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Encouraging reasonable challenge and the freedom to speak up

Professor of Ethics and the Military Profession, King’s College London

Dr David Whetham is Professor of Ethics and the Military Profession at King’s College London. At the 2018 Ombudsman Association conference he led a session on the need to train, monitor and continually discuss ethical behaviour with staff.

In this blog, Dr Whetham explains how lessons learnt in a military context are relevant to the organisations we investigate and their staff. 

Getting rid of ‘groupthink’

Following the UK’s intervention in Iraq in 2003, the Chilcot Inquiry published its long awaited report in 2016. This made uncomfortable reading for government, highlighting significant failures in leadership, processes and organisational culture. 

The inquiry identified a number of factors that led to these failures, including a disturbing tendency to ‘groupthink’ in government. By ‘groupthink’ I mean that people conformed in their thinking to such an extent that the decisions they made became dysfunctional or even irrational. Key assumptions were not questioned, even when those assumptions were blatantly false.    

Additionally, decision-makers failed to ask the right questions. This meant that individuals did not properly understand the situation, nor did they assess the future impact of the decisions they were making. 

To respond to these significant criticisms the government and other institutions have published guidance and tools to improve skills, knowledge and organisational culture. 

The guidance addresses the ‘bystander effect’. This is what happens when people clearly know that something is questionable or just plain false, but do not actively do anything about it. 

Guidance to empower people to speak up    

One important example is a Ministry of Defence handbook called ‘The Good Operation’ for staff involved in operational planning and implementation. The handbook says that individuals need ‘to set aside excessive self-confidence, bring critical thinking to bear at all times and challenge where you think things are going wrong’.  

The guidance aims to change organisational culture by creating an environment in which people feel empowered to speak up. To do this, it encourages individuals to challenge the prevailing group attitude or behaviour where they know or suspect it is wrong.

The ‘Reasonable Challenge Guide’

However, it’s not as easy as that! Changing organisational culture is actually incredibly difficult to do. Psychological studies demonstrate that getting individuals to challenge what everybody else appears to accept as normal is even harder. 

The Ministry of Defence’s ‘Reasonable Challenge Guide’ recognises this and emphasises the importance of organisations and staff ‘embracing challenge’. Rather than simply telling people they are expected to speak up, the guide acknowledges that it is unrealistic to expect people to do this without shaping the environment first. 

The guidance is therefore primarily targeted at the person receiving the challenge. It emphasises the need for them to be able to encourage, facilitate, engage with, and respond to the challenger. Only then does it move to the skills individuals need to initiate a challenge. 

This guidance is posted on walls and lecterns throughout the Defence Academy where the military’s leaders are trained and educated. The approach is also regularly emphasised in command, leadership and management briefings.

Celebrating, rewarding and promoting challenge

The examples I highlight above are taken from a military context but the lessons are relevant for all public organisations, including other government departments and agencies, the NHS and other public organisations. 

Creating an environment that supports people to speak up when they see something wrong, requires that people: 

  • know when to speak up, and are able to identify a situation which requires action 
  • know how to speak up, and are able to effectively consider the right level of challenge, reporting or whistle-blowing 
  • feel safe and supported, and understand formal and informal incentives and disincentives of them taking action.

Organisational change requires significant investment in time and resources. Shielding whistle-blowers and challengers from repercussions is not enough. Leaders must proactively create an environment that celebrates, rewards and promotes challenge if that organisation is to avoid the danger of ‘groupthink’. 

Listen to our Radio Ombudsman podcast on the importance of speaking up in the NHS.