Thursday, 1 April 2010

Ruby Wax helps senior leaders provide a civil service

The celebrity Ruby Wax has been hired to teach top UK civil servants emotional intelligence. She cites the Home Office as one of her successes. May a raised eyebrow be permitted?

Wax’s assignment raises a number of questions. The first is whether she is the right person to do this. She may embody how to talk rather more than how to listen, but she has sought to transform herself and gain relevant coaching qualifications.

A more serious question hangs over the analysis of what improved capability the civil service most needs. Where is performance falling short, and what explains this? What is blocking the release of leadership – system wide and not just at the top?

Most managers could and should improve their personal capabilities in areas such as emotional intelligence. You can’t knock that premise. But any serious analysis of what lies at the heart of departments’ poor performance would point to systemic issues (the fishtank and not the fish) of the kind discussed in The Search for Leadership.

‘None of us can exist independent of our relationship with each other’. So runs the opening sentence of Keith Morrison’s 2002 book on School Leadership and Complexity Theory. Paradoxically, Morrison’s words, and indeed complexity theory itself, offer both a reason why managers need emotional intelligence and an explanation as to why sheep-dip training exposure, devoid of context and the other party (especially including politicians), plus untold complex dynamics, is likely to lack traction.

Conclusion: well-intentioned, headline grabbing, a fun experience. Enjoy it but don’t expect transformation. In the civil service ‘fishtank’ there are bigger fish to fry, and they are not individual managers. The main determinant of behaviour at work lies in the system that surrounds people. Coincidentally, the banner of Wax’s website shows goldfish milling around. I wonder what they are searching for.