Don’t lay all the blame on the system


Me writing in desert

The reports about the abuse at the Mid Staffordshire Hospital, and the accounts of similar appalling neglect at others, make horrific reading.  Not only did people die needlessly in our hospitals, but they died in pain, stripped entirely of their dignity, starving, dehydrated, filthy.  And we call ourselves civilised.  It seems that those ultimately responsible have escaped punishment and are either living on fat pensions or still drawing salaries that the rest of us could only dream of.  There’s been much talk of the failure of systems and culture, the focus on financial targets, on ticking boxes.  I don’t usually read the Daily Telegraph, but I picked one up on the train this morning, and found myself agreeing with Michael Deacon, the Telegraph’s Parliamentary sketchwriter:

“Do systems and cultures leave patients so thirsty that they drink dirty water from vases of flowers? Do systems and cultures leave patients to lie in urine-soaked sheets? Do systems and cultures ignore patients’ pleas for help?

And perhaps most importantly: are hospitals run by systems and cultures? And what sort of salaries do those systems and cultures take home?”

I’m not denying that many working environments are horrible, stressful, and have become more so.  Violence against staff and other patients and other kinds of extremely anti-social behaviour mean that security staff are now regular fixtures on accident and emergency wards.  Staff tolerate unacceptable levels of abuse and rudeness.  Bus drivers, railway staff, teachers, anyone delivering a service to the public seem to be fair game to those who have little or no respect for others, and this trend brutalises us.  Yes, systems have to take much of the blame: the obsession with meeting impossible targets, cutting costs, the relentless change that saps workers’ energy, that Orwellian phrase, value for money.  But as human beings, don’t we also carry personal responsibility for our actions, for how we perform our jobs, how we treat others?  My mother was admitted to an accident and emergency ward in the summer after she fell and broke her hip.  It was bank holiday Sunday.  The ward was busy and understaffed.  She was in pain, and we, her family, were fearful.  The staff nurse who was trying to hold it all together treated her with respect and did all he could to help her to retain her dignity.  He was patient and kind.  He never once spoke down to her, he did what he could to help her to manage her pain.  He was sweet with us, treating us as if we were part of the team.  And when she was found a bed on a ward, but was left on a stretcher in the corridor waiting for a porter, this same nurse decided that she’d waited for too long.  Unable to locate a porter, he  took her to the ward himself.  When he found that her bed hadn’t been prepared because there were no sheets on the ward, he ran off, returning with a pile of clean sheets.  He then proceeded to make up the bed for her, and helped to transfer her into it, making sure she was as comfortable as possible before going back to the growing chaos on the A and E ward.  His name was Samuel, and he was a beacon of decency.  He treated my mother as if she were his own.  He didn’t have to, he was busy enough.  But his care made all the difference.  He carried out his job with awareness.

There are countless other Samuels, I know.  And yes, we need to make sure that our public services are properly resourced and that systems enable, rather than drive out, humanity.  Sadly, given the current harshness of the cuts, I think it’s going to be increasingly challenging to make kindness the norm rather than the exception.  But we all have a responsibility to treat others with the decency, compassion, and respect that we would like to receive ourselves.  To live our lives kindly.




..and now for the other excellent blogs!


Hello again!

When I accepted Tamara’s nomination for “one lovely blog”, I only nominated one blog to pass on.  To tell you the truth, it was late at night, and all this social networking stuff just eats up time; so I thought, well one blog nominated is better than none, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading about Henry’s happy philosophy.  But I really needed to nominate seven.  Those are the rules.  And in the time since last posting, I’ve come across some real gems.  Some I read regularly, some are new.

So here’s one of my very favourites: is a blog that changes general perceptions about Down’s Syndrome, and it’s written by Hayley Goleniowska, mother of a splendid little girl called Natty with Down’s Syndrome.  Her blogs are passionate, inspirational, and are gathering a great fan base. Just read her letter to Geoffrey Clarke and cheer aloud.

Through Hayley’s site, I discovered Steve Allman: and decided that I’d follow his blog.  Again, his writing is full humanity and humour.

As a writer, I really like Stella Duffy’s blog, “Not writing but blogging”:  Tips for writers, lots of thoughts about the relationship between writer and reader, plus much more about life in general.

As a coach (so many hats!!) I like Mike the Mentor – because his updates are always so eclectic and interesting, and I’ve learnt a lot just from reading his blogs and poking around his website.

One that I’ve recently found, due to meeting new friends on a Caribbean cruise (!!) is about the adventure of creating a summer home in Croatia.  Only it’s about much more than that.  Allow me to introduce you to my new friends Elisa and Charles:

And the last blog that I’d like to nominate for “One Lovely Blog” is not a blog.  No, I’m cheating.  But I want to nominate my friend Kev’s collection of photographs which he publishes on Flikr:  They’re utterly beautiful, and deserve a large audience.

So there you go!  enjoy….

One lovely blog…

Many thanks to Tamara Essex for nominating me for the One Lovely Blog award.  What a lovely thing to do!  In case you haven’t seen hers, and she has two, they’re always worth reading and are practical and informative – in the case of her consultancy blog – and touching, funny, and thought provoking – in the case of her Spanish blog:

So the rules are that I have to write 7 things about me.  Here goes.

1) I was the first Fairy Liquid baby.  Yup, the kid in the cot on the black and white TV advert in the late 1950s….

2) Since then, I’ve done lots of different jobs, including singing in bars and modelling for life drawing classes (great for meditation)

3) I’m terrible with money.  In that respect, I am not my mother’s daughter

4) It took me a good couple of years to write Charity Begins with Murder, but I wrote Poisoned Pens incredibly quickly.

5) Noise that I can’t control, like people playing very loud music that I can’t shut out, turns me into a mad woman.  I could be on the ASD spectrum

6) I love to travel and find new people and places.  Great to travel with my lovely partner, also love adventuring on my own.

7) Favourite authors are Rohinton Mistry, Jackie Kay, Vikram Seth, Sara Paretsky…pretty broad tastes, in fact!


So now it’s my turn to nominate a blog.  I’m going to nominate Henry Stewart, of Happy Computers, because his thinking is changing how organisations think and run themselves.  His philosophy sounds simple, but is in fact profound.  And it’s not coincidental that professors at the Cass Business School give his Happy Manifesto to their students!  He’s generous, visionary, and inspirational, and so I’m doing my bit to spread the word:



It’s complicated…

  I was going to write about the riots.  That was last week.  I started to write, I started from the point of view of my little niece who watched Croydon burn from her 9th floor window.  I stopped while I read what other, more clever people were writing.  I reflected a lot: wasn’t there a parallel between my experience as an exploited migrant worker in deepest feudal France in the seventies and the young people rioting?  We stole food, my comrades and I,  just enough to stop feeling hungry, there was plenty left for the farmer and his over-fed family.  But nonetheless, a normally law abiding group of young people acted out of character and stole.   I agonised about the possible parallels with Ben in the office.  “You can’t eat Nike trainers and flat screen TVs,” he said.  “I’ve lived on benefits or minimum wage and never gone looting.  You don’t need all that stuff.  It’s just wrong.”  Talk about cutting through the crap.  So my story about what I was doing the night that Elvis died in 1977 and ponderings about Primo Levy’s grey zone will have to wait for another time.  The best article that  I read about the riots was Camila Batmanghelidjh’s in the Independent:  It bears reading again.

People who felt scared and shaken by the riots, people who felt angry and needed a way to express it, took to posting messages on the hoardings protecting the smashed windows of department stores.  One little comment seemed to sum it all up:  “It’s complicated”.  So I’m going to leave it there and move onto my favourite book of the moment.

I’m re-reading Nancy Kline’s Time to Think.  It’s subtitled Listening to ignite the human mind.  I think we all need to hear the message in this book because it’s about how we interact in all of our relationships – our friendships, intimate relationships, at work, when coaching, and so on.  I had the great privilege of doing a workshop with Nancy Kline whilst training as a coach at the School of Coaching.  She exuded serenity in a way that even the most laid back of us might envy.  And when I read the dedication she wrote in my book, I smile and feel a warm glow because she’s paid attention to who I am in the workshop and her message affirms me.  Nancy’s premise is simple and yet profound: “Everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first.”  And when she talks about thinking, Nancy Kline’s not just talking about cerebral processing devoid of emotion or empathy.  She talks of listening from the heart, and with imagination and courage.  Maybe that’s why I like reflectors so much: they take the time and trouble to think things through.  Quakers have been doing this for centuries.  Maybe that’s why they’re so often the courageous leaders of radical social change.  Nancy writes about the creation of a Thinking Environment and how this can transform the thinking and performance of an organisation.  She writes about dissolving limiting assumptions with incisive questions.  She also talks about the importance of the quality of the attention that we give one another, suggesting that the quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.

There are ten components to a Thinking Environment.  Firstly, giving attention, listening with respect, interest and fascination (I’m quoting directly from the book here.)  Secondly, asking incisive questions that challenge assumptions that limit ideas.  If I knew that I was an intelligent and capable person, what could I be or do?  Next, Equality: making sure that everyone in a team or group has an equal amount of time to contribute, is given the same quality of attention: the CEO’s thought about an issue is no more important or valuable than the administrator’s, for example.  Nancy suggests that in appreciating others we give appreciation to criticism in a 5 – 1 ratio.  The next one can be challenging – or I find it so – ease and creating and environment free from rush and urgency. Then encouragement, which Nancy describes as moving beyond competitionFeelings need an outlet, and sometimes we need to express them in order to clear the way for thinking.  Information is the next component, making sure that people have a full and accurate picture of reality. Place means creating an environment that gives people the clear message that they matter.  And the tenth component is diversity, with our differences adding to the quality of our collective thought.

It’s not easy.  In fact, it’s complicated.  It takes awareness, practice, and commitment.  How easy it is to butt in, finish someone’s sentence, offer solutions,  disempower.  But I hope that this taster has given you enough to make you want to read Time to Think and create Thinking Environments at home or work to bring about radical transformation and unleash boundless creativity and energy.

Nancy Kline, Time to Think, 1999 (Cassell Illustrated)

Getting away with torture and the art of good PR

The scandal of Castelbeck and Winterbourne View which broke as a result of the Panorama undercover investigation has appalled the nation, and I’ve already retweeted some of the learned articles from the Guardian and Independent.  I’m left with a whole range of feelings.  Like my colleague and deputy at SHARE, I’m so proud to be working in an organisation that really does live its values and treats people with the decency and respect they deserve.  It was also something of an antidote to see Orchard Hill College in Wallington in action the morning after I’d seen the Panorama programme.  Staff were passionate about providing excellent services, and those few students in during half term were having a ball.  But how do we know what goes on in places?  Have you seen Castlebeck’s website?  Have you read what they say about themselves?  No?  Well go on, have a look:  They make it sound so good, not only would you happily book your sister in, you might join her for a break yourself!  Could reality and spin ever be further apart?  So what do we do?  Well, for starters, we stop shoving people into hospitals who aren’t sick and we stop the relentless cuts to social care.  As the case of Simon showed, living in the community was perfectly feasible, he just needed the right support.  And we need to rigorously vet the people going into the care profession.  Selection processes should be long and searching, and once people are in post, we need to make sure we invest in their training and development.  I don’t mean just sending them on a few competency based courses so that health and safety boxes can be ticked.  We need to be thinking and talking about how we care for, nurture, and grow people, whether those people are our colleagues or our clients.  And it goes without saying that the whole regulation and inspection process needs to be overhauled and made to work.  Let’s get angry about Winterbourne View and all the other Winterbourne Views out there – because it’ll be happening everywhere.  Let’s get as angry as we do about political prisoners being tortured and all the other social wrongs that get us signing petitions and going on marches.  Let’s get really, really curious about the old people’s home at the bottom of the road or the house for people with learning difficulties round the corner.  And let’s get these monstrous “hosptials” closed down: they’re there to make a profit for shareholders and to warehouse people seen as problems.

Keep going, keep growing

If you’re struggling to lead your small to medium charity through these challenging times, Beanstalk’s new Keep going, keep growing coaching group is for you.   The series of 6, monthly sessions will give you the space and mutual support you need to work through the issues that keep you awake at night.  I will be organising the sessions to take place in a convenient central London location.  Each session will last for 2 hours.  Rules of strict confidentiality will apply.

The whole programme costs £300 and the group will consist of between 6 and 8 people.  The first programme will start in July, and I’m hoping to set up a second one in September.

For more information, and to have a chat about your needs, contact me via