Breaking the cycle of distrust

Whatever happens as a result of the current political turmoil, we’ll have to work together and be creative if we’re to solve the problems ahead of us.

I believe that an underlying problem is that over the last few decades, particularly in the English-speaking world, we’ve developed a box ticking culture in many of our institutions which involves a cycle of lack of trust, fear, risk aversion and micromanagement.  This plays out in our political systems, our education system, our healthcare systems, our banks and many corporations. It is damaging creativity, and making it increasingly impossible for leaders to lead.

It’s a vicious cycle of distrust, starting with quite a deep-seated culture of suspicion and lack of trust in those in power.  In reality, leaders may be no less trustworthy than they were back in the Victorian age (when leaders were much more respected), but the speed and ease of communication today means that we’re much more aware of the failings of our organisations and their leaders. This gets reinforced every time there’s a government U-turn, a school or hospital is deemed a failure, a business suffers a downturn, or those in power turn out to have lied or abused their power.

The social media echo chamber makes things worse, with algorithms filling our media feeds with simple certainties: things that are popular with ‘people like us’,  rather than the more nuanced, complex, unwelcome truth.

Leaders, at all levels, are afraid of being pilloried if things go wrong.  Some avoid taking a leadership role.  Others try to avoid being blamed by tightening up control, and introducing more targets, regulations and micromanagement.  The problem is that this may work for managing “business as usual” but if something unexpected happens it’s now much harder for people to respond appropriately.  The measures are very often backwards looking, so they slow everything down and make it much harder to innovate.

This has been going on for a long time:  For example, in 1865 the first of the UK’s Locomotive Acts required that self propelled vehicles be driven at no more than 4mph, preceded by a man carrying a red flag.  Although initially this was appropriate, because heavy steam traction engines were genuinely dangerous, these “vexatious restrictions” remained in place in the UK for the next 31 years, despite English inventors’ complaints and significant progress being made on the Continent in developing what the French called the “Auto-mobile.”

Rigidly enforced targets also mean that creative people turn their creativity towards meeting the target, rather than solving the fundamental problem.  In one Hospital Trust for example, in order to meet the stringent “trolley wait” target for patients awaiting admission to a hospital bed, they took the wheels off their trolleys and deemed that they were unusually narrow beds.

This all means that little problems are ignored until they’ve turned into major crises.

There’s then a media outcry about the crisis and the search for someone to blame, which results in us all losing even more trust in our organisations and leaders. Leaders resign.  New regulations and controls are introduced in an attempt to make sure “this never happens again”, and the sense of fear increases. This in turn erodes creative self-confidence.

It’s becoming widespread, inflicting much of the public sector. For example in the UK we have a maintained sector educational system that’s obsessed with testing and accountability, even though as one experienced teacher points out, many of the assessment systems that teachers now operate seem largely, if not entirely, divorced from the central purpose of helping pupils learn.  Many schools and teachers live in fear of Ofsted, because if just 10% of lessons are judged as “requiring improvement” or “inadequate” the school can be put in Special Measures.

Few outsiders realise how punitive Special Measures is.  The head will usually effectively be dismissed and prevented from ever working as a head again.  The school will usually be forced to become a sponsored academy.  Some will be closed.  If the school does survive, the remaining staff will have two years of hell, with significantly higher workloads and stress.

It’s not just the education system that’s inflicted with this vicious cycle of distrust. NHS Trusts, care homes, and even local authority planning departments can be put in Special Measures and subjected to punitive control for failing to meet the often impossible targets for performance and cost savings.

My fear is that as the consequences of the referendum turn out to be more complex than the simple sound bites of the campaign, distrust in our politicians, leaders and institutions will grow. This will then make it even harder for us to work together creatively to resolve our problems.

If we’re to resolve this, I believe we need to relearn how to listen to each other and to trust: to recognise that most people are mostly trying to do their best, in an increasingly difficult, complex and interconnected world.   And those of us in leadership positions need to resist the temptation to try to get our way by imposing targets and micromanagement. Instead we should try to share a clear and engaging  vision, and then give people the autonomy, support and guidance that will allow them to be creative and get on with it.