“Working here makes us better humans”

A daily thought from Leandro Herrero:

I have had a brilliant two day meeting with a brilliant client. One aspect of my
work with organizations that I truly enjoy is to help craft the ‘Behavioural DNA’ that shapes the culture of the company. This is a set of actionable behaviours that must be universal, from the CEO to the MRO (Mail Room Officer). They also need to pass the ‘new hire test’: would you put that list in front of a prospect employee and say ‘This is us’?

There was one ‘aspirational’ sentence that I put to the test: ‘Working here makes us better human beings’.

It was met with scepticism by the large group in the meeting, initially mainly manifested through body language including the, difficult to describe, cynical smiles. The rationalists in the group jumped in hard to ‘corporatize’ the sentence. ‘Do you mean better professionals?’ The long discussion had started. Or, perhaps, ‘do you mean…’ – and here the full blown corporate Academy of Language – from anything to do with skills, talent management, empowerment to being better managers, being better leaders, and so on.

‘No, I mean better human beings. Period!’- I pushed back. Silence.

Next stage was the litany of adjectives coming form the collective mental thesaurus: fluffy, fuzzy, soft, vague…

I felt compelled to reframe the question: ‘OK, so who is against working in a place that makes you inhuman? Everybody. OK, ‘ So who is against working in a place that makes you more human? Nobody. But still the defensive smiling.

It went on for a while until the group, ‘organically’, by the collective hearing of pros and cons, turned 180 degrees until everybody agreed that ‘Working in a place that makes you a better human being’ was actually very neat. But – there was a but – ‘Our leadership team wont like it. They will say that its fluffy, fuzzy, soft etc… In the words of the group, it was not ‘them’ anymore who had a problem, it was the infamous ‘they’.

The “difficult to describe” cynical smiles are familiar…. indeed I am sure I have perpetrated such smiles more than once myself!

Medicine can be a dehumanising profession, sometimes literally. Dehumanising in both ways – patients, especially some categories of patient, colleagues, but also we ourselves. Of course, the rationalist part of us can pick apart what “better humans” means…


#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for them. They don’t have to pretend that they are as well, so they can exercise their ‘practical power’ with more freedom. That enlightened department is covered in the system, and the corporate showcase guaranteed.

The distance between the top and the next layer down may not be great in organizational chart terms, yet the top may not have a clue that there is a behavioural fabric mismatch just a few centimeters down in the organization chat.

I used to think years ago, when I was older, that a front page top notch leader stressing human values provided a safe shelter against inhuman values for his/her organization below. I am not so sure today. In fact, my alarm bell system goes mad when I see too much charismatic, purpose driven, top leadership talk. I simply smell lots of alibis below. And I often find them. After all, there is usually no much room for many Good Cops

Yet, I very much welcome the headline grabbing by powerful business people who stress human values, and purpose, and a quest for a decent world. The alternative would be sad. I don’t want them to stop that. But let’s not fool ourselves about how much of that truly represents their organizations. In many cases it represents them.

I guess it all goes back, again, to the grossly overrated Role Model Power attributed to the leadership of organizations, a relic of traditional thinking, well linked to the Big Man Theory of history. Years of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, never attributing the CEO more than 30% of the trust stock in the organization, have not convinced people that the ‘looking up’ is just a small part of the story. What happens in organizations has a far more powerful ‘looking sideways’ traction: manager to manager, employee to employee. Lots of ritualistic dis-empowering management practices can site very nicely under the umbrella of a high empowerment narrative at the top, and nobody would care much. The top floor music and the music coming from the floor below, and below, are parallel universes.

Traditional management and MBA thinking has told us that if this is the case, the dysfunctionality of the system will force it to break down. My view is the opposite. The system survives nicely under those contradictions. In fact it needs them.


I found this reflection, especially the final three paragraphs, particularly striking. Health care organisations are getting better and better at talking the talk at the highest levels about empowerment and respect and [insert Good Thing here] – but how much that really has an impact on the daily management practices that are the day to day reality of working within that organisation?

I also like the scepticism about Role Model Power of the Big Man (or Woman) on top. Dr Herrero, described on his Twitter as an “organisational architect”, clearly has a healthy view of the reality that underlies much rhetoric. I look forward to the HSE’s Values in Action project which is very much following the lines of his work.

“Happy Organisations and Happy Workers” – blog post by Maria Quinlan

On the ARCH (Applied Research in Connected Health) website, research lead Dr Maria Quinlan  has a blog post entitled
“Happy Organisations and Happy Workers – a key factor in implementing digital health”

The whole is worth a read. Of course, having a happy organisation made up of happy workers is inherently important of itself, as well as from the point of view of implementing digital health. As Dr Quinlan writes in the first paragraph:

To paraphrase Tolstoy, “all happy organisations are alike; each unhappy organisation is unhappy in its own way.” The ability for healthcare organisations to innovate is a fundamental requirement for adopting and sustainably scaling digital health solutions.  If an organisation is unhappy, for example if it is failing to communicate openly and honestly, if staff feel overworked and that their opinion isn’t valued, it stands to reason that it will have trouble innovating and handling major complex transitions.

Reading this, I am struck by how important it is to make time in a day with an accumulation of pressing demands for reflection:


What these factors combine to achieve is happy, engaged workers – and happy workers are more effective, compassionate, and less likely to suffer burnout [2]. Clear objectives, praise, a sense that your voice matters – these can seem like fluffy ‘soft’ concepts and yet they are found over and over to be central to providing the right context within which new digital health innovations can flourish. Classic ‘high involvement’ management techniques – for example empowering team members to make decisions and not punishing them for every misstep are found to be key [1].  As Don Berwick of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI) says, people who feel joy in work are “not scared of data”, rather “joy is a resource for excellence” [3]

Managing what Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management at Wharton calls the ‘emotional’ culture of an organisation is a very important concept – especially in the healthcare environment which expects so much of staff [4]. Healthcare workers face pressures which many of us working in other fields can’t really comprehend, a recent systematic review found that clinicians have higher rates of suicidal ideation than the general population, with a high prevalence of burnout, psychiatric morbidity and depression linked to excessive workload [5].  Attempting to introduce innovative new ways of working within such constrained environments can be challenging to say the least. Exhausted workers, those with little time in their day for reflection, or those who work in organisations which fear failure are less likely to innovate [6].

Much of the rhetoric around healthcare innovation tends to be messianic in tone. A gap between this rhetoric and the messy, pressured reality of healthcare can diminish the credibility of innovators.

The concept of “adaptive reserve” is an important one, especially in the context of reforms and innovations being introduced into already pressured environments:

Drawing from their work researching healthcare organisations ability to handle complex transitions in the US, Jaen et al (2010) developed a 23-item scale measure for what they term ‘adaptive reserve’. Adaptive reserve is an internal capability for change which includes being agile; capable of continuous learning; and being adept at self-assessment, reflection and improvisation. The Adaptive Reserve questionnaire asks staff to rate their organisation according to a variety of statements which include statements such as; ‘we regularly take time to consider ways to improve how we do things’ and ‘this organisation is a place of joy and hope’.

Overall, this a fascinating blog post on an issue which is close to my heart. I intend to post some more on this topic over the next while.