In November 2009 I wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Sometimes it’s the workplace that’s stupid, not the staff’. My purpose was to support child-care social workers who were being singled out for criticism – by the media and politicians – in high-profile cases of child deaths or abuse.
Instead of a personal focus, the article showed how the behaviour of social workers was shaped by what was going on around them and between work colleagues and partners in their local structure. This ‘system’, I argued, was probably more influential than individuals’ own level of skill, capability, motivation and training. In other words, if not victims as such, workers are nonetheless vulnerable to the vicissitudes of their system. They are in a sense pawns, with a limited number of moves available to them under the rules, and they are themselves easily predated upon by those looking for a scapegoat – both from within their hierarchy and from outside their system.
My article showed that workers are often thought to be ‘stupid’. Indeed, the article triggered a handful of readers who have a pathological hatred of social workers, to vent their spleen on me as author of a sympathetic stance. They couldn’t stand the thought of ‘guilty’ social workers being able to escape their due by being able to claim “It’s the system wot done it.”
Yet we have all experienced a stupid system; for example, almost every encounter with a call centre. When something fails, ask if more than one person is involved in this failure. Ask whether there is something systemic about the performance failure, something that could apply similarly to other individuals that might go wrong. Might the failure recur if the design of the system remains unchanged? Indeed, is it the system that is stupid and needs spotlighting and improving?
A systems perspective is concerned with such questions as: who is allowed to talk to whom; how is accountability managed; how does leadership work; how does the organisation learn; how does the hierarchy operate, and how is power used?
In the fishtank analogy of a workplace, it is the quality of the water in the fishtank that determines the lustre of the fish. It is what people are surrounded by that shapes their work behaviour. Yet most onlookers see only the fish, and then criticise them. Seeing and challenging the system takes imagination, patience, and a thick skin.