“Fear cannot be the driver.” These words from my 2019 report to the Cabinet Secretary for Health into allegations of bullying in NHS Highland have been quoted on a number of occasions.

I sense that they speak of something deeper in our society with which we must wrestle if we are to address the major challenges facing us now and in years to come. I wonder if fear is endemic in many institutions in our country?  Fear of being found at fault, of being blamed, of being placed under intolerable pressure, of losing face, of losing jobs, of being branded a failure?

Where there are hierarchies, fear can be visceral if you are subject to the direction and control of others. But I wonder if fear is also experienced at the very top and all the way through many levels in our organisations? The pressure to perform, to achieve results, to meet targets is probably felt at ministerial level, at chief executive level, at managerial level, as well as at service delivery levels.

Fear may well result in a feeling (whatever the reality) of being bullied. Often those who feel they are being bullied are also perceived by others as bullies. It seems to cut both ways. Our culture of success, of right or wrong, of winners and losers can leave little room for genuine mistakes, human error, experimentation, risk. Instead, it may lead to excessive caution, protection (of self and institutions), unwillingness to innovate, undue deference and reluctance to challenge, parochialism and pettiness.

In economic terms, this is almost bound to result in sub-optimal outcomes. And if someone is in the public eye, these responses may be magnified by the press (exacerbated by instantaneous and relentless social media), political partisanship, short termism and the binary choices with which we are regularly presented: in/out; leave/remain; yes/no – and so on.

How many of the inquiries and reviews into major public sector expenditure overruns or contractual problems will address the issue of underlying fear which many people caught up in these situations must feel? Indeed, how many of these situations have their origin in a culture of fear? Do such inquiries by virtue of their investigative, often fault-finding, orientation merely perpetuate that fear?

What can we do? Nearly all of us are trying our best, wanting to do well. We must face up to the reality that living in fear won’t bring out the best in us.  It seems that we need to move away from the blame culture where, every time something does not work as we wish or hope, we must find a scapegoat. We should stop setting unrealistic expectations as if every need can be met in this volatile, uncertain and complex world.

We desperately need authenticity, integrity, courage, and willingness to make sacrifices in the short term for longer term good. Humility rather than hubris. Cooperation rather than confrontation. A willingness to take responsibility and where necessary to admit error, rather than to pass the buck.

Perhaps, above all, we need a good dose of forgiveness and kindness. Too soft, touchy feely? Actually, no. It’s really hard for many of us in this fast-moving, quick to judgment world to pause and engage long enough to replace fear with compassion. But that we must do if we are to thrive and work together for the common good.


John Sturrock, February 2021



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