Friday, 6 September 2013

Leadership; tackling a blame culture?

Like many in our sector I was interested in the NAO report on universal credit yesterday. It was pretty damning. But what I thought was particularly interesting was its insights into leadership and what our CEOs should learn from that.

The NAO identified a culture problem in DWP. As the NAO said, 

"The programme itself was allowed to develop a fortress culture where only good news was circulated, and issues weren't really identified."

And in response to the criticisms the Secretary of State was perhaps too quick to identify civil servants at fault - which simply reinforces a blame culture that inhibits proper analysis and debate internally.

No CEO can afford a culture where only good news is transmitted upwards and where staff who identify problems get the blame or are discouraged. Or just where the word around the place is “keep your head down".

We saw this problem in parts of the health service and indeed part of the problem that the Care Quality Commission faced was its attempt to suppress bad news and critical reports. It’s never a clever strategy and often exacerbates the problem.

A good CEO will surround themselves with loyal people, but people they trust. Trust to tell them unpalatable news. Its only when you get a full picture of what is happening in your organisation; warts and all, that you can take the necessary steps to make changes. Praise is good but you need to know when things are going wrong. 

One of the talents you must nurture in your organisation is "upward management" There are good ways to impart bad news. And bad ones. A good Director is one who is able to raise problems with a CEO and get them discussed. But a CEO will need to have Directors who are loyal so that you can trust them to be telling you problems so they can be sorted rather than to stitch you up! And the way you react to bad news (do you "shoot the messenger"?)will be telling.

Of course you can never assume that mistakes will not be down to incompetence and that you will need to tackle that, sometimes with staff having to leave. But that cannot be allowed to develop into a culture where it is thought that if you raise a problem you will not be thanked, and potentially blamed.

Early warnings from senior staff or those at the sharp end should alert you to problems where you as the Leader will need to take action. I'm afraid that politicians are far too often too quick to blame civil servants and so inevitably civil servants keep their heads down. Let's learn from this episode.

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