It’s so tough being me

March 11, 2013 by
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There is a fuzzy divide in the debate about the erosion of trust in institutions. On the one hand people who think the problem lies overwhelmingly with institutions and their actions; on the other, those who suggest the problem lies more with the perceptions and unfair demands of those who judge the institution. There is truth in both camps for what we can see is a folie a deux; organisational failure, self-serving institutional cultures and unjustifiable behaviours interact with unreasonable and contradictory demands to generate ever more inauthentic, and sometimes, toxic relationships. A consequence, as I laid out in last year’s annual lecture, is the continuing decline of legitimate hierarchical authority; yet it is a source of power much needed to contribute to solving tough problems.

I have tended to be in the camp that lays the blame on the public: put it down to my own role in the establishment and to the easy rhetorical pickings to be found in the contradictory nature of public attitudes. But I have come to see things differently, at least in the sense that if we want things to change it is more promising to look for improvements in institutional behaviour than a step change in public insight and tolerance. But even in organisations substantive change will not come from spontaneous ethical renewal, nor even from a kneejerk reaction to exposure, instead people in organisations need to appreciate what has gone wrong and how profound is the challenge of putting them right. Over the next three posts I will offer a way to approach this thinking…..

A few years ago I spent a couple of very intense weekends undertaking what was in effect a kind of mass cognitive and behavioural therapy session, organised by a well-known and slightly cultish movement. I managed to resist the hard sell attempts to get me to commit a large part of my life to the organisation. The irony being that had the sell been less hard I would have been much more inclined, for years to come, to recommend it to other people.

Nevertheless I gained an interesting insight into human psychology.

The second weekend was dedicated to discovering our ‘story’, the rationale we provide ourselves for our various failings, frustration with which had presumably led each of us to cough up £300 to attend the session. Although we were a mixed crowd with very different kinds of pathologies (anything from sexual infidelity or a violent temper to obesity or shyness), when on Sunday evening we took in turns to come to the front and briefly declaim it turned out our stories had much in common. Each was some variant of: ‘it’s tough being me and that’s why I can’t be expected to change’.

This characteristic of our personality has an echo in the places where many of us work – organisations. If, like most people, you are employed by, or in some way or another dedicate a lot of effort to, an organisation – consider this: isn’t there quite deep in the culture of that organisation a belief that it is struggling against the odds? Economic downturn, fiscal austerity, cutthroat competition, shareholder short term-ism, public mistrust and misunderstanding, media hostility, the sheer pace of change; these are the organisational equivalents of the feelings of hurt, fear and self pity which inhabit our own narrative.

Despite the pain and disappointment we have to find a way to lives so our story contains another element; the belief that our life matters and that we need, moreover deserve, to survive and even to flourish. Similarly, organisations have to believe in the necessity of their own continuation and success. Otherwise we wouldn’t bother to justify ourselves let alone sometimes to seek to change.

These elements – the will to survive and self-pity – are in just about every organisational culture. They are also heavily implicated when things go wrong:

The police have the toughest job in the world, dealing day in day out with criminals and yobs, it is vital that the force’s reputation is protected so….

By spreading the word of God the Catholic church brings comfort and guidance in a world of sin and confusion so…

An ignorant public egged on by a hostile media hates politicians, has no idea how hard and thankless our job is and refuses to pay us a decent salary so…

Without an investigative media wrongdoing would not be exposed and unless we get a sensational story no one will buy our newspaper so….

Shareholders demand profit maximisation and the financial services sector is highly competitive so…

We are forced to meet a hundred and one pointless Government targets at the same time as staying within tight budgets and dealing with difficult people so…

Hillsborough, the cover up of abuse by priests, MPs’ expenses, tabloid telephone hacking, misselling of payment protection insurance, Mid Staffs hospital: it is my contention that not just at one point but over and again in these episodes a siege culture of corporate self pity kicked in and helped tip the scales against acknowledging wrong and choosing to address it.

I guess this might all seem obvious but in the next post I will explore why this way of thinking has contributed to declining trust and what institutions might need to do about it.



  • Jules Evans

    You went on Landmark??

    Tell us all!

    My take on it is that it is helpful to some people, but doesn’t do nearly enough to protect the vulnerable who might have a bad reaction to it (which does happen, more often than landmark will admit).

    I said this in a book and they threatened to take legal action. I replied that I’d change the book if they put a warning of the risks of their course on their homepage, to protect the vulnerable. They dropped their demands, and still havent put any health warning on their homepage.

    Anyway, I like your broader point.

  • Indy Neogy

    I can’t help but return to my hobby horse of the post-Hayekian learned helplessness. You can’t spend all these years building a propaganda about “market forces” as inevitable, omnipotent hurricanes that sweep all before them and not have a corrosive effect on both individual and collective feelings of agency.

    I’ve also thought today that you can throw in “locus of control” from psychology once you get to institutions. Key point being is that there’s a definition of “am I in control, or are outside forces?” There’s little consideration of “could we (as a group) influence events.

  • Benjamin D

    ‘will to survive and self-pity’ – yes, every NHS organisation I’ve ever worked for/in has had this.

    Things are difficult here because…we have a PFI, we’re a teaching hospital, no-one understands mental health, of the merger we had, historic low funding, we have too many sites, difficult population to serve etc etc etc

    Its is indeed a sort of way of preserving your mental health in a way I think.

  • Zio Bastone

    ‘You can’t spend all these years building a propaganda about “market forces” as inevitable, omnipotent hurricanes that sweep all before them and not have a corrosive effect on both individual and collective feelings of agency.’
    (Indy Neogy)


    I’d merely note two other, related phenomena.

    Firstly technology (in its widest sense) becomes the locus of decision making which has been outsourced either conceptually or in fact. (I  have quoted Günther Anders once before and shall no doubt do so again.) We believe in perfectable routines, in algorithms and systems, and not in wisdom or in individual expertise. So risk turns up unexpectedly (whether as redundant racehorses in beef lasagne or as repackaged financial junk) because we think we have ruled it out. We feel our lack of agency (as institutions and as government fully as much as individuals; indeed the bitter comedy of how welfare systems are being destroyed not just here but internationally is an aspect of this) because agency, ie responsibility, is precisely what has been recursively offloaded onto others.

    Secondly organizations no longer trust the individual. Knowledge, value and power reside in organizations  in the form of  intellectual property, brand names and procedures. The relationship of the individual to the organization or the group has become, not wholly or in all cases but increasingly, analogous to that of a fungible spare part. As evidenced in the use of precarious working, outsourcing and short term contracts. As evidenced also in how education is increasingly seen as providing individuals with the skill sets with which to serve institutions rather than with the wisdom with which to shape them.

    Matthew Taylor is quite wrong, I think, to emphasise (as periodically he does, though less so here) excess individualism as some sort of root cause of what’s been going wrong. Whilst Hayek for example does indeed require the individual actor, those actors are robbed of knowledge and thus behave quite blindly. Because the sum of all individuals, the verdict of ‘the markets’ (really it’s a new totalitarianism) is what counts. And that is why on the one hand ordoliberals look to the State to ensure the health of ‘the markets’ whilst on the other neoliberals treat ‘the markets’ as some sort of Delphic oracle. Both approaches are pernicious.

  • Tom Brookes

    It may seem pedantic, but you say that legitimate authority is in decline – yet to my reading have rather eloquently (if accidentally) made the case that most if not all authority is illegitimate – by nature of the human failings you describe. Indeed authority can entrench negative behaviours – you’d expect a supermarket to be an authority on food, and as such healthy diets, but supermarkets encourage us to over-buy and hence over eat.

    And my 2 cents on the change problem… it’s a false norm. The world and people are in states of constant flux, it seems like the basest denial to suggest otherwise and insist upon it from an individual standpoint. The business which doesn’t change goes bust, the politician who stays on the fiddle gets found out. The person who stays overweight gets diabetes. And everybody dies. Change is one of life’s only constants, acknowledged or not. Difference being, I suppose, acknowledged change to the negative can be countered with change to the positive – denial is useless.

    Perhaps this is a problem of authority – looking to flawed people for perfect examples is sure to lead to disappointing outcomes if it’s real change you seek. Over and over, for instance, it is proven that the only way to loose weight is not to defer to a “Dr” Gillian McKeith (ad infinitum), but to use willpower – and tell friends you’re doing it so it’s embarrassing to be asked how you’re doing with your project and go: ‘erm…’ – or indeed befriend a runner!

    Humans solutions first, not hierarchical ones. Ciao, Matthew :)

  • Edward Harkins

    Mathtew I’ve come back to this to repeat of a comment from last week at an Architect & &Design Scotland forum in The Lighthouse in Glasgow. It that has really stuck with me. It was was by the admirable Indy Johar of 00:/ . He opined:

    ‘Authority is moving away from bounded places and organisations – it’s moving to soft centes (or foci) of power’.

    This was in the context of a networked and ‘flat’ society where control will be by the many, and creativity among the co-producers. He went on to refer to the new and different challenges around legitimacy and governance in that moving scenario.

    (I’ve tried to accurately quote Indy, but very minor paraphrasing is probably in there.)