There are some comfortable words that are very popular at the moment, such as compassion, mindfulness, wellness, caring, feeling, passion, equality, kind. Who could take exception to any of those? Who could deny that they are A Good Thing? On the other hand there are some words that definitely evoke a chillier tint. Who nowadays feels drawn to efficiency, analysis, doubt, judgement, clarity, courtesy, honesty or patience? They are old fashioned words which can be swiped aside with a bit of a sneer.
Much of the best work I have seen in the various organisations I have worked with over the years has been done by quiet people who question and seek to understand what they see, create a solid base of reality from which they can move forward, and take human factors into consideration when they move from concept to operation. They are good at observing, listening, thinking, pondering, testing and adjusting, often quite quickly. They tend to have excellent analytical abilities, and they often come up with good workable solutions to frontline problems. They are less good at, and often not very interested in, conforming with whatever political, managerial or cultural fashions and imperatives are sweeping their environment at the time. A brilliant example of where such people are valued and feted has been the extraordinary development of new vaccines over the last year. In my experience, however, they are often sidelined in services where they could be equally valuable.
Can do has to be underpinned by know how. No amount of ordering that something be done will create the ability to do it if the wherewithal is absent, and the insistence on demanding the impossible just leads to decay and deceit. We often force people into situations in which they have no alternative to doing a bad job and/or lying, and that’s bad for the soul. I can think of four frontline examples I’ve come across in the past fortnight. A postman who has been given a new and efficient route, which he can’t physically complete in the time allotted. A prison admin department which has been instructed to find officers to fill slots every day to escort building workers. There aren’t any officers available, as they’re already very understaffed for core duties, but the administrators have just been told to get it sorted. A residential worker who found out on the day that a newly arriving resident was a dangerous sex offender. When she asked her manager what precautions were in place to protect the other residents, he told her not to make a fuss because the placement was bringing a significant fee to the facility so they’d turned a blind eye to the man’s background. A manager in a huge industrial facility which has recently been taken over has been told by the sole supplier of a vital piece of equipment that they will no longer carry out statutory checks because they haven’t been paid for a year. The finance department has said they have no intention of paying and the manager should find another supplier. The postman, who is a very good one, is busting a gut to get round as quickly as he can, running where possible, but always worried about being ticked off for being late. The prison admin team are battling on, but have no idea where they’re going to find the magical escorts from and are wondering why the people who designed the building contract didn’t think of the problem in advance. Their manager’s manager is assuring the powers that be that escorts will be found. The residential worker went off sick, frightened at taking responsibility for a situation over which she has no control, so the residents are even less safe.
At a much higher level, anybody in a leadership position in any public sector organisation will have been the recipient of instructions from above which combine considerable aspiration at the same time as forbidding the changing of any parameters. The flat instruction gets passed down the organisation, and the further it gets, the more good people are squashed into impossible positions. It’s perfectly logical that they either ignore the instruction and carry on as they were, get distressed or demotivated by doing a worse job than they think they should, or take evasive action by going off sick or looking for another job. A lot of effort goes into wielding sticks and carrots to beat or bribe people into delivering the impossible instruction. The comfortable words are thrown around like confetti in the hope that they will make everybody feel better about being squashed into odd shapes, but it doesn’t help the fundamental intractability of being like the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass and trying to think six impossible things before breakfast.
I wonder whether it’s time to bring more of the quiet people who are happy working with the uncomfortable words to the fore. They are the ones who will look at the challenge, discover the facts of the matter, observe the human behaviours, and work out some options, unencumbered by mantras. To break the impossibility impasse they will probably tell us that some of the parameters must change, but at least the leaders will have the material from which they can consciously choose to make a defensible or an indefensible decision. Would we have backed the White Queen to deliver a vaccine?