Look into yourself before reaching for the manual

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I was debating recently.  A friend of mine had said: ‘We’ve got to do it that way, it’s the policy’, to which I said ‘But it’s clearly a rubbish policy.’

Chris LakeReflecting on this led me to ponder the difference between organisational custom, written policy, and law – and how we sometimes get them confused.

Policies and habits abound in organisations, especially in the public sector, and the NHS in particular. Several are useful, and all started with the best of intentions. However, many continue unchallenged long beyond their sell by date.

Sally Kohn’s brilliant TedTalk bravely tackles some thorny ground in this area. She argues that it’s not political correctness – the policy-policed avoidance of disapproved vocabulary – that really matters. Instead she calls for greater emotional correctness where we pay deeper attention to the values and intentions of others. In this way, we can transcend our differences and really listen to each other rather than simply side-stepping slur by staying within PC policies whilst simultaneously causing hurt and pain from the non-verbal or non-explicit communication of deeper truths. Similarly, this means not being default offended by transgressions of PC language, and instead working harder to hear to the values of the person underneath

Recruitment and selection is another case in point. I bet your organisation has some pretty standard ways of doing things when it comes to selection. Maybe, for a particular level of job, the familiar routine is to advertise a vacancy on a particular website, use a specified application form, shortlist in a certain way and panel interview for 30-40 minutes.  Indeed, that’s probably the most common model of selection in operation for mid to senior roles.

However, just because it’s the most common, does it make it the most effective? Research is pretty clear that interviews, especially ½ hour panel interviews, stay at the level of slightly stilted question-and-respond, never really achieving any depth of dialogue and exploration and have some fairly dodgy stats in terms of prediction of performance in role. Challenge their use though, and you may well hear the retort ‘We’ve got to do it that way; it’s the policy, the law even!’ In reality, it’s only organisational habit that does it this way. The law only requires selection practices to be fair – it leaves the design and methodology of selection to management discretion – discretion that’s all too often left unexercised.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating the abandonment of policies or denial of the rule of law. I’m not even really talking about selection in particular (just using it as an example). More, I’m encouraging us to take a bit more of a critically creative look at the way we as leaders decide to do things. If you’re ever dissatisfied whilst doing what you think the organisation expects (for example, sitting on a panel interview and having a nagging feeling that you’re just not getting to see the ‘real’ candidate), then you could do worse than ask yourself ‘Is it the law that’s making me do this, is it policy, or is it just the custom around here?’ My guess is that it’s often the latter.

So what then? Well, how about becoming a positive deviant? Try breaking the rules-that-aren’t-really-rules. You’ll need some gumption to be sure. Don’t expect it to be welcomed with open arms – after all, when you’re telling people the world is round there’ll be enough flat-earthers around to say you’re bonkers. Positive deviants, though, are where the action is when it comes to improvement and change. Let’s face it; unquestioningly following the tried and tested isn’t going to lead to the invention of anything new. As the apocryphal adage says, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ I think this is what those behind NHS Change Day are trying to achieve – to inspire and mobilise staff, patients and the public to do something better, change something, to improve care for people.

Whether it’s emotional rather than political correctness, finding the courage to be a positive deviant and change agent, the key skill here is reflexivity. Reflexivity, or ‘critical self-referencing’, means turning in on oneself – putting yourself on the microscope slide rather than numbly following habit, blindly following policy, or passively following ineffective bosses. It is about asking ‘Where am I in this? How can I work best in the world whilst examining and critiquing my own practice, motivations and self?’

The world is moving in this way anyway. Generation Y is filling the workplace with a desire to be free from rule-bound unthinking compliance and towards Servant Leadership where the leadership role is redefined as one where ‘bosses’ support, engage and encourage, servicing direct reports as if customers of their leadership practice. Such leaders actively encourage people to challenge the rules, push at the policies, and question the received (un)wisdom.

Such leaders also offer their own leadership for review by their teams.  Do you?

3 thoughts on “Look into yourself before reaching for the manual

  1. Great blog… this is the way forward.We need to be accountable to ourselves first, and to work in organisations where expressing concerns is encouraged, and listening is seen as a way to improve.

    One tip I would give is that, as I think I am a bit of a ‘positive deviant’, and my company actively encourages this. If you are going to challenge the rules make sure you are really clear on what they are and how they apply (i.e. know what bits you are breaking). Conversely if you work for an organisation which constantly throws the rule book at people, check if they follow their own rules, in my experience they often don’t.

  2. Exactly! And what we were all doing and talking about last week on the Anderson programme with great spontaneity and encompassing all elements of the blog! The difficulty is the people who don’t engage with this thinking … And there are many of them… And who view it as the soft stuff Dave Thornton is tweeting about !
    Positive deviancy … Our group were talking in mini revolutions… But in a positive way!

  3. Mini revolutions – love it! And I’m glad this is surfacing on the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson programme – positive deviance in aspiring senior NHS leaders… bring it on!