Digby was the CEO of a merchant bank.  He had been with the bank since leaving school, starting as a clerk and working his way up to the top job.  Now silver-haired and approaching retirement, he occupied an office in the City with a fine view of a couple of Wren churches and, beyond, a glimpse of the Thames.  His office was lush and spacious and on the walls hung oil portraits of some of his predecessors (all looking suitably stern).

The bank suffered from institutionalised deference.  During its long and glorious history it had moved grudgingly from a command-and-control culture to being slightly (ever so slightly!) more consultative.  Traditional managers such as Digby, however, found anything that smacked of democracy very puzzling and inconvenient.  It was so much simpler to tell everyone what to do and demand unquestioning obedience.  Inviting opinions invariably meant encountering irreconcilable differences and, in the end, having to say, ‘Forget I asked. We’ll do it my way.’ 

In practice, displays of deference tended to be cosmetic rather than real.  Staff operated with two switches.  One was marked ‘bow, scrape and agree with everything’, and the other was marked ‘rant, rave and complain’.  Needless to say, the former switch was thrown whenever senior managers were present and the latter switch as soon as their backs were turned.

Rather against his better judgement, Digby allowed himself to be persuaded to run a series of management workshops on the subject of change. The bank was in the process of overhauling an antiquated job grading system and a number of awkward anomalies had arisen.  A two-day workshop was devised where managers, working in small teams, would be invited, not only to address the anomalies, but also to identify other changes and putting forward recommendations for action.  Digby agreed to ‘bless’ each workshop by saying a few words at the start and to return for the final plenary session to receive the recommendations.

The two-day workshop ran nine times. Whilst the participants on each workshop differed, the pattern of events was uncannily similar. Digby would sweep in at the start and read a short speech from a lectern about the need for change. The speech included a couple of light-hearted remarks – acknowledged with ripples of polite laughter. No questions were invited (far too consultative!) but Digby always finished by saying how much he looked forward to returning the next day to hear the recommendations. 

As soon as Digby left the room, all hell broke loose as the managers spluttered their wrath at his condescending manner.  The ‘rant and rave’ switches had been thrown.

Once the managers had calmed down, they settled to the task of prioritising the many changes they thought necessary to improve the bank’s performance.  They compiled lists, brainstormed ideas and prepared persuasive presentations.  Throughout, ranting and raving was much in evidence as the managers steeled themselves for Digby’s return. 

Eventually the time came for the final plenary and, as promised, Digby would arrive with a couple of other directors in tow.  The participant’s switches were immediately turned to ‘bow and scrape’. The fighting talk of the last two days simply evaporated. Each presentation consisted of innuendoes and meaningless platitudes.  After hearing all the presentations, Digby would stand, politely thank everyone for their contribution, and then calmly dismantle each idea by explaining why it wouldn’t work. The participants, of course, sat there nodding deferentially whilst seething inside. 

Everyone thought the workshops were a charade.  Digby, however, was very pleased with them.  For him the nine workshops reinforced his long held view that consultation didn’t work!

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