Stella Smith: Staff should never just follow the rules

We should trust them to use their individual judgement and creativity, argues our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

As I was leaving the train station on my way home recently, a woman clutching a clipboard asked me to complete a customer satisfaction survey. On a cold winter evening it was the last thing I wanted to do. However, I have plenty to say about the state of British railways, so I stopped to answer her questions. As I talked, she ticked the relevant boxes and soon I was back on my way.

But as I continued my walk home, I felt somewhat dissatisfied. I imagined my ticked boxes being combined with hundreds of others, crunched in a data cloud before landing, out of context, in a management meeting somewhere. I knew that, in a hefty client survey report, my individual experience would be completely lost. It reminded me of something the Pope said last year when addressing the World Food Programme: "Without faces and stories, human lives become statistics and we run the risk of bureaucratising the sufferings of others." I’m not suggesting for one moment that the Pope had rail passengers in mind, but his words certainly rang true for me: my experience had become another statistic.

As the charity sector has professionalised, so implementing uniform ways of working has become commonplace. Every organisation needs some standardised procedures for quality and safeguarding, and increasingly we use them to protect ourselves from future charges of negligence. Formal processes are invaluable for taking the heat out of emotionally charged situations, but they can also take out the empathy. If we are not careful, following procedure becomes more important than responding to the needs of the person in front of us and we run the risk of bureaucratising others’ experiences. We always have to question whether what we are doing is best for the client or simply to make life easier for ourselves.

Whether you are a funder, a client or a volunteer, nobody wants to be a number. We want our personal stories to be heard and our unique contributions valued. However, when we overly engineer processes and procedures, not only do we short-change the people who use our services, but we also rob our own staff of the opportunity to bring their skills and personalities to work. Rather than trust them to use their individual judgement and creativity, we insist they follow the manual. Over time, perfectly capable staff become institutionalised and deskilled, needing ever more detailed procedures to tell them what to do and with the fallback defence "I was following procedure" when things go wrong.

The procedure manual should be a foundation, something we stand on to help us achieve more, not a burdensome tome that crushes people’s spark and personal contributions. Rather than insist that staff follow the rules, we need to work with them to understand the principles and logic behind the rules. We need to skill them up to assess for themselves the complex situations they face, the risks and variables to consider in making decisions. It is a difficult balancing act, especially when we are dealing with vulnerable people – but, if charities are to be effective, it’s important to keep bureaucracy in its place and bring people centre stage.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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