Recently the elected leader of this country unilaterally changed a principle — a code of Ministerial conduct — in the wake of scandals, misdemeanours, illegality and dishonour.
It is one of the most unprincipled acts I’ve seen in plain sight from someone supposedly elected to serve us, the people of the United Kingdom. That was OUR code of conduct and principles that were set out to ensure people in power cannot manipulate it for their own end when their position is to lead by serving others.
All the talk of No 10 Downing Street is of a toxic culture of arrogance and privilege, of alcohol-imbued flagrant flouting of the rules and messages from officials that “we got away with that” like some frat house in a higher education environment.
Except this is supposedly UK PLC’s HQ. And we can only wait until some form of justice is served through X’s on a ballot paper or some remarkable act of humility and responsibility coming into play with a resignation. Not likely with the current incumbent. Which infuriates many. If this were a manager in a corporate entity, likely, they’d be relieved of their duties and dismissed.
And on the exact day that a senior banking official was suspended for deriding attempts to address climate disaster and ecological destruction, and that a Minister in the Home Secretary’s Private Office resigned his position over this cascade of sorry and shameful incidents shows there is a severe lack of consistency in principles around. In Government certainly, in business and in life more generally.
The exam question could be:
What power do principles really have?
OR more aptly for now:
How have we let principles be erased, adapted and ignored?
I hold principles as the real bedrock of ethical, moral dignified behaviours and acts. I’ve been around lots of values constructs and whilst the spirit of trying to find one word — or four, or six — are all laudable ways to memorise those values and even make a mnemonic (CARE — Courageous, Accountable, Responsive, Excellent — you know the thing), they’ve been too wispish, PR-like and cliched even.
This is why, when given the chance to think about being an organisation (in this case my own enterprise — People and Transformational HR Ltd.) — and thereby having the chance to think about values that exemplify who you are and the principles you operate by — I didn’t go for values. I went for principles.
Now we have 7 Principles.
And these were crafted by me, iterated on by the team, and have been our bedrock every hour of every day. Perhaps the most avidly strong in our Inclusiveness principle.
Democratic, inclusive and kind leadership that is in service of the people that makes the organisation viable — colleagues, customers, communities, and collaborators.
We know this matters so much. It’s our ultimate way of being. And is clear why leadership happens. Organisational viability. In line with how we treat people in that viability exercise.
They all, though, manifest in our decision making, in our operational practices, and in our conversations that might be construed as challenging. They are the essence of how we want to BE. And what we do and how we go about doing the work we do in service of our mission — better business for a better world.
We also have a manifesto
Altogether, our Mission, Vision, Purpose, Manifesto and Principles guide us. Where there are no processes, they enable and steer our thinking and doing. Where there are processes, they underpin those methods and practices. When we think about impact, we look at our financials — of course — but we also measure our success back to these elements.
- Our Principles are upheld and manifested and are helping us.
- Our Manifesto pledges upheld, delivered and developed.
- Our Purpose directing our efforts, products, services and support.
- Our Vision is our beacon, our spotlight and our frame for what it’s all about.
- And our Mission — how we ultimately want to be known in the world.
We check them in, almost daily. We declare them, regularly. We use them in our work both consciously and subconsciously.
They have framed our operating approaches, our Team Agreements (that negate the need for any policies), and our Retrospectives on how we’ve done and been with each other, partners, stakeholders and clients.
Now, if I were to arbitrarily rewrite them because I’d had some form of misdemeanour and acted poorly, it would bring this house of cards down. Everything would be questioned. All faith we had in these things that are — when all is said and done — mental models, would be lost.
Our stabilising foundation would crack. Our rudder would be broken. Our calming hand of care would be closed into an aggressive fist.
No simple apology would do. No statement of humbling and restructuring would suffice.
This is why I don’t just like our principles at PTHR, they frame my every action. And I’d expect to be called out if I stepped away from them in something I said or did.
If I failed to uphold them, people would lose faith. Their energy would be stunted and misdirected into hurt, suspicion, fear and anxiety. And therefore performance would be impaired, decisions would be difficult to arrive at, and any additional support, feedback and challenge would be morphed into caustic, fragile and unsafe vibes. And creativity you could forget that.
When we lose faith, we feel vulnerable, exposed and in a state of fear. Not a panicked shock, but a distressing sense of tension and yes, in small, but regular doses, fearful.
We know from the work of the excellent Henri Hypponen, that fear reduces our IQ by at least 8 points. We also know it creates social withdrawal. It creates a lack of imagination.
So you can’t just brush principles broken under the carpet and expect things to “move on”. They’ve damaged things. Psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, and even procedurally. We cannot function how we did before the breach, because of the breach. It’s that simple. Tarnished, broken and spoiled.
Principles are precious, fierce and loyal when enacted with willful, positive and honourable intent. But when you break them, you’re effectively land-mining the future.
And that’s what leaders around us have done of late. Land-mined theirs and others' futures. It’s destructive, damaging and dangerous.
So what do you do then? So many posts online call out the bad behaviours but don’t suggest what to do. It’s not prescriptive of course because of the context, scale and impact but my suggestions of a breached principle are merely reflections and illustrations of what you might want to do to restore faith.
- Apologies are natural but need to follow up with positive, restorative justice actions. I subscribe to the concept of penitence. So for example, if someone on the team did wrong and breached a principle, I’d step in to take the self-imposed punitive measures. Not to bail them out. But because people need to know that they may ride out their own punishment by justifying their actions, but if someone takes the hit, the guilt is hard to take (no matter how almost psychopathic you are).
- So clearly in Point 1, penitence is harder when the “person at the top” has breached the principle. Because anyone “under” them looks like they’re merely shielding the leader and taking the wrap, thus letting them off. So in this instance, the leader has to lose their privileges and turnover power and control to others. They need to be neutered, muted and contained until proven they can regain trust, be principled and lead again. Often this is by forced removal or self-imposed exit.
- Point 2 shows why there ALWAYS needs to be a check-and-balance measure for the most powerful individual in the fold. And recent impeachment failures and rewriting Ministerial Codes means it has to be stronger than a vote or striking of keyboards and publishing of unilaterally accorded new guidance. Someone or something needs to hold the most senior person to account in the organisation. If leaders have no “safety valve” like this, it’s not safe until they do. If they self-introduce that safety valve, they are likely never going to need it anyway.
- Complicitness helps principles be broken. Those people in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office KNEW they were breaking rules, being inappropriate and inconsiderate to the nation and yet justified their actions because of their “heroics”. No. Just no. No excuse. So anyone who feels compromised by others' actions has to have an outlet. To invoke something that puts this toxic waste in a sealed container. Whistleblowing, reporting etc all seem to be in place yet principles get broken and damage is done all the time. WeWork, Uber, Enron, VW, Wells Fargo, DuPont — the list is far too long where people are forced or are willingly complicit. Watchdogs and committees appear to have the final say but also appear toothless and late to the game. Media exposure is now challenged by libel cases. Reporting isn’t as clear cut as it might have been. Freedom of protest or expression is not as accessible as it used to be. So with that in mind, if leaders do not have clear ways that anything that breaks a principle can be countered by safe, secure and swift action, they’re not doing their job. Make it so. Boards hold CEOs to account or Non-Execs hold Boards to account or Shareholders/Stakeholders hold them all to account.
So the summary then
a. Enshrine your principles and bring them to life in everything you do.
b. Ensure there is a check-and-balance that leaders are held to these principles, especially the most senior leader, and they cannot unilaterally rewrite them without those who the principles are there to support.
c. Create safety and an outlet for people who don’t want to be complicit in principle breaches. Through some form of safety valve that has the power to act and can justly and fairly intervene and correct.
Any leader who does not actively encourage these is not a leader you need, and they must be challenged on this before they assume enough power to ignore it all or bend it towards them.
It’s not easy — of course, it’s not — life, work, politics and the world are complex and complicated. The breaches of principles though take us to another state — chaos. And again, all the research will point to this state being dangerous, more challenging and not good for anyone’s health, productivity and very state of being.
Principles are there to bring order to disorder. To bring sanctuary to turbulence and bring clarity to uncertainty.
They’re precious. They’re powerful and they’re not to be taken lightly, ever.
Be principled. Have principles. Protect them and use them at all costs.
I hope that President Eisenhower was right for all our sakes.
For more on Restorative Justice in the workplace do look up the work of David Liddle here and an excellent report on Fairness and Organisational Justice by Dr Wilson Wong here published by the CIPD in November 2013. And of course the work of Professor Amy Edmonson on Psychological Safety here.