Not trusting the system

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The Post Office scandal has both captivated and rocked the nation.

Listening to the Week in Westminster on Radio 4 this weekend, Gareth Davies, Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office responded to a question on the cynicism of the public "that neither the state or the public sector can run a big project", by saying he did not believe that to be the case. Rather, he stressed the importance of recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees.

It’s about more than that though: it’s about doing what you can to create a culture in which those skilled people will hold themselves accountable. Employers, particularly gargantuan employers like the Post Office, can’t control their culture: that culture is the agglomerated and amorphous mass of everyday decisions and actions taken or made by thousands of people. What you have some control over is climate - ‘the shared perception of and meaning attached to the policies, practices and procedures that employees experience’1: literally how those thousands of employees experience the application day-to-day of the organisation’s 3P’s (policies, practices and procedures).  

The evidence presented to date from Fujitsu is that they knew about the system bugs prior to the launch of the Horizon software and became increasingly aware of the numerous bugs over a period of time. It was not that the IT team did not have the skills to identify the bugs. The issue was how people reacted to the problem. That was about the climate that the Post Office had clearly created.

What did people understand was important? Was it that the organisation ensured the roll out of a hugely expensive project (which had been subject to numerous delays)? Or was it that everything realistic was done to ensure that the organisation acted with integrity? There is a worrying undercurrent in the evidence being presented to the enquiry that the postmasters were devalued as a group. That’s about a climate having been created.

When things start to go wrong in workplaces, whether big or small, two crucial things need to happen to ensure that problems are fixed.  

1. The right people need to know about the problem.

2. Those people need to act with integrity; need to do something that’s right.

Ensuring both of these things happen is all about climate: people need to experience from their leaders and those around them that integrity is important.

"Don't shoot the messenger" is a phrase we’ve all heard countless times. It originated from unwritten codes of conduct in war and has been referred to throughout history from Sophocles to Shakespeare. The safe dissemination of information was considered so important that to harm a town crier was considered treasonous. Yet, in my job, working with hundreds of people in a range of seniorities in professional workplaces, and in risk and compliance functions, far too often I have heard people saying versions of ‘it’s not my place to say anything’.

There can be many different reasons behind this belief, but mostly, I think that it boils down to fear, fear of recrimination. But, if you are a leader and no-one is prepared to tell you about a problem - how are you going to fix the issues in your organisation? How you react if and when someone does tell you about the small stuff, will determine whether they will come to you with the stuff that can destroy organisations.

At byrne·dean we talk about climate and culture every day – that we all need to be much more intentional, that it needs to be part of your DNA, your language and your decision making. It needs to be so clear and obvious that everyone from your most junior recent employees to your most senior long-standing leaders know what the business expects. It's not about writing aspirational words on the wall or engraving them on glass, or about clever PR and marketing. It's about having the right conversations regularly with the right people: the people who make the decisions every day to say something or not to say something.

In our workplaces and indeed society at large, we see a growing dependence on technology and the accompanying systems and processes. In parallel, there seems to be a growing trust in the accuracy of machines. With this trust, it is potentially easier to sweep challenges by humans under the carpet.

At the Post Office, anybody who prized integrity would surely have asked themselves ‘why are all these previously law-abiding postmasters suddenly stealing?’ But that wasn’t what the climate of the Post Office said was prized. They prized the rolling out of an IT system. As AI starts to dominate our workplaces, it feels like it’s going to become more and more important that when humans say there’s a problem, their colleagues (us) need to listen and respond appropriately.

1 Organizational Climate and Culture: Benjamin Schneider, Mark G. Ehrhart and William H. Macey

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