By Blair McPherson, ex-social worker and social services director
I have known directors who think their senior managers shield them from the negative stuff. These same senior managers don’t admit to problems for fear of being considered incapable and think their best interests are served by reassuring the boss all is well and any problems are being sorted.
I have known directors who dismiss the idea of open sessions with staff saying it just gives a forum for the grumblers, the cynics and those with a particular axe to grind. I have worked in places where no one dare tell the chief executive that something is a bad idea; where to express concern is viewed as dissent, even disloyalty. No one actually says ‘tell me lies’ but in such places the truth becomes too hard to hear, so managers recognise that they are expected to say the right thing or say nothing.
And so you end up with a culture of ‘tell me what I long to hear’. Tell me the budget cuts are being delivered with minimum pain. Tell me we can do more with less. Tell me stories of innovation and change for the better. Tell me the reorganisation is a success. Tell me alternatives have been found for those whose services have been closed. Tell me that the voluntary sector has stepped in to fill the gap, that the local faith community is keen to do more, that families are taking responsibility.
Tell me we have reduced bureaucracy, cut down on paperwork, and are making better use of staff time. Tell me the use of unqualified but trained staff has proved a great success. Tell me that most of the redundancies were voluntary. Tell me we were able to offer redeployment to most of those impacted by the restructuring. Tell me the problems have been exaggerated. Tell me everything is under control. Tell me the stories in the press are isolated examples.
Tell me the unions are exaggerating, that staff morale always takes a dip when changes are happening. Tell me that new technology will save us money and time. Tell me the new software problems can easily be ironed out. Tell me the outsourcing of services is going to deliver the predicted savings. Tell me the performance figures will be better next time. Tell me it’s just a few bad apples. Tell me our communication strategy will explain everything. Tell me we can have confidence in what our managers tell us. Tell me what I want to hear. Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.
The trouble is that if you encourage managers only to give you the good news then at some point you are going to get a very unpleasant surprise and it will be too late to take corrective action. It might be a whistleblower, an unannounced inspection, some very persistent questioning by the scrutiny committee or an MP who on behalf of a service user/ constituent won’t let the matter be dropped. Eventually it will all come out and probably very publicly.
Of course there will be those who say they knew nothing, that the true position was kept from them or that they were given assurances that the problems were minor and being addressed. Whether they are believed or not will depend on their leadership style, whether they asked the right questions of those they relied on, and whether they listened – even to those who disagreed with them!