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…on “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Sometimes it’s seems to be easier to ignore things and hope the problem will go away. I worked in a place where one of the staff had a serious drink problem, which affected her work. Another colleague was fiddling his expenses and we all knew it, even the boss. A third person was simply not up to the job: she made bad decisions and couldn’t handle clients or relatives. Work was like a minefield - you needed to be very careful what you said and did. The boss knew, I suppose, that if he dealt with one problem, the others would be uncovered and have to be dealt with. As we sometimes say in these situations, “Where on earth do you start?

Well, no start was made. A second colleague started claiming little extras: he told me that he resented Ryan getting away with it, so why shouldn’t he? I heard later (when it all came out into public view) that between them they were falsely claiming an extra 15% on their salaries. (At the time most of this was tax-free, too.) The boss tackled Siobhan about her rudeness towards one family and in reply she raised the issue of Ryan and Angus’s expenses fiddle, threatening to go the the Union for bullying. Siobhan was given a warning, but nothing more.

Outfits like this are horrible places to work. If vacancies come up, good prospective employees often find out and stay away. Morale goes down, performance dips and the whole outfit is threatened: even in the care sector you can’t get away with it forever.

Of course the problem wasn’t Miriam’s drink problem, nor the expenses fiddle, nor even Siobhan’s incompetence. It was the culture of selfishness and indiscipline, which the boss - who was great fun and one of the friendliest people you could ever meet - was unwittingly fostering. He was a relaxed and jovial man with a great love for people, but he was no leader.

Fifty years ago, Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”* won rave reviews and a fine set of awards including a Pulitzer prize. The allusions in the title, to a children’s song and a British novelist, point to the play’s meaning: “Who’s afraid of living life without illusions?

Much the same goes for workplaces: we need to dare to be honest; be brave enough to tell that really nice guy that he’s not best placed as team leader; face the expenses fiddlers head on. Otherwise, we force people to play games, or at least play a part they don’t want to play. The honest staff have to cover for the dishonest ones, the competent feel they should hide the mistakes of the incompetent. And, when you turn a blind eye to poor performance, you condone it.

The TOLAT© is a workplace assessment tool which doesn’t point the finger at individuals, so it’s non-threatening. It aims to reveal the truth about workplace culture. It’s not so much about job skills, but more about attitudes and feelings; it’s getting to the truth of the questions: “How are things really done around here?” and “What’s it like to work in this place?

These questions may seem like an irrelevance to people who are fixated on results and targets, people who don’t worry too much about how the job’s done, as long as it’s done, but they would be wrong. When I buy a car, I want to know not only its top speed and its fuel economy, but also its reliability and safety in an impact. There’s not much point in buying a 300kph car that breaks down every week. Workplace culture, likewise, has a huge effect on efficiency, retention of good staff and recruitment of new ones. If you want a team to last, you need to be honest, even when it’s painful to face the truth. The TOLAT© helps employers see things as they are, so that action can be taken.

After 18 months I left the team I outlined above, detailing the problems to the Personnel officer in a formal interview. He noted what I said and did nothing. It was ten years before things were sorted - ten years during which patients were poorly treated, relatives badly informed and thousands of pounds of public money diverted from patient care to the greedy pockets of my ex-colleagues.

Edward Albee would have been horrified…

* Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee opened on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre on October 13, 1962

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