Are You Picking up the Trash?

Feb 19, 2024 6 Min Read
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Navigating Complexity, Embracing Perspective, and Setting Ethical Standards

Watching the TV series Mr. Bates vs The Post Office is one of those times where I had to pinch myself because it’s hard to fathom that what happened not only occurred but remained unaddressed for so long.

The TV show is a four-part ITV drama series that chronicles the real-life scandal involving the British Post Office, where over 900 postal employees were wrongly prosecuted and convicted of theft and fraud due to an error with the company’s accounting software. The issue ran from 1999 to 2015.

It all started when the British Post Office rolled out Horizon, a new accounting software developed by Fujitsu. From the get-go, self-employed people running postal services (known as sub-postmasters and postmistresses) reported that the new system was inaccurately showing deficits. Instead of addressing the system’s defects, management charged hundreds of employees with fraud and embezzlement. Many were pushed to financial collapse, some were imprisoned, and at least four committed suicide.

Despite increasing media attention, the organisation maintained that Horizon was dependable, yet it’s now known that they were aware of system defects as early as 2003. As this article in The Conversation outlined, “The bosses of a powerful institution simply didn’t believe and didn’t listen to its people”.

Many questions and issues surround this story, and if you want further detail it’s worth reading these two articles: BBC News and The Guardian.

There are multiple lenses through which to examine the systemic failures that led to this scandal, and a critical one is that of organisational leadership.

It can be easy for leaders to only see what they want to see or hear what they want to hear. Leaders can sidestep issues because it feels too hard. Leaders can apply one set of standards to themselves and another to those around them. They can fail to see how their experience of power has clouded how they think and act. They can stop listening or only listen to people they assess as important and relevant.

Open Your Eyes
The writer Marcel Proust wrote, “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

We think we are rational and objective. We’re not. We make decisions based on hunches, feelings, assumptions and gut reactions, which are formed from our past experiences. Research shows our brain discards information that doesn’t fit with its worldview. It takes shortcuts when making decisions and can be easily influenced.

Leaders need to go beyond what’s obvious and easy to make wise decisions. They need to be willing to challenge the assumptions and expectations underpinning the lens they use to view the situation.

As Harvard Business School researcher Tsedal Neeley said in the podcast interview with Brené Brown and Paul Leonardi, we “…lead in a pluralistic world where our perspective, our vantage point could be extremely limited and very different from those whom we are interacting with…”. She wisely advises that leaders need to understand perspective if they are to effectively serve, influence and get people to follow them.

Be Willing to Change the Channel
Being open to different ideas and hearing opinions you disagree with is challenging.

I can be quick to judge and to see the world through the prism of ‘It’s this way’, rather than the myriad of colours and shades of grey in which we live and work. It is something I have to work on all the time.

It can help to have a trusted colleague or partner to discuss things with. This needs to be someone who will challenge your perspective on the issue and encourage you to see things differently.

As well, meditation will help. Meditating teaches you to slow your mind down, so you are better at ‘responding’, rather than ‘reacting’.

When you find yourself in a situation where you want to quickly shut down an idea or perspective, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Am I shutting down the person or the idea?
  2. If this idea was presented by someone else, would I hear the message differently?

When you take those steps, you will more easily discover when it’s time to change the channel and hear a different perspective and idea.

Do the Hard Work
Leaders need to tackle the issues that are hard and messy. It’s too easy to outsource it to consultants, delegate it to a team member or worse, hope it will disappear.

Qantas recently received much criticism for calling in the consulting firm McKinsey to review its operations and on-time performance. The engagement was reported in the AFR and copped a lot of flak on LinkedIn.

Why? Because it appeared that management was calling in an external organisation to do work that is part of their core business.

Good leaders roll their sleeves up. They do the hard work. They are not averse to getting in the trenches and really understanding what’s going on; something that is very hard to do if you encase yourself in your office (as I’ve written about before in my article, Are you Leading From the Front?).

You have to be visible and spend time – quality time – with your team and with people at all levels of the organisational hierarchy.

Apply the Same Standard
I’ve seen people in organisations who considered themselves ethical and having high integrity do things that others would easily view as unethical. Often, the unravelling of a person’s integrity takes place little by little. For example, a small cheat on a work expense claim, that goes unnoticed, gets more significant over time.

In one organisation I worked in, despite the expense policy clearly showing that gifts for staff were not permitted, the senior leaders regularly bought Christmas gifts for staff on the corporate card. My peers saw nothing wrong with their behaviour because it was accepted practice. I paid for my team’s gifts at my own expense for two reasons. Firstly, I couldn’t say the gift was from me if I hadn’t paid for it. Secondly, and this for me was the crux, while this behaviour was accepted at senior levels, if I had been at a lower level, I would have been sacked for misuse of company funds.

To not hold yourself to the same standard you expect of your team or those in support roles is hypocritical.

And yet, it happens all the time. Consider the language we use when we position issues. For example, author Simon Sinek explained in a podcast, that when leaders do less work, “it’s balance”; however, when workers do less work, it’s couched as “disengagement”.

If you want to be a fair leader, and an honourable leader, the same rules must apply.

Discover: Aligning Individual And Organisational Values

Pick Up the Trash
Ryan Holiday, one of my favourite writers and Stoic advocate, writes about how it is easy to complain about things, yet what’s better is to play your part in shifting the issue. The example he shares is about the rubbish he would see on the beach when walking.

He wrote: “But then one morning on my walk with my kids, a thought hit me that was both freeing and indicting. How many times do I have to walk past this litter, I thought, before I am complicit in its existence. Even if I moved to a place where this didn’t happen, I thought, it would still be happening here. Marcus Aurelius was right when he said that you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.”

This concept applies to leadership. What are you stepping over that needs to be addressed? Are you living your values at work? I mean, are you really living your values, or are you saying something matters to you but either doing the opposite or nothing about it?

So the last question to consider – What trash do you need to pick up today so you can set the standard at work?

This was first published on michellegibbings.com

Edited by: Kiran Tuljaram

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Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'. www.michellegibbings.com.

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