The danger of a ‘tell me what I want to hear’ culture in social services

Social care leaders can't afford to simply ignore those who disagree with them, writes Blair McPherson

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!

Blair McPherson is the author of People management in a harsh financial climate.

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5 Responses to The danger of a ‘tell me what I want to hear’ culture in social services

  1. Alf August 27, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    Take note Rotherham, oops, too late!

  2. Mike Marshall August 27, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    A very good and revealing article. My own experience suggests that SOME Directors do not want to hear negatives. At a DMT meeting a few years ago I identified low levels of residential / nursing home client reviews based on research. The Director turned this on me as if I was criticising the Directorate.

  3. Green September 1, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

    Yes I agree a very good article – I know from experience that it is possible to work constructively with large numbers of employees to understand issues and gain insight into what they think the solutions might be – with huge success… However sadly it is not generally an acceptable way to manage change within local government organisations with senior managers and directors dictating how change will happen and then wondering why its not happening in the way they envisaged! Most staff end up taking a head in sand stance as they ‘have heard it all before’ and because ‘next week they will tell us do something different anyway so theres no point!’

    If more organisations were able to foster a positive culture in which people with the skills to facilitate constructive conversations at all levels were able to work to understand the good and the bad and what ideas people have for a better future – then I think many directors and chief execs would be pleasantly suprised at the outcomes. One of the best bits of feedback I recieved after working with a multi-disciplinary staff team of 80 people over a 9 month period to manage change within a service was a nurse telling me for the first time she felt responsible for making change happen as she had had such an involved role in determining how change would happen! She could no longer point the finger at her managers for getting it wrong again! Successful change became everyones responsibility…

  4. David Shinegold September 2, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    “Tell me what I want to hear – otherwise you will suffer.” Telling the Truth to Power results in Punishment. Ask the Whistleblowers!

  5. Anon September 4, 2014 at 5:28 am #

    What a great article. My own experience mirrors the line of “Success has many parents and failure is a orphan” As a middle manager having raised many issues over the years and refusing to lie to inspectors. I am doing what I should have done months ago and getting out. Although first I am printing all my emails!!!

    Don’t forget the legal issue of wilful blindness. If you act like you don’t want to hear then people will not tell you for fear of career ending actions. I have whistle blown twice in my career, in both health and social services and suffered for it. Not sure I could do it again,

    I am asked why staff in care homes do not whistle blow regarding poor practice, I remind colleagues that staff do not whistle blow in our own local authority, where favouritism, patronage, nepotism and cronyism is wide spread.