Monthly Archives: August 2013

Miliband’s Dilemma

It’s never easy being leader of a Party in opposition, but poor Ed Miliband is having an unusually tough time. As if it wasn’t bad enough that a junior Shadow colleague had to make an embarrassing climbdown because he didn’t know the difference between Kent and Essex, then Ed had eggs thrown at him and he languishes dismally in the popularity polls. Furthermore, the economy seems to be, in a dithery sort of way, picking up, so those wretched Tories will get all the credit.

This is a clever and decent man who seems out of his depth. His first mistake was to compete for the job, making it appear that he had to commit fratricide in order to get it. He lacks the steely charm of Blair, the born-to-rule silky tongue of Cameron, the arrogance of Thatcher, the – well, what’s the point of going on? He’s too nice and too ordinary. He just doesn’t look real when he’s trying to be ‘tough’ and ‘statesmanlike’: you can see the spin doctor’s hands up his sleeves and moving his mouth. It will always be easy to put him down by describing him as a dork, a panda, a geek or any number of other unflattering comparisons. Meantime Labour grandees give him contradictory advice through newspaper columns while grumpy loyalists tell him to declare a strategy, any strategy, as in truth none is discernible at the moment.

As a coach I frequently work with executives in versions of Ed Miliband’s situation. They have somehow found themselves in exposed leadership roles and have discovered to their horror that nothing is what they thought it would be. The demands are relentless and irreconcilable. They don’t enjoy it. They do their best, work their socks off and then all they get is constant whining from underlings who seem continuously disappointed in them or even worse, who betray them to their boss or to the media. They don’t like having all that responsibility. The rewards seem thin for the effort that has to be put into getting them. Their only relief is when they eventually step down and as one such client put it, ‘become a civilian again’.

This man must be surrounded by advisers and he has a loyal wife, but I doubt that Ed Miliband has a coach as it rarely seems to occur to politicians that it might be helpful. How I wish that he did – so that he could ponder these dilemmas with a sympathetic but challenging outsider who has absolutely no personal or political agenda. Does he really want to go on with it? Do the benefits outstrip the personal costs? Where does his real duty lie? What other kinds of career or role might be possible? My instinct is that if he had this kind of help, his torture might come swiftly to some kind of face-saving end.


Alan Partridge and Motivation at Work

Along with a cinema full of other devotees, I laughed helplessly throughout Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. There he is, vain pout intact. We watch, cringing and snorting at his crassness, knowing that he may, albeit ever so dimly, be aware of his own disastrous proneness to failure. Alan is at his mindless best exchanging mid-morning banalities on North Norfolk Digital, a tiny radio station, with Fred from Fakenham about ‘which monger is worst – fish, iron, rumour or war’. It helps a bit if, like everyone in my party, you know Norfolk, where according to urban myth, doctors would write NFN on patients’ notes – Normal For Norfolk. This joke, by the way, is one that Norfolk people often like telling, which may also be NFN.

But as someone who earns a living working as a coach to people in organizations what struck me as the most enjoyable gag was the overall satire: corporate life is so bizarrely dysfunctional that until it is pointed out in a film like this we barely notice. The corporate smoothies who arrive to take the station over have no idea what they are doing, though they have all the right words plus the flip charts, the spread sheets and the snazzy suits, but then neither do the staff. Faced with an incompetently mounted siege by a crazy, sacked DJ, Alan along with everyone else misses every easy opportunity to bring the siege to an end, including just walking out of a back door.

If you look out for it there is a blissful moment where one of the hostages is seen holding a real book called Who Moved My Cheese? This is a Janet and John book for adults set in huge type. It is about Change. A maze contains cheese, a metaphor for what you want in life. There are four characters, two mice and two Littlepeople. One day the cheese is gone, but wait!  One of the mice has cleverly found his way into the new cheese because he’s kept his little snout twitching and alert to Change!  Meanwhile the Littlepeople just sit there whining, hungry, feeling sorry for themselves and using the word Change in every sentence.  Losers!  They’re in denial and called Hem and Haw – ingenious, eh?

Every few pages there are slogans in even bigger type such as Old Beliefs Do Not Lead You To New Cheese!  The overall message is: change happens!  You may be worried – but get over it!  The quicker you adapt, the quicker you will find the cheese! (This is a book of many exclamation marks!) Managers have supposedly bought millions of copies of Who Moved My Cheese? perhaps believing it will magically make staff adapt to changes that could damage their lives and careers.

The Alan Partridge movie contrasts moral posturing with people’s actual behaviour. Alan’s supposed loyalty to his Irish colleague Pat is quickly abandoned when he realizes it’s Pat or him for the sack. In a wonderful throw-away line, his PA suggests he assuages his guilt by donating £50 to Sinn Fein. Naturally Alan is grateful: it seems just right.

At North Norfolk Digital the first thing the new owners do is rip down all versions of the old name, replacing it by the new meaningless one, Shape. There are slogans on all the walls – for instance Be The Brand. You think this is fanciful? Not so. I have been in many workplaces where there were large posters with similarly ‘motivational’ posters in every room. And there are companies that make what is presumably a good living from selling them. Here is a sample. The picture is of a mountain and a climber where the caption is: ‘ACHIEVEMENT. The moment you commit yourself is the moment your goal is assured.’

How is it that so many senior people believe that slick mission statements, platitudinous lists of ‘values’ or silly slogans will change behaviour? People believe what you do, not what you say which is why the ability to create trust must be at the top of any manager’s list. The fact that this trust has been broken and how to repair it as a matter of urgency is a frequent topic in my coaching room.

It may seem beyond parody that anyone can think their staff will be motivated by seeing a poster or reading a daft and patronizing book, but as the movie suggests, laughing possibly a little hysterically, nothing is as absurd, or has as much underlying sadness, as real life, where everything can apparently be sacrificed for money, fame and short term gain.

The Tendering Trap

What a hopelessly clumsy process tendering is. We now have the allegedly new and reformed NHS 111 service in disarray. NHS Direct have withdrawn from the contract because they have discovered that it is unsustainable. The pressure to put in a cheap bid quickly revealed that they were heading for financial disaster – calls took longer to deal with and remuneration was less than they hoped.

I understand the theory behind tendering.  It is meant as a bulwark against asking your uncle to supply your IT services, a commitment to transparency, to competitive prices, to benchmarking quality and a way of challenging complacency in long-standing suppliers.

Does it actually do this?  I have been on both sides of this fence.  As a commissioner I quickly discovered that tenders create huge amounts of work.  Courtesy demands acknowledging all bids, a rigorous selection process and proper feedback.  It can be challenging to distinguish the bidders’ hype from their actual track record and there is always pressure to get the best possible price and the shortest possible schedule. All of this ties up many tedious hours of staff time for the contract-letter.

From the other side, as a provider you quickly discover that some clients, secure in their regular salaries and reliable pensions, are innocent about what it costs to run an unsubsidized company. They don’t understand the concept of opportunity cost and that time spent on bids is time you could be spending elsewhere. Others assume you to be so overwhelmed by the privilege of working with them that you will work for derisory amounts.  An acquaintance running a company of highly skilled craftsmen narrowly avoided bankruptcy when his firm was ruthlessly squeezed on price by a certain branch of the royal family.

In practice I find that tendering for work can be a tricky process where all is not what it seems. A non-profit organization recently asked me to tender for some work. It sounded interesting and I was well qualified to do it. In due course the invitation came to attend a selection panel. Googling panel members in order to prepare, I was amazed to see a video of a key member of the panel speaking casually at a recent conference informing them that there was already a preferred supplier for this work, who was openly named and one of their books waved aloft, adding that unfortunately the work had to be tendered in order for the organization to be seen to be doing the correct thing.

As a trusting person with little time for conspiracy theories, I decided to give the organization the benefit of the doubt not least because I had already put in many hours on writing the bid. After a poorly conducted interview, dominated by the person who had expressed the strong preference for another supplier, it was little surprise to open an abrupt email informing me that I had not got the work.

This work did indeed go to the favoured firm, people I know and respect who I am sure will do a good job. But the experience leaves a bad taste. As ever, it is difficult to complain without looking arrogant or sulky. And it would be perfectly possible to justify the choice on spuriously ‘objective’ grounds, adding further humiliation for the losers.

Tendering is a rough and ready solution to the problems of procurement. It depends on procurers knowing what they are procuring, when often they don’t have anything like the expertise of the bidders because their lack of in-house expertise is why they are putting the work out to tender in the first place. It depends on buyers having sophisticated selection procedures and skills. It depends on realism about costs on both sides rather than a shared pretence that prices can be driven down and schedules shortened without compromising quality. It relies on people behaving scrupulously. Alas, a lot of the time these basic conditions are unmet in practice. Perversely, as with the 111 service, the successful bid often ends up costing more and delivering poorer quality than it would if the buying had been done in more sensible ways in the first place.


Bullying, the CQC and Creating a Coaching Culture

The recent report from People Opportunities into the culture of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) makes for depressing reading with 92% of those interviewed saying they had experienced bullying. The report describes people being ridiculed in team meetings because the pace of their work was allegedly too slow, being too terrified to complain because no one had faith in the grievance procedures and some managers owning up to the fact that they had been guilty of bullying behaviour themselves.

Of course they were – bullying arises directly out of organisation culture and usually starts at the top. The ‘one bad apple’ excuse, espoused for instance by the US military after Abu Ghraib, is a fiction.  When invited to behave in a way that will harm others, two classic 20th c experiments show how readily we will abandon personal moral values and do what we are told.  Many of Stanley Milgram’s naïve subjects administered what they believed (wrongly) were fatal electric shocks to others, and Philip Zimbardo’s nicely brought up students swiftly became abusive ‘guards’ in his Stanford Prison experiments.  In both cases this was because ‘someone in authority’ said it was OK.

Most bullies believe themselves to be people who are only doing their duty.  They are responding to bosses unable to manage the anxiety created by demands from their bosses.  The only unusual thing about the CQC is that its culture has been exposed as a result of its failure to raise concerns about poor performance in hospitals like Stafford. This is ironic when you read the People Opportunities report where obsession with performance was the overt reason for the bullying. So this was an organization whose only purpose is to manage performance yet could not do it effectively either externally or internally.

Is bullying more prevalent in the NHS than elsewhere?  Comparable statistics are hard to find, but it seems unlikely.  However, the political status of the NHS does make for unique difficulties.  Ministers, desperate to show that they can be trusted with the NHS, fear press attacks; senior civil servants fear ministerial censure; trust chief executives fear rebukes.  The more senior you are, the more you may believe you need tangible statistical proof, hence the importance of targets – and the unbridled pressure that may follow.

Many managers don’t understand why pressurising doesn’t work.  The taken-for-granted principles of organisation life are based on fatally flawed assumptions so familiar that we have stopped noticing them. But eighty years of research has shown not only that they have never worked but that they never could. So senior people don’t exclusively know best.  Fear leads to compliance but not commitment.  Financial incentives do not increase work satisfaction.  Performance appraisals do not improve performance, in fact in about one third of cases it worsens.  Threats of punishment merely mean we get better at evasion.  Goals set by others are not motivating.

Yet the idea that cascading command-control is the way to get results survives intact in most organisations, including the NHS, despite nods to ‘empowerment’ and ‘involvement’.  When people miss their targets the belief is not that the principles are wrong but that they need to be applied with yet more ‘firmness’ – the kind that can easily degenerate into bullying.

The People Opportunities report rightly concentrates on recommendations about changing the culture at the CQC – for instance introducing training in coaching and other approaches to having ‘difficult’ conversations that would combine high challenge with high support. But no-one ever changes an organization’s culture by trying to change the culture or ever does it quickly. It flows slowly and cautiously from changes at the top with leaders who are brave enough and skilled enough to model the right behaviour themselves and who are in it for the long term. As the report acknowledges, having a ‘coaching culture’ is more than just running a few training courses and hoping for the best. It involves every single aspect of how the organization conducts itself including all that invisible stuff about what people believe will be rewarded and punished.

It also means that for the CQC, its senior leaders must know how to manage ministers, the press and the recipients of CQC’s inspections: a tall order indeed. Will they do it? We can only wish them the very best of luck.