9 – Obligatory empiricism, oblivious narcissism and consensual lying. Have they become three hallmarks of local government?

Now, you might think I am drawing a long bow here, especially if you don’t work in the sector or if you haven’t worked there long enough to identify underlying patterns. I will elaborate.

Empiricism is the theory that knowledge comes only from primary experience. It emphasises the use of evidence from direct experience in the formation of ideas, rather than using other knowledge not gained from experience or ideas passed down over time. By obligatory empiricism I am referring to situations where people must experience something themselves before they can use that knowledge to develop their ideas.

A recent article by Kat McGowan suggests that human progress has occurred using cumulative knowledge gained by copying each other, rather than episodic, transformational acts of creative genius by individuals. Imitation, not genius, has driven innovation. The challenge is maintaining what we already know, not creating something new. By the way, this ability to copy each other is not shared with animals. According to McGowan, they are obligatory empiricists and must learn everything through trial and error. When they die, the knowledge dies with them and successive generations are doomed to reinvent the wheel.

How many of us have experienced new ideas being introduced without a serious effort to look at how well they have worked for others and whether there is anything to learn from their experience?   How many times have you suggested an idea from a previous organisation, only to be told ‘that won’t work here, we are different’, without any real explanation of what is different? Why is it that every council has different ways of doing the same thing? These are potential indicators of obligatory empiricism. As a sector, we seem to focus on being ‘special and different’, rather than accepting that we have more in common and sharing systems and ideas.

Narcissism is a concept that most people are familiar with and there is increasing evidence of it in individuals and society today. Anne Manne has recently written about narcissism and the many forms it takes in our society. One form that attracted my attention is ‘oblivious narcissism’, in which the people are completely unaware of their narcissistic behaviours. It attracted my interest because narcissism is often associated with leaders. In healthy measure it is an important ingredient. In unhealthy measure, it can manifest itself in undesirable behaviours. Oblivious narcissism is evident in ways often associated with positive behaviours in local government.

Have you experienced leaders in your organisation who are extremely nice and accommodating, apparently sincere in their interest in the needs of others, and politely uncompromising in their pursuit of their personal goals? More and more, people who are exceedingly nice seem to be finding their way into local government leadership roles. As a result, you could be dealing with an oblivious narcissist in your organisation. Their lack of self-awareness makes them particularly difficult to deal with in local government setting, where niceness is often put ahead of performance. If you are a leader you are unlikely to be sacked for incompetence or lack of performance but you will be dealt with immediately if you are rude and upset people.   While narcissism is a general concern in society, it has significant consequences when it is present in organisational leaders and they are not aware of it. At least you know what you are dealing with a leader who is obviously narcissistic.

Consensual lying is a concept that I recently discovered at the thinkpurpose.com blog site. The writer describes consensual lying as flourishing in systems where management makes ineffective decisions but they will be told otherwise. Surprisingly, a search for consensual lying in organisations on Google found nothing on the topic. The blog author describes the best type of lying as ‘the type that doesn’t know it is a lie after a short while’. The lies are based on assumptions of what management would like to hear, and they are accepted because it is convenient for everyone involved. Then the lying goes further up the organisation.

Have you ever heard people give reasons for lack of performance or achievement that sound lame and flaky to you but are accepted by senior management? ‘I couldn’t complete the work because I didn’t have the resources’. This is a good one because allows everyone involved to shift the problem upstairs (somewhere) to the people who control resources. What about, ‘I couldn’t complete the project on time because the stakeholders wouldn’t cooperate. Another good one. There are always lots of stakeholders in public projects and it can be hard to pinpoint any one that has been a problem. Consensual lying is convenient and allows everyone to feel good about their role in a dysfunctional system.

I don’t want to sound too critical or bleak about local government. There are lots of fine organisations where good people are working hard and delivering great services. But there are many more that share some or all of these hallmarks. If you are in an organisation that is locked into learning everything from new, or led by people focussed more on their own needs than those of the organisation, or where consensual lying is widespread, you will face significant challenges in achieving high performance.

Colin Weatherby

Manne, Ann 2014. The life of I.

McGowan, Kat 2014. Brilliant impersonators, in Aeon magazine.

thinkpurpose.com. http://thinkpurpose.com/2014/08/22/do-you-have-a-joke-job