Earlier this week research showed that there are high levels of perceived bullying in the NHS workplace. According to the research by NHS Employers 20% of NHS staff report that they have been bullied by other staff and 29.9% indicated that they had some element of psychological distress. Managers and supervisors were perceived to be the most common source (51%).
This is quite a shocking statistic and one that begs the question ‘why?’. What drives, seemingly normal people, who work in a compassionate profession and are probably lovely outside of work, to behave in a bullying manner in the workplace?
My guess is that it is based in fear.
Fear of missing the target; fear of the ramifications of spending too much money; fear of losing job/ reputation/ career that you’ve spend decades building; fear of rocking the boat or speaking up. What fuels these fears?
Fear is toxic; it creates a unconscious psychological response in our amygdala or ‘reptile brain’ which is fight; flight; freeze. This is helpful when a sabre toothed tiger is bearing down on you but has no place in today’s healthcare environment except in extreme circumstances. We are starting to see some of the unintended consequences such as a recent CQC report awarding a requires improvement rating citing ‘learned helplessness’ as one of the cultural indicators created by the senior leadership team.
So, how can we support our leaders to move away from fear and start to create the right conditions for staff to be able to operate to their full potential?
As we know culture is the shadow of the leadership and if the shadow that is being cast is one of fear; perceived lack of ability to control or influence; driving for results no matter what the cost and an inability to listen to ideas or thoughts that differ from the cultural norms; then the conditions that are being created for staff to work in are oppressive; toxic and limiting.
Having grip and telling staff what to do can work for a short period of time, particularly in a crisis. However, over a longer period will lead to reduced results and a culture of escalation to the organisation as paralysis will seep in and staff will start to fear making the wrong decision and therefore will make no decisions.
To move away from fear takes a huge amount of courage and the ability to trust in others. Although the current regulatory environment means that there needs to be an Accountable Officer so it is clear where the buck stops, this does not mean that this person has to do everything; quite the opposite.
The key to that opposite approach is enabling the Executive Team to feel it is safe to let go. A recent interesting article by the Harvard Business Review (1) on exactly this, highlighted the rules of ‘self organisation’ the main element of which is communicating intent. This is a very different approach to delegation. One which establishes a set of principles and a clear framework from within which all staff are able to take decisions.
Many of the organisations featured in Fredric La Loux’s inspiring ‘Reinventing Organizations’ (2) have in common a clearly set out vision and principles and enable their staff to make decisions based within the simple framework that they have established. All of the organisations have established approaches to dealing with performance issues and with those people who do not make decisions according to the agreed doctrine, quickly and simply. This clear and simple approach appears to be yielding amazing results the world over.
It is often argued that this is much easier in organisations such as Google and Amazon and in healthcare organisations such as Buurtzorg in the Netherlands (3) as they are all start up companies and had the opportunity to set things up right from the beginning.
So how easy is it to introduce this new way of working into a well established; heavily regulated environment such as the NHS where everything that is paid attention to, measured and rewarded is the opposite? Well the answer is that it is not easy – but rarely is anything worth having easy to achieve. If it was we would have done it already!
Collaboration is the key. Today’s healthcare environment is too complex to rely upon the leadership approaches that worked for complicated problems. Complicated problems can be solved through processes and linear solutions. Complex problems are worsened if this thinking is applied as there are too many factors and variables and therefore a more emergent approach is necessary.
The fear many leaders will have to face is that their ‘tried and tested’ methodologies that worked for yesterday’s problems no longer work and they have no more tools in their toolkit to rely upon. This can often be the root of fear that drives the ‘tell’ culture and often leaders struggle to understand why these methods, previously so successful don’t work in today’s technology driven, disrupted environment. They interpret the lack of results as due to the way the staff are implementing their instructions rather than it being the wrong approach and so give further, more detailed instructions. Thus creating a vicious circle of decline.
The simple truth is we need a new toolkit and manual for ‘letting go’. Bringing together clinicians and giving them the tools and techniques to enable them to improve how they deliver care and trusting them to come up with the answers, is the first stage to truly transforming the culture in the NHS.
We need leaders that can:
- lead from behind, rather than in front
- pose questions rather than offers solutions as they recognise wicked problems require emergent solutions
- truly collaborate with the workforce and inspire them with purpose and commitment.
These are the leaders that will create the right conditions to replace the fear currently being felt in the NHS workplace with love and compassion, both for staff and patients.
(1) How Leaders Can Let Go Without Losing Control; Mark Bonchek; Harvard Business Review; 2 June 2016
(2) La Loux F; Reinventing organizations; A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next generation of human consciousness; 2014
(3) Community nursing organisation in the Netherlands based on the principles of self managed teams which achieves high levels of patient satisfaction, improved clinical outcomes and reduced cost. Featured in La Loux’s book as referenced above
About the author
Sarah Morgan is the Director of Organisational Development for Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and passionate about creating happy workplaces