbed Downton Abbey for the TV series.

Intentional Culture

In the first episode, the Earl of Grantham, Lord Robert Crawley, has invited his former comrade in arms, John Bates, to come to Downton Abby to assume the role of his personal valet. Lord Crawley and John Bates served together in combat during the Boer War in South Africa where John was wounded and now lives with a bad leg requiring him to walk with a cane. Because of his disability and because John Bates has a special relationship with the Earl, some members of the Downton -Abbey service staff take an immediate dislike to Bates and conspire to make sure he fails as valet to the Earl. As a business owner, it soon becomes clear to me that Downton Abbey can be viewed, among other things, as a drama about organizational culture.

The word culture is derived from a combination of cultivation and care. Like politics, culture is a process that ultimately determines how two or more people are going to work together toward a common goal. How will we get our work done? What are our roles? How will we interact with each other and the people we serve? As an organization, what are our ethics? What is our ethos? What is it like for people to call on us or visit our space?

Whenever two or more people interact or work together, a culture begins to form. In many of the workplaces I have experienced, the culture seems haphazard — an unintentional amalgam of sometimes conflicting forces. There exists a culture, all right, but it is unintentional because there is insufficient cultural awareness among the individuals that make up the group, and the awareness is lacking because there is insufficient leadership to direct or define it.

Negative Power

In Downton Abbey, both among the Earl’s family and among the servants, some characters are clearly more determined to raise hell than to raise heaven, so to speak. There exists a passive-aggressive hostility within the groups toward each other, the organization that is Downton Abbey and the Crawley family, that is sometimes hidden and sometimes out in the open. I have observed a syndrome in my own life that could be described as negative power is better than no power at all.

Momentum for Life

At Bell Investment Advisors, we have worked hard for over 21 years to nurture a culture of competence, care, cooperation, autonomy, goodwill, and fun. We find and keep people who want to raise heaven, and avoid those who seem to work against it. Our culture is based on Momentum for Life: we nurture what works to build positive momentum, and we avoid, or actively root out, the opposite.

Honor vs. Dishonor

In the beginning, what struck me about the drama taking place within Downton Abbey is that the characters often display too much tolerance for acts of hostility and sabotage. During a welcome reception for the visiting Duke of Crowborough, O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s maid (most often on the side of hostility and sabotage) trips Bates on purpose so that he falls flat on his face in the gravel in front of the visiting dignitary. Bates, a symbol of humble nobility among the servants, will not out her because his sense of honor will not allow it.

The family and staff are excited to receive the Duke. He is a possible suitor for Lady Mary, the Earl’s oldest daughter, but the Duke quickly reveals that he is only a self-serving fortune hunter. A major conflict within the family, and therefore the entire estate of Downton Abbey, is that Lord and Lady Grantham have three grown daughters and no sons. Estate planning is complicated enough in 2012 America, but it was treacherous 100 years ago, especially in England (and many other countries), because women could not inherit an estate or the wealth needed to support it. When the Duke learns there is no way around this for Lady Mary, he leaves the next morning after only a one-night stay. The Earl is disgusted by the raffish duke and glad to see him go.

Stand Up for the Culture You Want

At the same time, several of the servants have succeeded in convincing the Earl that Bates, with his bad leg, is not suitable for his job and has to go. At the urging of Carson the butler, the Earl reluctantly agrees to send his loyal friend away. Bates and the Duke climb into the family car for the ride to the train station, but as the car pulls away, the Earl realizes how wrong it is that his honorable friend is being sent away in the same car with the most dishonorable Duke. He shouts for the driver to stop and orders Bates out of the car. He pats Bates on the back and tells him he was wrong to send him away and that they will find a way to make it work.

In the first episode, you see the Earl becoming aware of the hostility and sabotage between his daughters and among his servants, and he takes a stand to establish a more honorable culture by ordering Bates out of the car and back to his role as valet and principled servant. He needs loyalty and honor in his life, and Bates is his man.

Not to give away the story, but as the plot continues, the hostility from the servants and between the three sisters changes the destiny of the family in matters of life and death. It dramatizes the risk of tolerating people in your life who conflict with your cultural values. Like millions of other fans of Downton Abbey, Bonnie and I can’t wait for season three to begin.

Scroll to Top