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It’s been another great week for those of us in the ‘courage’ field (what can I say – there aren’t that many of us and we take joy in any news that puts workplace courage in centre field!). 

The latest news over the weekend was that the UK government has ruled out forcing key workers in the Health Service to whistle blow (or speak out!).  In his report into the deaths of hundreds of patients at a NHS Trust, Robert Francis QC, had recommended that doctors and nurses should face criminal prosecution if they did not report concerns about the way that patients were treated – a so called ‘neglect’ offence.  While superficially appealing, it would quickly lead to every aspect of healthcare being proscribed in order to avoid grey areas where one professional’s view could be challenged by another’s, where the system would be blocked by potentially tens of thousands of claims by people who simply wanted to avoid a potential criminal charge and where any innovation or change would be stifled at birth by any Luddite that claimed that it risked harming patients.  Imagine if we’d had such a law 200 years ago – we’d still be using leeches, penicillin would be outlawed and hygiene levels would not have progressed from Crimean standards.

Why do people persist in believing that regulation can solve all ills?  Workplace courage frequently involves ‘breaking’ rules or laws to speak out about a perceived wrongdoing.  Employees who speak out almost inevitably do not cite ‘rules’ as their reason – they refer to deeper human needs such as honesty, fairness or immorality.  Mistakes happen in every organisation and rather than seeking to codify every potential issue and response (impossible in this rapidly changing world in any case), regulations should be designed to ensure that unnecessary risks are reduced and those few people who do operate outside of society’s norms do not bring harm to others.

Throughout the history of humankind we have seen examples of rules and laws being broken by people in prominent roles in society and where the majority of us look on and believe we can do nothing about it.  Every tyranny works on these principles – whether it was Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s, Iraq in the 1990’s and many many others. 

If we want to create organisations (or societies) where employees feel they have an obligation and a right to hold each other accountable for their actions, we shouldn’t start with laws. 

Regulations are the full stop of an organisation.  Where an organisation;

- provides clear values and purpose to all,
- celebrates and learns from its mistakes,
- is constantly looking to improve and therefore encourages employees at all levels to question and confront,
- provides its employees with a variety of communication channels to discuss and debate,
- develops and nurtures the skills and competencies that employees need to constructively challenge;

the need to rely on regulations to make people  speak out becomes seen for what it is – simply an attempt to shift the blame to someone else.

This was a round-about way of covering open and transparent cultures.  Back to the plot next week.