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The Mood of doom: Understanding public-sector culture


Mark Walsh looks at the tough public sector, and advises coaches how they can best penetrate this market.

Why is it that many trainers and coaches I know dislike working in the public sector? I don’t think it’s the individuals that work there (it is full of perfectly capable and nice people), the lower fees or the red tape, the main reason I hear expressed is mood. Working in and with public sector can be hard work in a way that working with businesses and charities usually isn’t.
At times I have found it less fun, harder to impart learning and to get results in this sector because of a culture of resentment and resignation that can pervade. By resentment I mean the low-level aggression that broods as people bad mouth their employer behind their backs, complain bitterly privately but make no positive changes. By resignation I mean the widespread belief that I encounter: “there is nothing you can do, so why bother trying?" (but certainly bother moaning again).
Of course I’m talking in generalities and I appreciate some may object to this. I have had the pleasure of working in dynamic and uplifting public sector organisations and utterly pathological private and third sector ones, but the former tend not to be the norm. There is a pattern at work and I would like to see discussed frankly.

So what is 'mood' anyway?

'Mood' can be defined as a physical predisposition for action. It is physical in that it exists in people’s posture, tone and movement (it is not magic) and is communicated non- verbally at all times. It also predisposes certain actions and makes others unlikely. For example if is a mood of resentment exists in an organisation, subtle revenge and undermining of management may well occur, and creativity and productivity are limited. No matter what management does, it will always be seen in the light of this mood. Moods are self-fulfilling. Because of this it is absolutely critical to address them if any change, training or development intuitive is to stand a chance.
Another scary thing about moods is that they are invisible to the people living in them (as distinct form emotions where something is triggered in the short term). Moods are transparent and just seems 'normal' because they have been habituated to. Pessimistic staff or aggressive managers are 'just being realistic'. Because of this, the mood is most easily seen when it starts to shift (think of the first days of summer after a long UK winter) or by an outsider who has not gotten used to an established mood. If you want to know your own mood ask a number of outsiders, sometimes the postman has much clearer view than the CEO.
Immanent cutbacks of course can worsen the moods I have described and I am not without compassion for anyone whose job is being currently threatened. The question that exists however is the same as before - what is habit predisposing and how can one respond given challenging circumstances?


Possible Causes

This article isn’t about blame, isn’t about response-ability (to borrow a phrase from consultant Fred Kofman). In discussing causes of the mood of doom the issue of locus of control is critical. A victim mentality is that a mood comes from outside, caused by cuts, bad management practices, low budget. etc. There is some truth perhaps in this and it is also utterly disempowering as an attribution stance. (There are many examples of companies and charities who went through hard times in the recession and didn’t wallow in a mood of doom so it is also not inevitable). Note too that a mood of doom has payoffs, by putting responsibility elsewhere for a problem it’s not your fault, you get to feel indignant and nobody can blame you - these are the wages of impotence. One can sacrifice being response-able, adaptability and problem solving for perceived (and short-term) emotional safety.


Lest I fall into the same trap I am describing I’d better offer some ideas that I have found useful to drag oneself out of the mood of doom! The first thing is to acknowledge that moods exist at all, without this they can not be addressed and remain elephants in the room. Taking people temporarily out of their mood emersion by placements and visit to other organisations and departments for example can aid recognition. Once moods have been acknowledged and named it is possible to stop tolerating them. Often a large amount of empathy is needed first and it is not helpful to tell people to 'just snap out of it'. If there has been layoffs, miscommunication an constant change (or 'Mondays' as some public sector friends call it) then a restorative process akin to grieving may need to occur.
Moods are embodied dispositions so one way I like working with them is through embodied training practices. Not yet widespread they are the most effective ways I know of addressing mood as it does so directly, and people who have been limited by their mood for years can quickly shift it through working with the body in a way that dialogue alone can not achieve.
Mood is also a product of the physical environment. The mood in Bermuda for example is very different from the mood in Croydon. This makes design critically important and even small changes like adding office plants and allowing individuals teams to decorate their offices can make a big difference. A good example of this is how job centres have gotten to be less depressing and more colourful places over recent years. Music is another way of shifting mood which is sometimes used well and sometimes less skillfully in the NHS for example
Perhaps most crucially is to develop cultures of accountability. If you can’t fire anyone and people are rewarded for politics and point-scoring other results it will lead to a certain mood. Businesses rarely develop moods of doom as they wouldn’t last long if they did. In evolutionary terms they are maladaptive and only able to flourish in protected domesticated environments. By way of balance I would note too that with accountability must also come empowerment. The truth behind the moaning is that people in public sector organisations may have been disempowered by trying to change broken systems and getting nowhere. If the management of a doom-laden organisation would like see a shift they must enable those lower down the ladder to make positive changes. Employee engagement is not having a Facebook page and top-down old-school management will never shift a mood of doom only drive it deeper.
These are just a few suggestions and cultural change is a complex affair. I’d like to leave readers with this: note your response to this article - could some of that be attributed to your own mood and not the article itself? And if mood is transparent how would you know?
I would like to acknowledge the work of the Strozzi Institute, Fred Kofman and the Newfield coaching network whose concepts I have drawn from and I would recommend them all for people interested in this area. All views expressed on the UK public sector however are my own.
Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer of embodied training. Based in Brighton, he heads Integration Training - business training providers specialising in management and leadership training, team building, stress management and time management training. Read his blog here.

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