Making changes by Eric Foggitt

Jun 13th, 2014 | By | Category: Articles, Eric Foggitt, Regular Posts by OMBS authors

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Isn’t it strange how you can know people, but not know them? Have you noticed how some people change dramatically when they’re in a new relation­ship or a different workplace?

Lorna was a bit of a nerd – in a nice way. She would get very animated when she was describing a patient – “Fairly flaccid in his trunk, which is worrying for his gait, but his lower limb strength compensates so that he doesn’t fall.” The most demanding patients, who were usually ones with terminal diseases, provoked even greater excitement for her because of their severity, complexity and hence their academic interest. She got the job – her first as a physio­therapist – on the back of a class prize from the university and an almost flawless performance in her interview.

And yet within three months of starting in the Day Unit, she had become an awkward, complaining and rather miserable young lady who was very difficult to manage. Her sixth month interview went so badly and there had been so many negative incidents involving her, the hospital decided not to give her a perma­nent contract. She left a few weeks later. I don’t know what became of her, but someone told me she went to work for VSO in Africa somewhere.

What went wrong? How did that rather endearing and quiet geek become the impossible employee? Her manager, Jamie, whom I knew quite well, blamed himself for not handling her properly and to this day – four years on – feels he failed to nurture her talents and bring out the best in her.

With the 20-20 vision that hindsight sometimes brings to those who are brave enough to see it, I think I know the answer to those questions and the reasons for Jamie’s failure – such as it is.

The culture in that Day Unit was described variously by staff as “high-flying”, “only the best will do”, “constantly improving” and also “critical”, “fault-finding” and “harsh”. When new directives were brought in – about hand-washing or paperwork completion for instance, the Day Unit would be fully compliant within days. If a patient complained – there was usually one per week at least, even though it was a superb facility and the flagship of the hospital – a staff member was identified, spoken to and given a beautifully-worded and printed warning within 24 hours. It was that kind of a place.

When Lorna started work, these high standards were no problem to her; in fact they were a challenge which she rose effortlessly towards and beyond. But soon the culture of the place started impacting her and she joined in with the carping and judging which the “top dogs” in the unit were so skilled at. They had (separately) been warned about excessive critical gossip, but all three pleaded positive motives: “Just trying to raise standards” or “I’m trying to strengthen the weakest link.” Lorna’s in-depth knowledge gave her ample insight into the slightest failings of others on the unit and this insight quickly became ammunition – which she initially gave to others, but within a matter of weeks she was firing all the guns herself.

She was only trying to fit in; she just wanted to be accepted. She had no idea about the impact she was having on others; she wasn’t one to check on the feelings and mood of the people around her. And so she went spiralling down, becoming a moody and difficult person, as the demands of her environment brought out the very worst aspects of her own immature personality.

Jamie, her manager, had responsibility for all the physios in the hospital and didn’t really know about, still less understand, the dynamics of working in the Day Unit. Changing those dynamics was way beyond him. In fact, people with such understanding and skills are very few and far between and toxic work­places infect and poison thousands of otherwise effective and contented employees every year.

Last year, shortly before Jamie left for a management post, a new Matron was appointed to the Unit. She insisted, as a condition of her appointment, on a full day’s in-service with the entire staff. Just after lunch, when everyone’s resistance and aggression were at their lowest, she spoke to all forty staff in a quiet, confidential voice: “Listen up: we can go on being a critical, judgemental and gossipy place to work in, or we can decide, right now, to stop doing that.” Her eyes went round the room and I swear she eye-balled every single person, with added seconds of attention for the three “top dogs”. “What shall we do, then? Shall we decide to stop? I will. I will stop.” And with that, she rose to her feet – like the boys at the end of the film “Dead Poets’ Society”. Three others stood around the room, in solidarity with her, then a few more and still more until everyone stood. It’s not a complete solution, but this is how real work­place change can start.


Eric is the author of Nine Lives ~ Heartwarming stories about turning personal failures into successes, with help from the Enneagram and the Bible.

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