The 1979 Callaghan Winter of discontent press conference – the basis of the Sun’s famous “Crisis What Crisis” headline
A crisis broken down into key elements
For lovers of scandals and crises, the last few years have provided rich pickings, a surfeit, even. Scarcely an institution has been untouched: the NHS – from Morecambe Bay to the Francis Report on Stafford to Gosport, the police, the charity sector – from Amnesty to Oxfam, newspapers, the BBC, MPs and their expenses, Parliament and how it treats its staff, the care sector, local authorities and children’s homes. On and on the list goes. And two of the worst: the Catholic Church which, bluntly, has allowed evil to flourish and, even now, is barely starting on the steps necessary to put matters right, and the financial sector, which whether here, or Europe or the Americas or, lately, Australia, has behaved like a robber baron of old. Between 2012 and 2016 the world’s top 20 banks paid £264 billion in fines. And now we have Labour digging itself into the biggest hole it can find.
And yet none of these scandals started out as big problems. They never do. So why is it that organisations find it so hard to deal with problems when they are made aware of them and, with the inevitability of Sunday following Saturday, contrive to make them very much worse?
There are distinct 10 stages to a crisis but they broadly fall into 3 phases:-
Phase 1 – Denial. An issue arises, it’s seen as a one-off, referred to HR or a quiet word is had by a manager, problem solved. Or so the hope goes. Then it happens again, maybe with the same person, or another, and repeatedly, but in different offices and sufficiently far apart for the bigger picture to be missed. At this point, it is becoming a bit of nuisance so people turn a blind eye, they can’t believe it’s more than just a few incidents, that there might be something systemic or an underlying issue. Surely HR can deal with this. Then the denial gets worse: they refuse to believe it. This cannot be happening to us – we’re good people doing good things. This is a particular problem for the charity sector, for organisations which think of themselves as moral in some way. It is much harder to admit – even to yourself – that , that you have a problem if you see yourself as inherently good. (Labour: please note.) The self-image of an organisation, of the people working in it are under attack. So defensiveness and lashing out follow. Better to pretend that the problems are down to just 1 or 2 bad apples. Or you are full of very intelligent people. Who would be so stupid as to do such silly / bad things? The idea that intelligence does not necessarily imply integrity does not enter anyone’s head. No – it must be just 1 or 2 bad apples. Nothing really to see here.
There may well have been some whistleblowers by now. The reaction described above is why there are, in reality, so few of them. Loyalty to the team, to the group is prized above all else. (How many MPs blew the whistle, after all? A big fat zero.). If you’re collaborative you get brownie points, bonuses and a promotion. A loner, someone who thinks for themselves, who speaks as they find is a bit disruptive, is not playing the game. If you speak up, you’re seen as a troublemaker, a snitch even, you’re ratting on your mates, the bosses won’t support you and, hey, you have a mortgage, a family, you want a good reference, maybe you’ve got it wrong, someone else is dealing with it, it’s not your job, keep your head down, get on with life, why make trouble. All very human reactions and all very understandable. Who wants to be a hero, to be courageous and end up out on their own? And that explains why when someone does eventually speak up months or years later people’s first reaction is often to ask “Well, why now?” Well, precisely because they feared that reaction – an attack on their motives and their message ignored, that’s why.
By now the story has got into the public domain so we get to –
Phase 2 – Still in Denial but Pretending to Do Something About It. It’s obviously not 1 or 2 apples but a whole basket of them in fact. But the same denial and defensiveness goes on, coupled with an attack on the messengers. And here is another fact about whistleblowers, which is often ignored. Most of them are not saints. They may have mixed motives. They may be protecting themselves. Or getting their revenge. Or wanting to harm those they dislike. But this does not matter. It’s what they say that must be listened to and looked at. But making that distinction is hard. So, if they can be labelled as mad or bad, it’s so much easier to ignore them. And that’s what often happens, even by those who really should know better.
A limited inquiry is started in the hope that this will sort matters out. It won’t. People become more concerned with protecting the institution than dealing with what is wrong. A non-apology apology is crafted which forgets to say sorry, gets the tone all wrong and adds in a bit of emotional blackmail for good measure. The chief will point out all the jobs the institution provides, the taxes it pays, the good it does. Or there is the correct legalistic – but utterly tone-deaf – statement. (In what world did anyone at the Vatican think this response was the right one – morally, emotionally, reputationally – to Cardinal Pell’s conviction?) Procedures will be rewritten. Processes will be updated. It will make no difference at all. The stories keep tumbling out. They get worse and worse. Resignations happen, good people not wanting to be tainted. The authorities get involved. Your organisation is now featuring on the front pages, at the start of the news. Your staff are fearful, anxious, at odds with each other. The problems seem systemic. Survival is not a given.
Finally, when the stench is becoming unbearable, when it has reached the boardroom, the leadership, when it is the only thing anyone wants to talk to you about, you get to the final stage.
Phase 3: We Have to Really Take It Seriously Now. Eventually, a really proper thorough investigation is done and extensive, expensive and difficult remedial measures are taken. It all takes time, money and a huge amount of hard and sometimes stressful work, more than you ever think possible. And even once you have put in all this effort which, in reality, never completely ends, not if you’re serious, the institution is dealing with the continuing fall-out from the previous failures, with the reputational harm long, long after it has cleaned itself up. Think how long the “nasty party” tag attached itself to the Tories.
What do whistleblowers, those who are concerned, really want? Two things: to be listened to, really listened to and to have real – not token – action taken. Listening is hard work, is difficult and is an art. It needs empathy and patience and imagination. The listener needs to make a connection, to understand, to listen to what is said, to what is not said, if they are to have any hope of getting to the underlying truths, any hope of making real change.
What is needed for that real change to happen? Well, everyone in the institution has to be involved. But above all, those at the very top must really, genuinely want to make the change that is needed. They must really take to heart the criticisms they receive, not dismiss them. They must realise that they too will need to change. If the changes that are needed – to people’s attitudes, behaviour and reasoning not simply to a process or two – are to work, to last, to be genuine, they have to come from the top. And those at the top need to be pushing them all the time, need to be utterly focused on this, need to be fighting against the inevitable inertia, the pushback, the “We have done enough now” pleas, the “We have other priorities” brigade, the “Aren’t we there now?” cries.
It is rare for this to happen without a change of leadership. If that hasn’t happened, it’s a fair bet that the organisation has yet to get out of phase 2. Those who preside over a problem turning into a crisis are rarely the ones best able to resolve it.