Remembering Grenfell: lessons in balancing risk and honesty

Today marks the third anniversary of the fire at Grenfell Tower, a night when 72 lives were lost and thousands more lives changed forever for the worse.

While the Inquiry continues, we still can’t fully reflect on the lessons learned in terms of changes to the law and policy. The policy changes that will eventually come, and potentially the legal cases that may also follow, will all have a part to play in enabling people to move forward.

However, while there isn’t yet clarity on policy and legal issues, the anniversary can be a reminder to each of us to take a personal inventory about how we balance honesty and risk in our working lives.

Honesty at work can be a tricky subject. Just because something is true doesn’t mean that it is welcome news. Sometimes an organisation is prepared to hear only part of the truth, or a version of the truth. The risk is that as the acceptability of the message becomes more important, perhaps the truth of the message matters less.

It is true that one of the reasons organisations sometimes engage CT is to say to the organisation things that they already know but cannot say to itself. Speaking truth to power is one of the great privileges of being a consultant. It is a responsibility to be treasured and upheld.

I have worked on both sides, as an officer in housing providers and as an consultant/interim. In every organisation there are a small number of clear-cut issues and many many more which are of various shades of grey. All sorts of internal dynamics mix together to send truth and honesty down the pecking order.

When I think about the Grenfell Inquiry, I see a mass of conflicting dynamics which create the risk that truth and honesty slips down the pecking order.

I watched a documentary series about Formula 1, which provided good insight into a useful approach.

How successful you are in F1 is very easy to work out, you look at the results of the races. Mercedes have won the constructor’s championship for the last 6 years. They have a no blame culture. Anyone at any level can raise an issue. They will analyse and act on the issue, they will not spend time worrying about who raised the issue or arguing whether that person should raise such an issue.  Just a focus on the problem. Is it a real problem? How do they fix it? At the heart of this approach is a shared commitment to the outcome and, crucially, trust. Trusting that everyone involved is fully committed and is doing their best. Because that trust is assumed and implicit, it supports honesty. The results speak for themselves.

By contrast, another storyline looked at the Red Bull team. Over there we saw a much more old fashioned approach. Lots of focus on personal responsibility, lots of shouting, lots of pressure. If you can’t stand the pressure, get out.  I’ve worked in those settings. I’ve seen situations where, as the senior manager’s office door opens, every head goes down. Only one version of the truth is welcome.

I think there are two key points in all of this.

As individuals we make hundreds of decisions every week about what to say and what to write. We wrestle with trying to find the form of words that gets the job done. I promise to keep more of an eye on the truth and how the truth is faring. I promise to make sure that I do not trade away the truth in assembling an acceptable message. And I promise to remember the importance of creating a culture of trust. Because if we trust each other than the honest truth is more likely to find a home.

I can’t control every aspect of the work I engage in. But I can control how I react and what I do.

In this line of business, we all have a part to play in making sure that the lasting consequence of events at Grenfell, is that it never happens again.


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Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.



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