Being Human

Test saying “are you sorry?”

I wanted to spotlight this wonderful piece from @georgejulian about curative candour.  George always writes with huge passion, rawness and insight but this piece about the effect that real honest and painful candour had when her mum was diagnosed with cancer is – and I don’t say this lightly – humbling. I have such admiration for the work that George does and I recommend you taking a look – its not always easy to read but it is always important.

It got me thinking about honesty and openness and how the NHS duty of candour when used properly is a powerful and human thing – but also that there is nothing worse than a rubbish non-apology.  We don’t have a duty of candour in local government in the same way* – but perhaps we should because this kind of honesty is fundmental to any kind of relationship and don’t we want to have the best possible relationship with our communities?

The other reason this was on my mind was that I had to apologise for something this week.  Nothing on the scale or impact of George’s story but still something that needed acknowledging and dealing with.  One of the teams in my directorate had made a mistake and then taken a defensive position about it.  I backed them and then when they corrected the original mistake I was in the position of the double apology – apologising for the first mistake and then for my backing of the wrong answer.  I was hugely grateful for the gracious way my apology was accepted and the fact that in doing so we moved the work and our relationship forward.  I saw the same thing with one of my senior managers this week as well whose service had also done something wrong and who stepped in to make the apology and help move things forward.    Apologising when you make a mistake is so simple – and so hard sometimes. Apologising for a mistake you are responsible for is a fact of leadership – or will be until we reinvent organisations to be….different**.

Contemplating apologising is usually worse than the actual apology – there is a lot of ego involved here and admitting you were wrong involves a vulnerability that we are not always comfortable with.  Brene Brown in her work on vulnerability talks about knowing being an armour that stops you properly connecting with people – she calls it a driver of bullshit.  Admitting fault involves removing that armour and while the vulnerability it brings is hard its also authentic and human.

I believe in the power of apologies – in the same way as I believe that it is always better to own your mistakes, learn from them and move forward (not move on – your mistakes become part of you).  All teams make mistakes – and to be honest if you are not making mistakes you are probably not doing enough to react to change as mistakes are crucial to how we learn and evolve services.  Its how we grow. Apologising and then making sure we don’t make the same mistake again is part of my job – as is backing my teams. But I am struck by the fact that the further the apology is from the mistake the bigger a deal it is for all concerned.  However much I attempt to puncture my own ego, an apology from a director is a bigger deal than one from a head of service or one from a team leader.  It is the way of hierarchal power and its not always helpful in terms of getting stuff done.

Customer service experts know this – first time fix and resolution by call handlers is a massive driver of customer satisfaction. I am occupied at the moment with wondering how you get ‘back stage’ of that customer experience and deliver the same kind of effect with deeper and more complex issues – how do you properly identify and direct the simple and the complex to the right place and how can you unlock the acute observations that tell you when the simple is actually a sign of something more – and in this we move away from transactional services and think about how we get into a relationship with the people we are working with.  I believe that to work with this complexity we have to be in a relationship and coproducing solutions with individuals and with communities.  This is not easy in a bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies are designed to protect themselves from harm – they have formal complaint routes and escalations and a hierarchy that is there to maintain the status quo.  And when you look at a wider context you can see some of the drivers for this – the more we see a world based on risk and blame the harder it is for us to be human and authentic in our interactions.The first time fix of customer services is allowed for simple questions – to go there with more complex stuff brings levels of risks that most bureacracies are not comfortable with as it takes you to the place of difficult choices and trade off – the messiness of complexity. 

This is not a pleas for a bonfire of bureaucracy – but it is a plea to think about what these processes look and feel like in what Margaret Wheatley talks about as living systems;  an alternative to the machine model of the Industrial Age that has dominated organisational design. She talks about the need for leaders to create ‘islands of sanity ‘ where new (and hopefully) better rules can apply and I have used this to help shape the question I take forward into my enquiry which is to ask how we could find and adapt the useful parts of the bureaucracy and apply it in human and relational ways?  

This question has its roots in  my search for the everlasting hum:

……the rituals of formal meetings are in the DNA of an organisation like a council – but how we chose to use them can make the difference between the active pursuit of our purpose or the stifling effects of bureaucracy…. 

But we let ourselves off the hook if we just think about this in terms of organisational design – this is also about how we make it easier and more natural for our teams to be able to apologise – and how we help them move out of their bureaucratic roles as experts into a space where they can take the risk of being vulnerable.  Go back and read the piece from George and the power of that apology – and think about what is needed to make that ok for the people who we lead.  This about how we create some of Margaret Wheatley’s ‘islands of sanity’.  Until then I will keep apologising.

Massive thanks to the New Girls;  Cassie, Rowan, Anna, Alice, Carrina and Helen who got me thinking about the tension between working structure and process and for reminding of the wisdom of Margaret Wheatley.

* there is a bit of a rabbit hole with respect to duty of candour and service users in social care – perhaps symptomatic of the social/health care overlap and the fact that central government seems t struggle to deal properly with local government in this space.

**this feels like a whole other blog post – am walking past the rabbit hole but may go done it later.

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