Loyalty is such a powerful term and a deeply held value amongst many in the NHS. I would like to offer a counter view. I spent some time yesterday with a fabulous director of HR who ranted for around an hour about the incompetence and poor behaviour of his chief executive. At the end, he thanked me for listening and said it was great to get that off his chest since there was no-one else he could talk to about it. He thought it enormously disloyal to share any of these doubts or criticisms about his boss with his team and his colleagues. It made me consider how disabling this is, and what unintended consequences we face as a result.
My husband has a habit of giving very open feedback to people who gather at the top or bottom of escalators, or speak in quiet coaches, or cut in front of him in their car. ‘They need to know’ he’ll say as he bellows ‘idiot!’ out the window and I slink under the dashboard. But he’s got a point, how will we ever change our behaviour if we don’t understand the real impact it has on others, and how do we know what that impact is unless people let us know.
Conversely what is the impact if there is some huge collusion about not speaking out in danger of being disloyal? I am no fan of deference to hierarchy, and can point to the times in my career where that has had an impact. I do believe in treating people with respect. But in terms of integrity I think we need to reassess our priorities here: loyalty to those in senior positions to us, or congruence with our values and behaviours.
Of course there is a way of doing this well and with positive intent – my husband could do with some development about his feedback approach. But credit to him to giving the feedback directly to the person in question. That’s important of course – well intended elegant feedback is crucial, whether you are speaking to those in positions of authority or not. Everyone deserves that respect. But having raised your concerns is it then a requirement of you to back people up if they continue on the path they have chosen – doesn’t that make you complicit in their behaviour? And how many people have risen to positions of power with everyone around them knowing their faults but no-one speaking out? Then they suddenly come to a crashing end and the only one surprised is them – we all knew they were going to come to a sorry end but didn’t admit it to them or anyone else.
We may choose to justify this behaviour with a cloak of professionalism, but if we are defending to our staff, a boss demonstrating indefensible behaviours, then we are complicit aren’t we? And they either believe us, in which case we are perpetuating the problem, or they know we are defending something we think is indefensible in which case why would they ever trust us again? And of course it’s the organisation which suffers and, in the case of the NHS, this means our patients and staff.
I am not talking about whistle blowing here – I think that’s a different issue. This is about honesty about your perspective on someone else’s choices and behaviours. That’s a much greyer area. Interested in your views – as my husband might say – ‘I need to know!’