By Bev Thomas

Amidst the abhorrence of high profile celebrity convictions for sexual abuse, institutional scandals and most recently, the revelations about widespread abuse in Rotherham, attention has quite rightly turned to those individuals and institutions that may have harboured knowledge about the behaviour of these perpetrators, and done nothing to intervene. What has gone wrong here? What can we learn? And how can we usefully apply what we already know about the behaviour of groups and organisations to this issue.

Disbelief and a failure to act

With celebrities, there has been much focus in the press about how the public persona of these individuals has somehow lent them immunity – making it more difficult for people to give credence to reports about their behaviour. For others who might hold positions of responsibility or are good and revered by society, the disbelief is focused on the sense that the face simply ‘doesn’t fit.’ But historically, revelations about abuse have always been mired in disbelief. That a father could possibly sexually abuse his own daughter was one such taboo that Childline wrestled with on a daily basis when it first opened its phone lines in the 70’s – despite many calls to the contrary.
Research into the disclosure of sexual abuse suggests that even now, (as indicated by the appalling evidence in the Rotherham) survivors are frequently not heard or believed. For many, ‘saying the unsayable’ is hard enough, but not being believed or having the information ‘acted on’ is a further violation. How do we understand this failure to act?
There are complex factors at play. For those in the public eye, those television celebrities we have regularly allowed into our living rooms, there seems to have been some systematic institutional denial; a deliberate ‘turning a blind eye’ to ensure the protection of the celebrity for wider organisational gain; such as money, status, reputation etc.

Systemic failure to care

But when we turn our attention to public services that have repeatedly failed in their duty of care, and read reports itemising a trail of interviews, visits, complaints and concerns – in retrospect, these actions (or inactions) seem totally unfathomable. We are left angry and frustrated. “How can this have happened? How did an individual or several seemingly competent individuals working in the field fail to act?”
Sometimes, there are clear examples of individual failings at the heart of some cases – just as there are individual failings in any tragedies. However, in many cases – the failure has been about a systemic failure to care, which is less about individual neglect and much more about a collective and group sense of neglect. Often when the responsibility is shared across the system, it becomes diluted. Someone else thinks the other person ‘has it covered’ – and inaction by an individual or group may be less about lack of care, but more about a feeling of utter despair, and of powerlessness to effect any real change.
Linked to this sense of powerlessness, and drawing from the work of Menzies-Lyth, we know that in situations of high stress, people have a tendency to disassociate, to ‘split off’ from the ‘bad’ stuff that has become too difficult or impossible to deal with. “There is ‘bad stuff’ happening – but it is over there, separate from me and I am not part of it in any way.” This way of coping in high stressed situations, enables people to continue to function, albeit in a detached, unemotional way and potentially inhumane way.

The need for collective responsibility

Following the reports of the Mid Staffs disaster where the behaviour of staff paid to care for patients was itemised in full horrific detail, I was at a conference listening to an NHS Chief Exec talking about this terrible tragedy. He spoke poignantly about how the picture was complex, and that it was too easy to just point accusing fingers at certain individuals. “I just don’t believe,” he said, “that those particular members of staff and nurses came into the NHS to be cruel and brutal to patients. Something has happened.”
He was urging for a sense of collective responsibility, as opposed to a ‘witch hunt’. If we assume that these nurses were not inherently inhumane and brutal then we have to entertain the idea that something indeed has happened to them. Questions and explorations about whether parts of the NHS have become a ‘brutal and inhumane’ organisation may be difficult to face. A witch hunt may be easier.
In Mid Staffs the net of shame was cast wide, to include those who were aware of the behaviour of their colleagues and did nothing to intervene or protect the patients involved. As with all the recent sex abuse reports and celebrity cases – what about those leaders and managers and staff members that knew? How can we better understand the behaviour of people who ‘turn a blind eye?’

The group’s effect on thought and action

Research in Social Psychology and the behaviour of groups suggests that while we might like to think we will be upstanding in the face of another person’s plight – this is not always the case. Bystander Intervention research has shown that there are complex group process at work that can paralyse the role and responsibility of the individual. Research has shown that an increase in numbers witnessing an event, reduces the likelihood of people intervening to help.
Similarly – the term ‘Groupthink’ grew from the decision making about the Cuban missile crisis when it was widely acknowledged that clear and rational thinking at a political level was lost on account of the group dynamics. This and other research suggest that when the group takes over – the responsibility of the individual can be minimised or paralysed.

How fear can paralyse action

There is another powerful force at play that can paralyse the thinking and actions of the most competent and responsible individual. Fear. The fear of being wrong, the fear of retribution, of punishment, of making a fuss, of being called to account, or of being exposed. The fear, quite simply of going against the status quo. Fear can paralyse anyone, regardless of their level of seniority in an organisation. And indeed a collective sense of fear can strike at the heart of an entire organisation and render it silent, inactive and irresponsible.
Whatever the root cause, an organisation that ‘turns a blind eye’ and colludes with a collective sense of denial about bad behaviour is a dangerous place to be. It becomes a workplace governed by secrets and half-truths – where staff can feel unsafe and mistrustful.

Limitations of legislation

So what’s the answer? Is it, as has been suggested in the light of the recent high profile cases – a new law to compel people to disclose information they are party to? ‘Not telling’ then becoming a criminal offence. Apart from anything else – the logistics of accurately policing this would be unthinkable – and totally impractical. But more significantly, this again puts the onus back on the individual, if an individual doesn’t come forward – he or she must be punished. Given we have seen that the behaviour of an individual can be inhibited by the group, we must think more creatively and consider how the onus can be placed more of the organisation – on the system as a whole to ensure justice and fairness. Organisations need to be organisingthemselves much better.
The public have lost faith in key institutions that have collectively failed to act – there is an urgency for change. At Tavistock Consulting we believe there is a real need, and opportunity to use what we know about groups and organisational behaviour to effect this change.

Creating a safe environment

We need to create environments that are transparent and encouraging of openness and trust. First and foremost, we have to instil in systems and organisations a sense of collective responsibility. Create a sense of safety in ‘telling the truth’ – means ensuring that there is containment – and that appropriate responses are given to minimise the ‘fear’ factor. How can organisations support their staff to speak and be heard? Many staff refer to a ‘bullying ‘culture’ in their workplace – so how can we support leaders and senior managers to establish an environment where truth and openness is encouraged, regardless of the implication. How can we ensure that staff will have their concerns and suspicions taken seriously and acted upon? And how can we ensure, that those managers and leaders will be robust enough to ‘do the right’ thing with the information they are given? What does it mean to act on what you have been told? How do you do so sensitively, yet effectively?

Eyes wide open

Getting it right will be complicated. Changing a culture of an organisation take time, and will mean working to effect change at all levels of the system. It is easy to create a system that colludes with denial – but much more challenging to create one that champions collective responsibility.
In considering this issue, Tavistock Consulting draws on its long history in the field of leadership and group dynamics . It understands the need to work at a system level – looking at the whole of the organisation, as well as targeting the leaders of organisations to ensure that they and all their staff members hold a new and different sense of collective responsibility for the behaviour of others.

Organisations that have got it so wrong in the past, will need support to get it right in the future and in so doing, begin valuable groundwork in restoring the faith of the public that has been lost along the way.

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