A lively discussion has sprung up in a private exchange of e-mails between Bob MacKenzie, Chris Blantern, Steve Hearsum and Siobhan Soraghan.  They have given permission for it to be shared here and I hope they will continue and that others will join in.  To make it easier to catch up, I have left out most of the greetings and pleasantries. 

Bob MacKenzie started the ball rolling with a reference to an article in People Management

From Bob on 6 Aug 2014, at 07:43

I wondered if you’d seen this current ‘People Management’ piece on Whistleblowing.

From Chris 6 Aug 2014, at 07:55,

It made the news a few days ago. Good to have a little more detail.

I do, of course, find it interesting that organisational behaviour is regarded, unproblematically, as a matter of correcting errant individuals (i.e. those who don't conform to so called 'best practice'). The whole world of systemic relational practice is invisible.

From Steve on Wed 06/08/2014 08:13

I read the guardian article related to this and posted something in response - to me this story illustrates some of the issues with how whistleblowing is continually framed. 

From Siobhan on 06 August 2014 16:49

Thanks for the link to People Management, Bob.

When I first read it I thought great how brave, the public sector seems to be taking a lead on this.  But then I wondered if there might be a degree of naiveté in the measures described.  Or even political hype – being seen to say the right thing.

I have gathered a fair bit of the academic literature on whistleblowing which shows sadly how the outcomes for most whistle-blowers are devastating, typically the loss of livelihood and relationships.  Those whom they were brave enough to challenge are usually more senior in the system and do what they can to discredit the whistle-blower.  The whistle-blower is, sadly, rarely supported by colleagues.  And family dependents often just do not understand. 

I really like Steve’s piece about the systemic view.  I would add that it may be both a systemic problem, and one underpinned by the basic human psychology of needs.  Most of us like to believe the best about others.  Generally speaking we like to be safe in a boat with an even keel.  We don’t like it when someone rocks the boat.  We’d rather not hear that the boat might be going other than where we were told, or that the owners might be using slave labour below decks.  Easier to dismiss unpleasant truths until there is evidence – and lots of it.

If I’m right then it would be unrealistic to think we can change human nature en masse.  However we could be savvy rather than naïve about it. 

I agree with Steve that legislation and rules aren’t really getting leverage in the right place.  What I think might be far more productive would be:

- to encourage and educate staff how to take a positive, constructive stand against incongruities between an organisation’s stated values and its actions;

- to proactively help those who wish to take a stand to think of ways to ensure they are as socially well-supported as possible before they do so.  They will need all the resilience they can get (a pet topic of mine) and a strong supportive social network is key to this. 

- teach people how to communicate constructively in the first instance about the right things to be doing (rather than on what’s wrong); and, if needs be, how to gather valid data; how to build a case; how to access professional legal support confidentially; and how to navigate the political landscape.

And last but not least…forward-thinking organisations could, if they are serious about helping ensure best practice throughout their organisation, simply reframe “whistleblowing” as “upholding organisational integrity”.

From Bob on 12 August 2014 08:50

I expect you’ve seen this recent report from 1 August, but here it is, just in case:

Public Accounts Committee Ninth Report of Session 2014-15 into Whis....

Whistleblowing is important source of intelligence

From Siobhan on 12 Aug 2014, at 11:41

Very interesting.  Positive recommendations with real positive intent – but I wonder if the “Departments” might feel they are being talked down to by the Public Accounts Committee like naughty children who are likely to be nasty to whistle-blowers (albeit this may be close to the truth) thus further casting the whistle-blowers as potentially difficult individuals who are going to snitch and blow the Departments’ cover.   

Indeed might this approach (a Committee finding fault and telling the Departments what to do about symptoms) not itself a manifestation of the real underlying problem – a blame culture, where the most powerful wins.  Indeed this committee trumps all in terms of power.  But is the language it uses not of the same order of the problem it tries to solve, I wonder? 

For example how can whistle-blowers be trusted by their bosses if they are potentially seen as providing “intelligence” about their potential failings?  The most precious (and vulnerable) thing professionals have is their reputation.  All it might now take to destroy that is one disgruntled employee who decides to call attention to whatever they dislike about their boss. Which is what managers in Departments might be thinking about when they read the report’s recommendations.

The committee has clearly been diligent in addressing the plight of the whistle-blower.  Perhaps it has been a bit more difficult for members to stand a bit further back to think about the deeper challenge - how to encourage an open culture where continuous improvement and accountability are the norm day-today, and where voices are encouraged to point out opportunities for keeping activities on track with the organisations values (like an effective performance management system, and managers with appropriate attitudes and skills).  And how to remove obstacles to such a culture (like counter-productive organisational performance measures).


From Steve on Tue 12/08/2014 12:17

A brief thought between jam tart making and lunch prep for family....

Building on Siobhan's comments, the role of shame is one of the Undiscussables here, I suspect.

And the cultural inability to allow for failure. As an example: in the NHS, the tenure of the avg CEO is 36months and falling. If it is not ok to make mistakes, then they will be denied/hidden, and equally that rejection/introjection fuels the dysfunction.

So picking up on the question of power: is it the most powerful who win? I am not sure; I tend to the few of co-creation. If followers don't allow their leaders to fail, are they not equally/partially culpable?....

Questions that arise, these are, without time to reflect much, so feel free to challenge! :-)

From Chris Tue 12/08/2014 13:03

I can go along with your critical question "is it the most powerful who win? "  and , to some extent, your own response to it, "I am not sure; I tend to the few [view?] of co-creation. If followers don't allow their leaders to fail, are they not equally/partially culpable?...."

However I do think there are limits to making sense of collective cultural behaviour if we position the actors as autonomous and cognitive. In a culture that privileges leadership of the 'individually heroic' kind there is a relational expectation that followers act as if their leaders should be omnipotent and infallible  - what other positions of followership are offered to non-leaders in the systemic network of organisational relations. 'Followers' are acculturated to follow in particular ways - or face a variety of social sanctions.

I'm of the view, whether it be whistleblowing or any other critical perspective, that there are limits to seeing action, appropriate action, as being within the gift of autonomous individuals - albeit interacting. There's a case for looking at the cultural rules of interaction (the social equivalent of traffic lights, lane discipline, signposts and speed limits) which also act to shape our behaviour. 'Shame' or stigma/face-saving would be one. Equally we might also look at  dominant styles of talk - e.g. what happens when we use 'inquiry' as distinct from 'pathology' - and of course the whole notion of 'positioning' (Positioning Theory - the difference between logical possibilities for autonomous action and action constrained by the situational effects of social rules and policing.).

In this sense I agree with Siobhan too - that positioning heroic leaders as not being heroic enough serves mainly to reinforce the relational expectations of 'heroism' - and the social positions it hands out.

How do we interfere with that - given that individuals are dipped in the sauce of heroism by the time they start on solids? Alternative marinades?

From Siobhan on 12 Aug 2014, at 16:51

Yes, liking all of this, Steve and Chris J  (inc jams and marinades)

And some spice…Wondering who the “we” is Steve,  or rather how to get the collective “we” to think/behave differently - the way that the “we” who is us on the outside think it might work better… ;)


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It all seems so easy, doesn't it?  Or does it?  What do you think of the guidance published here by NHS Employers?  How do we bridge the chasm between rhetoric and lived experience?


This flowchart is great, Bob.  I wondered if it was a joke.  

Reminded me of this one. (Parental guidance warning: contains industrial language.)  


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