Scandal, mistakes, guilt… what can coaching offer?

broken eggs

Watching the BBC Panorama documentary, The Post Office Scandal, I can never remember being moved to such high levels of anger and tears. I understand this wish to punish: someone must be held accountable! The hounds of vengeance are particularly out for Paula Vennells, the former chief executive of the Post Office. She took £4.5m in salary and bonuses during the worst period of this scandal.

But the coach in me is constructing a different story.

I am deeply sceptical about the actual power of chief executives. I have worked as a coach with so many who describe their frustration, their realisation that they are being manipulated, fed false information, lied to and blocked when they ask challenging questions, subtly undermined by the people reporting to them.

Surely, you will say, they are being paid all that money to spot such tactics? Yes indeed, but they are not superhuman. They are flawed just like the rest of us. They worry that they might be wrong. Who can they trust?  They can easily get isolated, their need for validation fed by people who know how to flatter and conceal truth.

What about the senior civil servants? I have worked with many who have felt that their Minister was wrong. How do you challenge this apparently powerful figure? It’s never as easy as it looks. The Minister’s fragile ego and profound ignorance of their brief always has to be taken into account.

The Post Office scandal is a classic example of a systemic problem. My guess is that it will have been driven by assumed political ideology: let’s turn the Post Office into a privately run organization. To do this, it would need to be seen to have impeccable financial systems. But the systems were not impeccable because from the start they were beset by bugs. The Fujitsu Horizon program created fantasy cash shortfalls in individual sub post offices where there were none.

Now the coverup begins. Reasonable, decent people, might be you or me, squash their doubts. It is easier to believe that a mass outbreak of criminal behaviour has simultaneously infected the dutiful, modest sub postmasters, franchisees of the Post Office. You are told by your colleagues that there is nothing to worry about. People more senior and wiser than you have decided that everything is fine. If you express doubts, you know what happens to whistleblowers? Right? They get sacked. You stay silent- or leave.

I find myself wondering about Ms Vennells. In the BBC programme I am struck by how unusual she looks for a woman at her exalted rank – her face seemingly innocent of cosmetics and of ‘improvements’, quoting the Bible with girlish enthusiasm. She seems naïve despite her years of experience in corporate environments. I imagine how easy it might be to exploit her commitment to ‘kindness’.  She looks like someone wedded to ‘collaboration’ as a way of working. This is fine if everyone around you agrees but you become fatally gullible if they don’t. Whatever the explanation, her judgement was spectacularly poor.

In the coaching room it is possible to get clarity. I do not judge – how could I? I wasn’t there, I didn’t have those responsibilities, I can never see the whole picture, nor do I need to. Instead, I make space for telling the story.

At first there is defensiveness.

It was their fault. They did it.


They asked for it.

Then, when challenged, ‘What about you?’

It wasn’t my fault. People lied to me and I believed them.

It was other people. I was just a pawn.

These justifications remind me of the small boy I caught red handed throwing stones at my cat many years ago. His immediate defence was, ‘A big boy did it and ran away’.

Only when we have exhausted these specious arguments can we get to truth. Then is it usually possible to admit to paralysing fear and self hatred.

As a coach I can help people distinguish between regret, shame, guilt and remorse. Regret is about wishing it had never happened. But it did. Now what? Shame is about your mistake being made public. This is the phase where people issue faux apologies: ‘I’m sorry you were upset’

Guilt and remorse are the crucible for recovery and renewal.

Yes I did a wrong thing. I’m ashamed of myself. I’m drowning in guilt. I feel awful. How can I recover?

You recover by acknowledging to someone else that what you did was wrong. You offended against your own moral principles.

But this does not define you. You are human, you made mistakes. You can show yourself compassion without lapsing into feeble excuses. You can admit to the humiliating reasons about why you acted as you did. For sure it will be one of those Seven Deadly Sins: human frailty stays the same, despite our apparent sophistication. You can identify your learning. You can resolve never to make the same mistakes again.

As coaches when we listen to these ‘confessions’ we are providing something of incomparable value. We are not priests and we may or may not have religious faith – that is not the point. We do not do what friends and family will do: offer simplistic comforts or say that it was the fault of others. Nor do we scowl, condemn and lecture. We listen. We agree that what you did was wrong. We suggest ways of forgiving yourself. If it is possible to repair the public damage, we explore how that might be done.

Seven hundred and fifty people have been falsely accused of theft. There have been four suicides, many bankruptcies, crushing fines and prison sentences, countless lives ruined by opprobrium they did not deserve. None of this was justified. The root cause was a faulty IT system created by Fujitsu and which was then repeatedly defended by people who should have known better.

The statutory enquiry now underway will identify myriad mistakes made by players other than Ms Vennells. There are civil servants, lawyers, accountants, IT experts, politicians, executives at Fujitsu, executives at Ernst & Young, Royal Mail and at the Post Office itself. Not just the senior people now named, but hundreds of others who will have reported to them. They all knew something.

It is unlikely that many will be held accountable in any way that will satisfy public anger. But their reputations will suffer. They may be quietly asked to leave their jobs and find it difficult to get another one. Ms Vennells has left public life, will return her CBE and will no longer be practising as an Anglian priest. These people’s view of themselves as decent human beings will be permanently damaged. Their neighbours may shun them, their children may be bullied. Let’s hope that some of them, at least, look to a coach for help.

are-you-listenningIn my book Are You Listening ? I describe a coaching engagement with a senior executive who made a serious mistake. The story is called Absolution.




Photo by Klaus Nielsen