06 Aug The road from Rotherham
Rotherham social services child protection failures add to a growing list of public sector scandals. Collectively these alarming lapses are undermining the credibility of government agencies to deliver quality health care and social welfare.
More scientific management offers a way forward.
The failure of Rotherham social services to protect over a thousand children in its care from predatory gangs of abusers is an appalling abuse of power. But from the perspective of systems thinking and modern psychology, this failure is hardly surprising. It is also entirely avoidable.
Systems thinking and research-based psychotherapy explain why outbreaks of catastrophic incompetence and neglect are more or less inevitable in bureaucratic environments. And it has nothing to do with a shortage of funding.
These scientific ideas indicate that the way back to sanity is to ditch the bureaucracy and adopt a bottom-up collaborative approach to leadership and management.
Dysfunctional behaviour is endemic in bureaucratic regimes
A collaborative approach to leadership and decision-making is the key to harnessing employees’ innate rational common sense, competence, sensitivity and compassion. Only a bottom-up approach to management information flow and decision-making can create the organisational capacity to express these innate human faculties. Only when the work culture expresses these human qualities is it able to deliver the level of service that can truly meet the needs of vulnerable clients.
‘Reinventing management thinking’ examines why dysfunctional behaviour so easily arises in bureaucratic top down command and control regimes, and the impact this has on work performance. It also explains why large organisations such as Rotherham social services, lose the plot from the point of view of pursuing their intended purpose.
In the Rotherham case, child protection agencies strayed from their true purpose to the extent that on several occasions police and social workers went so far as to obstruct parents who it seems were genuinely trying to protect their children from harm. A large percentage of the abused children had actually been taken from their parents and put ‘into care’ by the social services. These children fell into the hands of the criminal gangs only because they were being ‘looked after’ by the social services.
From the standpoint of systems thinking and modern psychotherapy, this organisational ineptitude, although unacceptable, is more or less understandable under the prevailing external conditions at the time in Rotherham. Bureaucracy is innately disadvantaged when it comes to adapting procedures and processes in response to dynamically changing external environments.
When confronted with exceptional brutality on an ‘industrial scale’ the system was chronically unable to cope.
Collaborative leadership principles indicate how large organisations can get back on track.
Rotherham social services shows systemic not individual failure
Theresa May, the then Home Secretary and other leading politicians are quick to assert that the failure in Rotherham was one of “individuals failing to carry out their roles”. This is no doubt true, but it is far too simplistic and superficial an analysis to be helpful in the long term. The general rule is that a system governs people’s performance. Statisticians observe that as much as 95% of ‘variation’ in performance is due to the system not to the people. With this in mind, it is useful to drill down much deeper to arrive at the root cause of individual failure. In the Rotherham instance, a number of questions could be asked; for instance:
- Why were so many social workers and police officers doing exactly what they shouldn’t have been for so long (this episode lasted over sixteen years)?
- How did their training not nudge them into behaving in a more responsible, sensible and proactive way?
- Why did political correctness (ideological imperatives) get in the way of right action?
- What stopped these workers’ line managers from controlling them?
- Why was senior management blind to the extent of the problem and failed to intervene?
- What are the reasons that they are they still in well paid posts long after the scandals have been exposed?
If you still think that the fault lies simply with poor leadership at the top then ask yourself why did so many useless individuals end up in charge in the first place?
A radical shake-up is required
The answers to these and many other questions will reveal that Rotherham’s failure is systemic. It is the social services management system that is fundamentally flawed. It cannot be fixed ad hoc. What is required is a completely different approach to the management of child welfare based on sound scientific principles not social ideology. The coming witch-hunt for ‘culprits’ is in danger of obscuring this fact and it is simply not good enough to find wrongdoers and sack them. This will leave the real cause of the failure intact.
I am certain that if a restaurant was found to be regularly poisoning its clientele, the public health authorities would immediately close it down. Similarly a garage carrying out MOTs would be quickly stopped from trading if it developed a track record of passing dangerous cars as road worthy. A current client of mine provides complex and time sensitive business services for a large supermarket chain. The supermarket is getting a bit twitchy about both the quality and speed of service. As a result, there is a very real fear they will take the contract away.
These types of adverse reactions to poor quality are normal and healthy and it is this sort of drastic Darwinian reaction to poor service that is required with failing government agencies. An organisation that betrays its client base as badly as Rotherham social services needs to be closed down and a totally new one put back together in a completely different way.
Senior heads rolling may be very gratifying for the press and those politicians who need to be seen to be ‘doing something useful’. And indeed no doubt some particularly useless culprits will have to be removed. However the danger is that this bloodletting will entirely miss the point and that is, that this child abuse scandal, like so many before it, reflects a systems failure.
A proper review needs to probe a lot deeper than just trying to find the bad guys or simply tweak the existing system in an attempt to make it better. Improving the current ways of doing things will only generate marginal gains at best. Instead a completely new radical approach is required based on a better and more scientific understanding of how people behave in organisations.
Here are a couple of points for consideration.
Top down command and control is vulnerable to dysfunctional behaviour
Modern psychology and neuroscience explain why top down command and control environments trigger the human stress response. Where stress is prevalent in an organisation it spawns dysfunctional behaviour that generates low competency and performance. In such working conditions we regularly see secrecy (often dressed up as client or management confidentiality), hidden agendas, sycophancy, self serving optimism and positivity, ‘impression management’, political manoeuvring for power, position and status, and a whole range of other personal survival tactics.
All these dysfunctional activities work against the objectives of the organisation, which in the Rotherham case, meant abandoning those hapless children who should have been the beneficiaries of professional adult care and attention.
The problem of bounded rationality
Professor Alexis Jay, who wrote the damning report on the Rotherham sex abuse scandal, asserts that, her findings show that “nobody could say ‘I didn’t know’.” Unfortunately given the conditions created by the conventional bureaucratic system this is probably not the case.
Habitually, senior management, within a bureaucracy, suffer from what is termed ‘bounded rationality’.
What this means is that, being human, they can’t possibly be aware of everything that is going on in their organisations. The larger and more complex the organisation is, then the more impossible it is for them. In an attempt to improve their awareness, the typical top down command and control structures seen in government bureaucracies contain a range of controls, targets, audits, inspections, KPIs, and so on, to help senior management see and control what is going on several rungs down the ladder beneath them.
Unfortunately, although these sort of controls may look impressive from the top, they actually fail to keep senior management in touch with the reality on the ground.
Unfortunately the existence of ‘bounded rationality’ doesn’t prevent managers from believing that they have adequate knowledge and from acting accordingly. This delusion breeds complacency and is obviously dangerous.
Confirmation bias compounds the problem of bounded rationality
What helps to reinforce senior management’s bounded rationality is one simple and perennial problem. On the emotional level, bad news that shakes up our belief patterns is always unwelcome. Just like anyone else, senior managers can suffer from confirmation bias. When this happens managers find it difficult to accept any negative feedback that disrupts their settled worldview. People get emotionally attached to their beliefs and, once these beliefs become established, their brains literally filter out any evidence that contradicts them.
Of course it doesn’t help matters where these beliefs have become self-serving. And in today’s government agencies we have the self serving need to protect status and careers with six figure salaries and pensions to match.
This filtering process results, by the way, in the chastising of those who offer differing opinions and is the reason why bureaucracies talk of ‘whistle blowers’. Shooting the messenger is a common character defect of top down command and control managers. This attitude further reinforces senior management isolation from operational reality.
In private enterprises, market factors such as an alert competition and customers voting with their feet will sooner or later jolt managers out of their day dream world (or have them removed). However, public sector organisations tend not have this balancing mechanism. Delusion is perpetuated by a weakness in accountability either from below or above.
In more healthy organisational environments where employees and management collaborate with one another in an ongoing programme of continuous improvement, negative feedback is seen as an integral and vital part of the improvement process. Without negative feedback organisations cannot learn from their mistakes, cannot change and so cannot improve.
The collaborative principle is the key to high performance working in caring environments
The unwelcome truth is that top down command and control management structures are inept at handling the sort of sensitive issues raised by social work or health care. It is particularly unfortunate that this is the preferred management approach by just about all government organisations at the moment. The reason why is covered extensively in ‘Reinventing management thinking’. But in essence, neuroscience and modern psychotherapy now give us a clearer picture of what sort of working environments are best for rational, sensitive, creative and compassionate working.
In this context, top down command and control breaks all the rules. As a result it is responsible for generating an alien working-environment where the stress response triggers a myriad of dysfunctional behaviours at every level.
What we require in large organisations is a more collaborative structure and style of leadership and management. Only this type of management can embrace negative feedback as a valuable learning experience. Similarly collaborative style management is best able to protect and nurture the natural sensitivity and compassion needed to serve client needs. The reason for this is that collaboration is firmly in tune with human beings’ biological needs and genetic inheritance. Collaborative leadership can therefore develop a much higher degree of motivation and engagement that in turn unleashes the full potential of ALL the individuals working in the organisation.
Read the book
Jeremy Old has twenty-five years experience of management coaching in the SME sector and has led over fifty business transformation assignments. He is author of ‘Reinventing management thinking’, now available from Amazon. The book explains explains how you can integrate a collaborative approach to leadership style, management function and organisational design into any organisation. With the aid of a number of case examples and research, the author explains why collaborative leadership works so effectively in comparison with the usual top down command and control regimes.