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Wrongful Dismissal, Denial and Deflection - The Impact on Employees and the Organizational Culture

July 23, 2010

According to the CBC News the PSLRB ruled today that Douglas Tipple’s employment with PWGSC was unfairly terminated by the federal government and that he did not deserve the slurs against his reputation, the loss of his position and the campaign to discredit him. While the impact for Mr. Tipple is significant as noted by the adjudicator Mr Quigley, it is also critical to look at the impact on this type of situation has on the organization as a whole.

People in organizations are rarely oblivious to the undercurrents present in their workplace. In other words, they know what’s going on and in the same way that children sense what is happening in families even when parents believe that they have managed to hide the tensions, employees are very adept at reading the energy and atmosphere in their workplaces. And they recognize toxicity, dysfunction and lack of credibility within organizations and their leadership.

Human beings have a very well developed sense of what is right and wrong, and while there may be times when they choose to ignore this, the type of situation that happened at PWGSC is typically one where that sense of fairness will be alive and well.
There is much talk these days about the need to create ‘healthy workplaces’. And certainly research supports the fact that employees are more productive when they are happy and feel safe.

However as human beings we seem to have an amazing capacity to create negative and dysfunctional working environments – and often leaders seem oblivious to the ripple effect and impact their choices have throughout their organizations.

In any organization whenever someone is ‘let go’ in a questionable way or where employees sense a level of cover-up or lack of fairness, it can trigger a chain reaction of feelings such as “if it could happen once (to them), then it could happen again - to me!” and “if this is going on what else is going on?” ultimately leaving employees with a sense that this is not a ‘safe’ place to work – and the guard goes up.

If I as an employee perceive that this is not a safe place to be and in particular not a safe place to make mistakes (or fail), then I will take steps to protect myself. Consequently a culture of wariness and risk aversion typically sets in and pervades the atmosphere of the workplace leading to people literally or at least figuratively looking over their shoulder and making choices that are perceived to be safer and less likely to bring me to the notice of the decision makers.

What does that mean for the organization?
When the organizational culture becomes wary, risk averse and self-protective, the impact on the organizations ability to thrive is huge. The most successful organizations out there who can thrive in continually changing economic and political climates are those which are flexible, robust and dynamic. They have organizational cultures that are built on creativity, accountability (NOT blame) and solid relationships that support the ability to adapt through solid, dynamic, creative responses to the challenges confronting them.

When the culture if perceived to be based on blame-storming (ie finger-pointing and scape-goating) the first things that get lost are openness and creativity. If I feel the need to protect myself, I will choose carefully what ideas I put out to the group, what decisions I make and what level of responsibility I am willing to assume. Protection becomes more important than contribution – and the organization suffers.

The Canadian Federal Public Service is currently struggling with many of these issues. There are a great many hard working, dedicated and top-notch employees in the Public Service who work long hours to provide great service to Canadians. And as Canadians we want our Public Service to be accountable for the way our tax dollars are spent. However the difference between accountability and blame seems to be generally misunderstood.

Blame is me telling you that you made a mistake. Accountability is when I step up and take responsibility for my actions and acknowledge that I made a mistake. There is a huge difference between the two. Both typically have consequences – in blame they are generally punitive in nature. In accountability they are more typically fair and reasonable.

However accountability will not happen without a perceived level of safety and fairness – and that must include any consequences that happen as a result of someone being accountable. As young children we learned that if we are ‘to blame’ for something the punishment that follows is likely going to hurt in some way. So typically we stopped owning up to what we did… and learned to lie, deflect, deny, and avoid whenever possible.

We have now created this same type of environment within much of our Public Service.
The reactionary, rules-based culture of blame-storming, deflection and denial that has been created as a response to the sponsorship Scandal and other similar nasty situations makes it almost impossible to get any work done. As former CDS Rick Hillier said in his book “A Soldier First” when he was describing the challenges in trying to fight a war under PWGSC procurement rules: “The process has become the product” – which to me means that there is a culture in PWGSC that is more concerned about what things look like than it is concerned about getting the job done.

And we will continue to see denial, deflection and finger-pointing so long as we tolerate a toxic and dysfunctional organizational culture within our Public Service that rewards this type of behaviour rather than one in which openness, transparency and fairness are the norm. Can it be changed? Absolutely - but as Albert Einstein said "You can't solve a problem with the same mindset that created it". There would need to be a willingness on the part of leadership in the government and the public services to find a better way.

For more information contact:
Ruth Sirman
President and Senior Mediator
CanMediate International
Phone: 613-256-3852
Cell: 613-298-8105

Click here to view our Sources Listing:

Ruth Sirman, CanMediate International Inc.


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