Thursday, 10 December 2009

Gerry Robinson at home

This self-styled celebrity TV fixer of business failings has been looking into care homes. What can we learn about leadership in this context?

The two main employers featured in the programme were ‘penny wise, pound foolish’. To save money, the food and services provided by the kitchen staff to residents were not available to the carers. Such staff were not allowed to make themselves a sandwich or a cup of tea. A loaf of bread was even inspected to check for cheating. It was not surprising that Robinson heard that this was a source of considerable ill-feeling.

This little incident loomed large and brought to mind two lessons from my time in the great British Airways turnaround in the mid-1980s. The first was Arlie Hochschild’s research into jobs which constituted ‘emotional labour’; i.e. the need to recognise the special demands placed on staff whose work exposes them to heavy emotional demands. Care work calls for qualities of patience, concern, resilience, and the means of recovering emotional balance in order to return to face the demands of residents suffering from dementia. The employers are paying their emotional labourers, not simply to wash and dress residents, but to show genuine and repeated care, in a highly stressful environment.

The other learning from my British Airways days is research by Benjamin Schneider. This showed that staff’s treatment of their customers is a reflection of how they are themselves treated by their supervisors. In the residential home context, if carers feel poorly treated by their boss, they will ‘take it out’ on the residents.

Gerry Robinson witnessed all this at first hand. He was rightly angry and exasperated at what he encountered – almost lost for words. But I doubt that he understood the psychology behind the nature of what he was witnessing. More to the point, neither did those in charge of the homes. But Robinson knew it was wrong, and the owners didn’t.