Monday, 7 February 2011

'I Don't Want To Hear That': Censoring In The Workplace

Before Christmas I attended a Christmas Fayre held at a local primary school.  It had the usual games, stalls and refreshments that you find at such events held by churches, schools and other organisations.  Being a small school some of the stalls were in classrooms.  As I made my way into one classroom and joined the queue to buy some Christmas items, I looked at the work on the walls.  It is always interesting to see what is being produced by children, especially as the curriculum is far wider than in my day and a lot of the work has been printed off the computer rather than hand-drawn and coloured.  I was in the classroom used by Year 5 children, i.e., aged 9-10.  On the wall was a series of notices admonishing the children to behave in certain ways, seeming rather old fashioned in style, but that may reflect the tone of that school or of the particular teacher of that class.  Anyway, the one that concerned me most encouraged children not to speak.  It told them not to say anything unless it complied with the following criteria: it had to be True, Helpful, Inspiring, Needed, Kind', as you can see this gave the acronym THINK.  I suppose telling people to think before they speak is not really a bad principle.  However, it seemed to reinforce more unsettling trends I have been encountering in society and in the workplace, in particular, so I was unnerved to see them coming into primary school teaching.

Let us look at the criteria.  I suppose none of us would be against encouraging children to tell the truth.  However, in western society, especially in education, the truth is always being contested.  If it was not then knowledge would not advance, and to some degree this even applies in primary schools where the children are testing out ideas.  If one child said 'Father Christmas exists' and another child said 'Father Christmas does not exist' who, among 9-year olds, would be telling the truth? Does the school rule out any of the mysteries that children often receive from their parents.  What if a child said 'God created the World in 7 days' and another 'the universe started with the Big Bang' and so on?  It certainly rules out any child telling a fictional story; perhaps that school only deals with non-fiction. As to the other criteria, they are all incredibly subjective.  How does a 9-year old understand 'inspiring' and presumably if they did not think what they were saying 'needed' to be said then they would not bother; similarly with 'helpful'.  Perhaps 'kind' is easier to judge, but if the child is not being particularly insulting to another child or shouting at them, then how do you apply this to other statements.  Generally it seemed like an new way of saying 'children should be seen and not heard', a very Victorian precept.

This attitude that seems to be penetrating, even if in just some isolated cases, into schools is already widespread in the workplace.  If I had a pound for every time in the past decade that I had heard the phrase, 'I don't want to hear that' in a work situation then I would be wealthy enough not to need to be applying for a job at the moment.  I imagine it stems from the revived fashion for 1980s style management, encouraged by methods seen on programmes such as 'The Apprentice' in which managers are stern and distant and bellow at their employees as if they are all idiots.  Lord Sugar has been very successful in bringing the methods used my sergeant-majors, including the insults and humiliation, into the office.  The key difficulty is an assumption that the manager determines the parameters of what is a permitted topic and even what language can be used to describe it.  This assumption is one I have often encountered and seems to be increasingly common with each passing year. 

I accept that such an approach is a stamp of authority.  However, it puts a far greater distance between the manager and the workforce, often artificially.  In any given office there are always at least one or two people who could easily step into the manager's shoes and, in fact, in many situations do the job better.  However, in the UK workplace we seem to now have very stratfied approaches and no sense any longer that employees, through hard work and training can progress up the company hierarchy.  These days managers have to be managers brought from somewhere else (though often from elsewhere within the same company), rather than promoted internally.  I accept it is difficult to set one employee above their previous colleagues, but that should not mean that there is an automatic sense that people on a certain grade will never become managers whether in their own office or elsewhere.

Defining the language which people are permitted to use when speaking is discriminatory.  We are not talking about abusive or even crude language, but terminology and ways of expression which I have witnessed being shot down by 'I don't want to hear that'.  I have generally worked in Southern England and the Midlands, but with staff from regions right across the UK, from many parts of the EU, from Canada, the USA, Australia and China and numerous other countries, especially in South Asia.  In addition, I have worked with men and women, people aged 16 to 78 in my work and from all social classes, even interacting with nobility from time to time. 

With this variety there is often wide diversity in the use of words and phrases in the work context.  I have encountered challenges with which floor a meeting is on with Americans (for whom the first floor is the British ground floor) and with a Liverpudlian who pronounced the word 'staff' the way I pronounce 'stuff'.  I even had to work out what a delivery driver meant when he said 'I need to fucking fuck that fuck', which to many would have been abusive, but was expressed in a neutral tone and meant he was going to back up his lorry; I had to interpret it from the context (I was reminded of this reading a China Mieville story in which the language of an alien race alters so there is only a single sound used for all words and sentences are understood purely by the context, partly as a defence against manipulation of the society by people alien to the planet).  Ruling out words and phrases on some criteria which is, again, not articulated, only assumed to be 'common sense', is prejudicial as it descriminates against the speech of particular workers be that on a social, gender, regional, ethnic or age basis.  Of course, it is simply another tool for the manager to constrain other employees left to try to guess at unwritten words and having their comments demoted in relation to the already privileged statements of the manager.

Setting the parameters of what is a permitted topic and what is permitted language helps to separate out managers from the level below them (which in many companies can often be another layer of managers who in turn are separating themselves from the level below).  Usually the parameters are not defined; they are simply things the manager is ignorant of or for some reason does not feel relevant, but rather than saying that, simply the manager holds up their hand and says 'I don't want to hear this' and that is literally the end of the conversation.  There is no explanation; no attempt to help the colleague develop so they say different things in the future.  People saying 'I don't want to hear this' tend to assume that their opposition to some approach is common sense. Typically, however, ruling out certain approaches so peremptorily is not done on any criteria than either the manager does not want to hear 'bad' news or the person addressing them has started referring to things that the manager does not feel confident about and is unwilling to reveal the gap in their knowledge.  No-one in any company or organisation knows everything, but when we have to comply with 20-50 essential specifications to get a job then none of us dare admit that there is something we are weak on.  The only solutions that are allowed to be presented in so many companies now are the ones which the manager understands already and naturally this is detrimental to any innovation and even different ways of addressing a particular problem in order to work out solutions.

Too many managers not only do not want to hear about things they are unfamiliar with, but they do not want to hear anything they deem to be 'bad'.  This marks an interesting change.  Back in the early 2000s I remember a counter-trend which was that I would be asked for 'war stories', taken to mean examples of situations or projects similar to the ones we were dealing with but which had gone badly wrong.  Back then people did not want to hear success stories, rather ones outlining all the potential problems they could avoid.  It was easy to tell this from not only comments and requests I received but also from looking at the number of hits on the reports that myself and numerous colleagues had loaded up to the internal information database.  The hits on the 'war stories' exceeded those on the success story reports fivefold.  Of course, this did not mean that people wanted to hear about the unsuccessful parts of their own projects, but I believe they were far more willing to speak about them, otherwise myself and the people I worked alongside would have had no material from which to write our 'war stories', a situation far more common now, a decade on.

'Bad' is a loose word anyway.  In my experience it encompasses anything that brings doubt about the success of even a single small aspect of the proposal made by the manager themselves.  If they are fixated on even the most hare-brained scheme, you risk your job to highlight even one of the erroneous assumptions or ill-informed decisions in the project.  This is insulting.  What is the point of recruiting capable people, questioning them at length about their knowledge and capabilities; sending them on training courses and to conferences, only then to dismiss any observations that run counter to the leader's vision for the company/department/office.  What is the point of me having these skills and knowledge if you are not going to even let me draw on them?  I remember challenging one boss on two schemes of his.  I pointed out that in one cases there were already 146 examples of what he proposed to develop, already on the market.  In the second I highlighted to him that sending British staff for 3 years without a chance to return to the UK in that period might cause a rapid turnover of staff and questioned how he was going to pay them in China given that the reminbi (also known as the yuan) was not convertible; even seven years on from then and with China having taken steps in this direction, full convertibility has not been achieved.  You would think my points were valid, but they were dismissed 'I only hear bad news from you' I was told and 'you seek to stop anything I plan'.  The sense that anything that tempers or modifies the plan as envisaged by the originator is seeking to stop it entirely, rather than improve it, makes it difficult to develop pragmatic responses and adjustments which would actually make the plan work better or, in some cases, actually feasible.  As with what can be raised, the 'all or nothing' approach hampers what should be the productive evolution of business activities, drawing on the skills of the full range of staff the company has taken so much effort to recruit.

The exclusion of anything defined as 'bad' (and this is defined by the beholder rather than any objective perspective) excludes a lot of the input that is needed when planning and executing plans in business.  One basis for this attitude is the sense that we must all be hyper-positive about everything that happens in the company (the more I write the more the managerial style I am characterising seems to be similar to that of the Five Year Plans of the USSR and China, ignoring the flaws and continuing with unflinching optimism).  In fact, excessive positivity can be dangerous. A study in 2009 by Canadian academics Joanne Wood and John Lee, University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic, University of New Brunswick. They felt that making self-esteem affirmations actually reinforced established behaviour rather than bringing about change. This is easy to comprehend, because if you feel good about yourself then they begin to feel that the way you are doing things must be the correct way, even if this means disregarding signals to the contrary. In an extract last January in 'The Guardian', supporting the release of her book, 'Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World' (2010), Barbara Ehrenreich outlined how the insistance on positivity when dealing with cancer actually can be a hindrance to effective treatment. Her article went on to discuss something which I am on the verge of experiencing, the sessions telling the unemployed to be positive and to see their period of unemployment not as something negative and limiting, rather as something opening up new opportunities. I can say from my own experience that unemployment shuts down so many opportunities, to go anywhere, to socialise, to get things repaired and, in fact, to get another job, because employers prefer applicants currently in work over the jobless.

Now, I am not saying we should all be gloomy about the future and recognise that that can be debilitating.  However, we seem to have got to a situation in which we feel that good news should be the only news we hear, everything else should be dismissed.  This leads to an imbalanced and in turn inaccurate appreciation of the real situation.  This position is exacerbated by another trend in the workplace which I have highlighted before, the insistence on brevity.  See:  I suppose in our sound bite age this is to be expected.  No-one of today can stomach the kind of political speeches people would stand listening to for hours in the Victorian era and even 30-minute long programmes seem tiresome to some viewers; we have 60-second news broadcasts even on BBC3.  However, this intolerance for anything longer than a single email page or some texted or tweeted lines, has turned into an assumption that anything which is longer than the personally defined tolerance level is wrong.  It does not matter what the content actually says, the length makes whatever is contained in the message wrong in the view of far too many managers.  Complex situations, analysis of different elements of a process, of different markets or customers, often need to be thoroughly analysed.  Of course, you can fragment the reports, looking at a single customer or market at a time, but then all comparison goes out of the window.

Managers should make judgements.  Often for jobs I have applied for 'evidence of decision making ability' is listed as an essential specification for a manager.  However, excluding and bad or neutral news and insisting on only the briefest of reports or contributions, actually takes the decision making away from the manager.  Instead they are given a number of brief, positive options and they simply plump for one or other.  Without a rounded picture and full information about the options, and vitally, the context in which they will operate, the manager cannot make an actual judgement, they can simply 'pick' an option or go with the one which is best sold to them rather than one which might be most beneficial for the business.  The insistence on 'positive & brief' also rules out a combination of elements from different options.  You cannot see the downsides of any option or where its weaknesses might be countered by bringing across something from another option.  I would argue that this kind of culture not only led the 'Columbia' space shuttle disaster of 2003, but also to a whole host of problems in the UK, for example, the defective software used for air traffic control and most recently by HM Revenue & Customs.  Business and public service is complex.  It deals with complex situation which require answers which generally are not simple, but typically multi-faceted and with positive, neutral and negative points about each option available.  However, simply because of a fashion to make managers feel more in control, business and public service culture's insistence on 'positive & brief' will continue to lead us into difficulties because better answers will never even be allowed to appear.

P.P. 09/02/2011: I was reminded of an incident I experienced a couple of years ago, which combined with my knowledge of Chinese business suggests that this trend is even more prevalent in Chinese companies than it is with British ones.  We were having an end of year meal in a restaurant for a number of staff and freelancers who had worked with a new unit, focusing on China, inside the company I was then working for.  Most of the staff of the unit were British but it was headed by a Chinese man who had lived in the UK for some time and his personal assistant was a more recently arrived Chinese woman.  Both of them read and speak English fluently.  The head of the unit offered anyone who wished a lift in his car to the restaurant.  I was the only one who accepted, the others made their own way there.  The head drove with his assistant beside him, I was in the back.  Whilst I was junior to the head I was certainly far more senior in the company than his assistant.

As we approach the restaurant the head pulls into a car park which is clearly labelled as being reserved parking only for members of the company who owned the building the parking sat beside.  I saw this and tried to alert the driver to the fact.  His assistant turned and very vigorously told me not to question the head's driving and when I repeated trying to alert him to the fact that he could not park there his assistant shushed me as if I was a child and then told me I should not say anything.  I found this laughable but was also offended.  The head proceeded to park and get out of the car. His assistant followed in his footsteps saying nothing.  The head then walked away and continued until he saw the sign.  Of course, he had to turn round and come back and move his car farther down the street or risk being clamped and fined.  However, time had been wasted that could have been avoided if I had been permitted to speak.

I know this is a single incident but it seemed painfully characteristic of the problems that the centralised economies of China and the USSR faced in the past which led them in the 1980s and 1990s to move towards capitalism.  However, the attitudes of not questioning authority figures or their immediate agents seem to have persisted from the Communist context into the capitalist environment.  Given the success of China in the global marketplace, perhaps it is no surprise that British companies are apeing this behaviour.  Yet, as I have outlined above, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to warnings of things that may go wrong might work for a short time but ultimately will lead to you running into problems that could have been avoided with just a little care and some attention.

P.P. 21/05/2011
I was interested to catch an episode of Evan Davis's BBC2 programme, 'Business Nightmares' broadcast on 19th May 2011.  He featured serious blunders by companies such as HBOS and Marks & Spencer particularly in taking over foreign companies.  He concluded the programme saying that these examples and others stemmed from when the man in charge of the company had a grand idea but did not permit anyone to present an alternative or to caution him about what he planned to do, not simply about the plan in general but also specifics within it.  Consequently, these cases turned into 'business nightmares' that damaged the company.  As I have noted in this posting, this tendency to see anything which does not fit entirely with the boss's vision as a unwanted criticism that the boss is unwilling even to hear, is increasingly prevalent throughout UK companies, causing not only problems for the company at the top level, but hampering its efficiency and successful progress at all levels, so still damaging the company in the long term.  Davis is a far more respected commentator on business than myself, but his argument that, for a company to prosper, a vision needs to be tempered with practical considerations and that bosses should not 'turn a deaf ear' to these reinforces what I have witnessed working for a number of companies.

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