I found myself shouting at the radio this weekend. I couldn’t believe my ears. Whatever gives Oliver Letwin the idea that instilling fear into public servants will deliver excellence? (The Guardian, 30 July.) This is not a recipe for reform. It’s the straight path to creating a bullying culture.
That’s a bit strong…
I don’t think so. In Recover Your Balance – how to bounce back from bad times at work, I examine the damaging effects of chronic or repeated fear and distress. One frequent consequence is a constant feeling of anxiety. There is a huge amount of research about the chain reactions which anxiety and fear set up in the body.
Anxiety triggers the release of adrenaline, which in turn triggers the release of cortisol, used by the body for healing when you’ve injured yourself. That’s fine if you’re dealing with a one-off incident (e.g. getting out of the path of a moving truck). However, the continuous release of cortisol increases stress in the body and, long term, that’s bad news.
Although stress is not necessarily a primary cause of illness, research shows that it does exacerbate our existing tendency towards such chronic health problems as cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, bone problems such as osteoporosis, and late-onset diabetes.
Yes, but bullying?
Defining bullying isn’t always easy. One person’s bully may be another’s strong manager. I find the Workplace Bullying Institute’s definition helpful here. It describes bullying as “repeated…behaviours that are threatening, intimidating or humiliating.” (See “the Bully at Work” by Gary and Ruth Namie.)
Bullying creates an environment of fear. Legitimising fear as a management technique (I refuse to call it leadership) legitimises bullying. It is not clever. Not clever at all.
What encourages good performance?
If Oliver Letwin wants to improve the performance of the public services, there is plenty of solid evidence of what will help him do it in a far more positive way. From Gallup’s groundbreaking “First Break all the Rules” based on global research among over a million employees in a huge variety of organisations, to the work of Great Place To Work, the word from the ground is clear.
Gallup presents a list of twelve key conditions that support employee engagement (and by implication, good performance). They include ‘doing what I do best’, ‘having the tools to do the job’, ‘doing quality work’ and ‘recognition or praise’. They do not include ‘fear of losing my job’.
Great Place to Work defines a great workplace as one in which management credibility, respect, fairness, pride in the job and camaraderie come together to create the conditions in which people can do their best work.
Just today I listened with growing incredulity to a programme on BBC radio 4 about logisitics in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). According to the BBC, the MoD is expecting employees to manage complex equipment logistics using computers from the 1980s. Hardly ‘having the tools to do the job’.
Last week we were told of another government department that seemed unable to meet the standards expected of it. I wonder how many people’s work each person in that department is doing.
A fresh start
It doesn’t matter which government is in power. Conveying a sense of disdain for the the human beings who deliver public services is an all-too-common cheap trick. I think it’s time for a rethink. If government wants people to deliver good results, it needs to display a modicum of genuine respect for the talent, commitment and professionalism that so many Civil Servants, teachers, medical professionals and others bring to their work.
I completely understand the need to handle poor performance, promptly, fairly and effectively. But if you convey blanket contempt for everyone, then you can expect nothing but cynicism and demoralisation in return.
Respect is the key, Mr Letwin. Not fear.
 See Nowack, K. M. (1989). Coping style, cognitive hardiness, & health status. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12, 145-158.