More trust with fewer rules leads to excellence

11th April 2023

In a very sad story from England, a head teacher in Reading took her own life after a report from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) downgraded her primary school from outstanding to inadequate.

A teacher who had been mentored by the late head teacher was quoted as saying, “She didn’t just care and dedicate herself to her school and her pupils, she was also a huge support for schools in the Reading area and beyond. . . She was absolutely brilliant.”

How is it possible that someone apparently so dedicated and effective should be destroyed by the very process designed to identify excellence? A petition calling for Ofsted inspections to be halted gathered more than 150 000 signatures.

That’s not a solution either – many of us dearly wish schools here would be subject to strict inspections with the results made public. Our children need better schooling!

Sadly this so captures what happens in many companies. As responsible managers we implement rules and regulations to curb what goes wrong and encourage what we want to go right. After a while we forget the reason for the rules and begin to implement them blindly. Managers tick boxes and people become irritated, resentful, demotivated, leading to others agitating to do away with all monitoring of performance.

According to a media report I read about the incident, Ofsted found a “welcoming and vibrant school”, where staff-pupil relationships were “warm and supportive”, and bullying was rare.
But it also highlighted failings in training, record-keeping and checks on staff. The school only has to fail in one dimension to be rated as inadequate.

Oh dear. If your child attended a school that is warm, supportive and vibrant and without bullying, would you mind too much if it had some deficiencies in formal training, record-keeping and checks? If that report is true, what a dreadful way to miss the point of an inspection.

That’s the problem when systems take over, which is almost inevitable unless leadership insists on focusing on what is truly important – and remembers that our people are human, not robots.

The reason why human beings just do not seem to respond well to rules and regulations is that the rules imply a lack of trust in the people they seek to control. We are not robots and we do aspire to dignity and self-regulation.

This does not only apply in companies. When parents rebuke their children with a negative voice and maybe further restrictions, the atmosphere becomes heavy with distrust and resentment. The last thing anyone wants to do is behave with consideration and responsibility. Similarly, when government’s natural response to anything that needs changing is to introduce more laws or regulations, even when existing laws and regulations are clearly not working, citizens take pleasure in circumventing the rules.

Instead of resorting again to what hasn’t worked we should find something that does work, like inspiring leadership, genuine listening, and generous resourcing to do the right thing.

If only we could all trust each other! Here is a great paradox. Companies, nations and families that function best are based on trust and affirmation of each other. Look around you for very clear evidence of that. At our best, rules and regulations fade into irrelevance. But we know we are not always at our best, so we also need laws with strict enforcement.

Managers, parents and ministers have to face this paradox daily. Ideally they would treat everyone with unbounded trust and joyful affirmation, while being absolutely consistent in implementing the rules whenever they are broken – as few rules as are absolutely necessary – and providing the encouragement and resources to be amazing. That’s the challenge of managing.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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