The Lisa Loeb of Local Government


Why can't you just... Stay

“You say, I only hear what I want to”

So sang one hit (but many album) wonder Lisa Loeb back in the 1990s.

I was reminded of her carefully crafted lyrics last week as I made a quick tour of the Senior Management Teams (SMT) of our council departments.

At the beginning of each meeting the Department Head gives a quick summary of the latest Senior Leadership Team (SLT… We love our acronyms) meeting. This is the meeting of the Chief Executive and his senior managers.

Obviously, these SMT meetings are then a prime opportunity for the senior managers to feedback to their own managers about exactly what the strategic direction of the council is. It also forms the first part of the cascade of knowledge from the big boss down to the minions.

My problem was that I knew at the beginning of the week that I was going to hear the same message 5 times. I was planning to use the moment to update my notes and prepare for my little session of the meeting, before I could then make a quick exit. Indeed, one senior manager did take pity on me and let me get my bit out of the way before the obligatory SLT update took place.

However, this did leave me with four repeats of the same information to sit through, or so I thought. In fact, what I got was four, often quite different, versions of a fairly simple message.

One Director was particularly keen to reassure staff that the council’s policy was definitely not going to change. One emphasised that the council policy was not going to change but the principles behind the suggested change could be implemented under the current policy. Another said that there was general agreement that a change was needed although it might take some time to implement. The fourth said that there was no clear decision made and that in all likelihood the decision would need to be revisited.

This is obviously a ridiculous state of affairs but I’m guessing not an unusual one. You can sort of see how it happens too, and it’s not always sinister. Yes, senior managers hear what they want to or at least interpret discussions in a certain way. Alternatively, they make a judgement as to what message managers in their part of the business ‘need’ to hear and present things in a way appropriate for their team.

Finally, it is not unreasonable to assume that the outcomes of meetings at the senior level are not always clear. It’s certainly the case lower down the organisation that you can leave a meeting not being totally sure exactly what was agreed. I would imagine the same happens at the top too.

What can be done about it?

I guess the bureaucrat in me wants those meetings to have better minutes with clearly detailed ‘decisions’ and ‘actions’ agreed and circulated.

But life isn’t always defined by minutes. It’s total guess work but this sort of problem probably stems from a lack of clear leadership and vision. If everyone has a clear idea where the organisation is heading then the decisions are more difficult to mis-interpret. Likewise, if the Chief Exec or the chair of the meeting is clear as to what has been decided then it is hard for people to leave with the hope that ‘although she was quiet she probably agrees with me’.

That all being said; we’re all people and that probably explains why sometimes we can end up leaving the same meeting with different opinions of what happened.

I guess all we can do is try to avoid the warning of Mrs Loeb:

And you say I only hear what I want to: I don’t listen hard, don’t pay attention to the distance that you’re running to anyone, anywhere, I don’t understand if you really care, I’m only hearing negative: no, no, no.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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