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Responsible adults?

September 28, 2012

I’m lucky enough to be a freelance consultant. I work for myself (and my family if we’re having to be touchy -feely, nicey, nicey), but basically I am my own boss. I stand and fall by what I deliver. Or not. I get new contracts on the basis of what people know of me. (Similarly, I presume I don’t get offered other contracts on the basis of what people know of me, but I never hear about them!).

I am employed to give people the benefit of my opinion and experience. I advise them on what I believe is the right thing to do in a given set of circumstances. I put my head above the parapet, my neck on the line and more than a toe in the water. Basically I say what I think. And even more shockingly for some organisations, I am prepared to put it in writing.

More and more I am finding people reluctant to give an opinion. People wait for others to speak first. Not out of politeness, but out of fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of having to explain what they mean, or why they came to that conclusion. Fear of taking responsibility. Fear of it affecting their prospects.

Let alone writing it down. That is another can of worms altogether. Obviously one has to ensure one writes with clarity and specificity and in a way that cannot be taken out of context or misconstrued. But senior people refusing to put anything in writing makes it difficult for juniors to have robust guidance on how to do the right thing. Driven, I suspect, by fear of litigation and losing their job. But it makes the juniors clam up even more.

It drives me absolutely fucking bonkers.

And it feeds a paralysis. An inability to take individual responsibility. Teams are formed; sub teams, cross functional teams, project teams. Lots of collaboration. Lots of meetings. Lots of keeping each other up to speed. Lots of waiting for one team to report back before another team can be ‘tasked’ (agggh, another word I hate) to do something.

But no fucking action.

Materials go round and round. Supposedly being reviewed by all team members but not actually being read by anyone. Everyone assumes someone else will pick up the mistakes, point out the inadequacies, make suggestions for improvement. But they don’t. Because they don’t feel it is their individual responsibility. If it’s that important someone else will pick it up. And anyway, they’ve probably got another meeting to go to so they haven’t the inclination to spend time reading and thinking. (see previous posts about saying what they mean or meetings being an alternative to work)

This move away from individual responsibility is great for ineffectual people who can hide in a morass of committees and workstreams. But it is frustrating for people who actually want to deliver because they feel disempowered to take decisions and drive things forward. It’s the same as when parts of the NHS stopped assigning specific patients to individual nurses. Or wards to individual sisters or charge nurses. Care suffered. Job satisfaction decreased.

But gradually even great drivers, movers and shakers can get ground down by an organsisation that insists on everything being collaborative. And they either leave the organisation or become part of the establishent they railed against.

Perhaps as a doctor I am used to making decisions based on the evidence I have and I am used to being prepared to defend them. The dying patient cannot wait whilst a ‘cross-collaborative strategic optimisation team’ meet and consider the various treatment options, so perhaps I am hard-wired to avoid procrastination. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t team working – it’s just that team members are assigned individual, specific tasks for which they are solely responsiblie. It concentrates the mind.

Which is why it is so refreshing and invigorating to work in teams where there is enthusiasm and ownership. Where there is no fear of a blame if things go wrong, but a culture of support and learning from mistakes. Where people celebrate success and mitigate the effects of failure.

Preferably in the bar 🙂

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