Listen to the Whistle – some thoughts on Institutional Deafness

The news is currently full of organisations accused of turning a deaf ear to people who ‘blow the whistle’ and try to report wrongdoing. Some of the stories of reported incidences not properly investigated are shocking and it is tempting to think and hope that these behaviours come from a different era, but sadly we know this is not the case.

Moving a culture from ‘who is to blame?’ to ‘what can we learn?’

Robert FrancisOn the 11th February Sir Robert Francis published his review carried out into whistleblowing in the NHS. In this he reported serious issues with the way whistleblowing is perceived and handled, recommending 20 principles, each with specific actions that will be received as a loud wake-up call for many Chief Executives and Directors in the NHS and across the public sector. Sir Robert’s report describes one of the primary needs is to move from a culture which focuses on ‘who is to blame?’ to one focused on ‘has the issue been properly addressed and what can we learn?’

Moving culture in any large organisation is a testing challenge for any leader to face. The prevailing paradigm embedded deep in the organisation is a powerful beast, one that will defend itself tenaciously if threatened. Anyone looking to tackle this challenge needs to do so in the full knowledge that it will require sustained, determined and coordinated effort from many people if success is to be guaranteed. There are few quick fixes for this challenge.

Do you consider your organisation a machine, or an organism?

Most large organisations have evolved to be effective and efficient problem solving machines and much management and leadership effort is dispensed to make sure they do this well. Leaders usually have plenty of measures and processes designed to catch problems when they occur, report and track issues and then, if the problem warrants it, scarce resources are allocated to solve the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I contend that shifting a culture is not a problem to be solved; rather it is a series of habits to be changed. As such the challenge is more organic than mechanistic and the approach to adopt should reflect this reality.

Cultures evolve over extended periods of time and unless there is a trauma to confront they rarely change quickly. Moving from ‘blame’ to ‘learn’ may seem like a small shift in emphasis but it is a big change in behaviour. The challenge has two dimensions. ‘Technical’ – to do with policy, procedure and processes and ‘Adaptive’ – to do with the way people habitually behave and interact with each other.

This means you…!

Culture change has to start at the very top with the Chief Executive and the Executive Leadership team.

However tempting this may be, this is not a task to be delegated to Human Resources; or a sub-committee; or a cross-functional team tasked to come up with recommendations for the ‘ratification and approval by the board’. Changing an operating culture is one of the few initiatives the board as a whole need to embrace as a team and work on collaboratively together. For the Chief Executive this is the starting point. The executive team need to embrace the challenge and align behind a coordinated approach that will progressively begin to shift the operating culture in the desired direction. Once this is achieved they then need to increase their listening skills.

Listening to the Whistle – it’s all about respect

Learning to listen is all about respect. Respect for the individual who has had the courage to speak out in the first place; respect for the proper procedures that will no doubt be in place but may be being breached; and most importantly respect for the victims of the wrong doing. It is they that are suffering the immediate consequences and who need immediate attention. Chief Executives and executive directors need to take a look at themselves and the way they behave and exercise their leadership power to ensure they are not inadvertently condoning practises that allow bullies to flourish and whistle-blowers to be silenced? The penalties for allowing such behaviour to occur on their watch will increase as people lose patience with the lack of perceived accountability that seems to pervade some larger organisations.

The Technical Challenge

Senior leaders need ‘listening posts’ that can effectively relay, and if required, amplify signals that enable them to test the heartbeat and general health of the organisation. A good example of this is John Short the CEO of Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust who instigated a ‘Dear John….we need to talk…’ stand alone and if required anonymous website. This enables employees to anonymously report quality concerns direct to the CEO. All concerns raised are investigated and outcomes are looked at alongside other quality measures to expose patterns or other broader areas of concern. The outcomes from these investigations are also built into the strategic planning process and can affect a number of areas of the Trust’s work. For such a tactic to work, as John Short himself declared; “staff really need to believe that the Chief Executive is interested and that things will change as a result of them raising something” This is the nub of the challenge, it is no good just listening, actions need to follow.

MBWA is not enough

Most leaders realise that ’back-to-the-floor’ and occasional ‘walk about’ activities give them a flavour of what people think and feel about working in their organisation. However I know from personal experience that this is not sufficient. Whenever I help my clients address some of the cultural challenges they face I know the degree of candour, energy and insight I, as an outsider to the organisation, can glean from a group of employees talking in a safe environment, is far more than would be shared if an executive was in the room, regardless of their leadership style.

That is why John Short’s tactic works so well, it bypasses the usual channels of upward communication with all their built in harmonising habits and pacifying rituals.

The Adaptive Challenge

Asking a senior leader to learn to listen and suggest they may need to change their questioning and /or leadership style is usually met with the same incredulity as if they were being asked to learn to walk! Yet literal and empathetic listening is a real skill, one that takes time and practise to do well; time many executive leaders believe they do not have. Empathetic, non-judgemental questioning is taught to counsellors and coaches, it is not taught to most executives, many of whom got to where they are today by their ability to talk and present with confidence and to solve problems quickly. Listening in this context is simply a step in the problem solving process.

There is also a judgement to be made when a whistle in blown and leaders need to resist pushing the panic button too quickly. The solution is to find effective processes for reporting concerns without fear or favour and empower people to show zero tolerance for any form of bullying behaviour. However the organisation has a right to be respected too and zero tolerance should also be given to people who raise false concerns in bad faith or for personal gain.

Issuing whistles is a good start but learning to listen to a whistle is the more interesting challenge to take on. For further advice and support on how to tackle this challenge please contact me and I will be happy to discuss how I may be able to help.

Malcolm Follos

Sensei UKE Limited

March 2015.