The Oliver Twist Mentality and how it can prevent training being implemented in the workplace
Prepared by Anna Beckwith Smith Beckwith January 2009
ÂŠ Smith Beckwith 2008.
Don’t you just love those Christmas Classics that the TV companies roll out every year? You know the ones: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins….and Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver Twist. Sometimes, learning experiences can take you by surprise – and none more so than my recent discovery that the characters of Oliver Twist, and their actions and reactions to events that take place, have a direct relevance to the workplace, and in particular to the reasons why the learning gathered on training courses often doesn’t make it back into the workplace. Or if it does, it doesn’t last long. One particular scene stands out as worthy of ‘study’ in this context. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know it well. Young Oliver has been sent to the workhouse where he, along with dozens of other boys, work long hours, day in, day out. They are dressed in rags, and are given little to eat, apart from a bowl of thin gruel at mealtimes, when they sit at long trestle tables in the cold, dreaming of ‘food glorious food’. Eventually, the boys draw lots, and it falls to Oliver to make a stand. He finishes his bowl of gruel and, still hungry, he takes it up to the front of the dining hall. As the other boys look on in silent trepidation, he raises it towards the wicked workhouse manager, Mr. Bumble, and delivers the famous line “Please Sir, I want some more!” Chaos ensues! Mr. Bumble is furious that Oliver has had the cheek to ask for more. Oliver finds little support from the other boys, and, trying to make a run for it, he’s unceremoniously hauled back to Mr Bumble to face his punishment. Despite trying to take a stand on everyone’s behalf, he finds himself still very much alone in the world. Happily, Oliver’s story turns out well. However, there are three attitudes apparent in this scene that you may well recognise in the workplace…. Mr. Bumble In this scene, Mr Bumble, the workhouse manager is furious that “Oliver Twist has asked for more!” How dare he?! He should count himself lucky that he has food to eat and a roof over his head! Most organisations have a Mr Bumble somewhere in their ranks. Where’s yours? Is it the boss who thinks you’re not worth the pay rise you’re asking for? Is it the manager who always pours cold water on your new ideas? Perhaps you’ve stood
© Smith Beckwith 2008.
up to someone in authority only to find yourself – like Oliver - in a worse position than before you started. It’s the Mr Bumbles in an organisation who inhibit creativity and freedom of ideas, and who can’t bring themselves to let ANYONE raise their heads above the parapet in any shape or form for fear that it undermines or threatens their position or their authority in some way. Sometimes peers and subordinates – even friends and family members - can assume the role of Mr Bumble. I have an acquaintance who, whenever I tell him about a new project or business venture I’m involved with, takes it upon himself to tell me why it won’t work and what he would do instead. It’s as if he thinks I’m asking his permission to move ahead - to ‘ask for more’, and as though he has assumed the right to say ‘no’. He hasn’t. In a training and development context, Mr Bumbles can seriously hamper the implementation of learning. We delivered a training programme a few years ago which had been developed by our client’s in-house team, and we were cofacilitators for them. It was a great course – packed full on genuinely useful and applicable techniques, and it openly encouraged participants to challenge negativity in the organisation, at whatever level, with the promise that their issues and concerns would be taken on board. Despite some scepticism amongst participants, most of them embraced the themes of the course. A few months later, it became clear that some of their managers had not bought in to the themes of the programme, and that several Mr Bumbles had appeared. Several participants who were implementing the new techniques and behaviours found themselves at odds with their managers, their efforts derided, and their copy books blotted for challenging the status quo. The programme that promised so much actually delivered very little in terms of a positive cultural change. The Mr Bumbles had managed to maintain their control and equilibrium. Often, it’s impossible to ignore Mr Bumbles in the workplace, especially if they are senior figures in the organisation – especially if they are in positions of authority. However, we can choose to limit their influence on us as individuals, and develop strategies to overcome any negative, limiting behaviour. And by doing so, set up an alternative rallying point for colleagues. Mr Bumbles themselves doubtless see themselves as strong managers and leaders. This lack of self awareness is a major stumbling block to their learning and development.
© Smith Beckwith 2008.
The other workhouse boys In the movie, the uproar following Oliver asking for more involves a song and dance routine, at the end of which Oliver – having tried to make his escape – is handed back to Mr Bumble. The attitude of the boys has changed from one of admiration and trepidation at Oliver’s bold step forward, to one of relief that it’s not them in the firing line. It’s interesting to consider the change in mood in the context of ‘Groupthink’ and other theories. However it might be analysed, the fact remains that colleagues and peers can sometimes take on the role of the ‘workhouse boys’. I worked in a troubled organisation a while ago, and one of my colleagues was asked by his departmental peers to speak up on behalf of them all at a meeting with a senior manager. They would all be there, and they would support him, they said. What actually happened was that my colleague spoke up, the manager (widely regarded as a bully within the organisation) reacted with anger and derision and demanded of the assembled group if this was really the view that they al shared. To my colleagues horror, his peers backed down, and he was left making a (now rather feeble) stand on his own. He felt he had no choice but to give up….and he also felt that he was marked out as a trouble maker from that day on. And what was the upshot of this? The group left that meeting having avoided conflict, but without their concerns addressed. They continued to grumble about it at the water cooler for months afterwards. Perhaps the relevance of this situation is to the person who has been on a training and development programme and has developed new skills and behaviour patterns and wants to try them out. Colleagues might not be as supportive of the ‘new you’ as you might hope. Human beings are social creatures that thrive as part of a group. Anything that potentially puts us outside that group…including a misplaced perception that ‘now we’ve learned some new skills we think we’re better then everyone else’ can make us feel very uncomfortable and even fearful. And it can make other people fearful of us. The challenge remains for individuals to hold fast to their new learning, and for managers to actively support the implementation of that learning. Unfortunately, not all of them do.
© Smith Beckwith 2008.
Oliver Twist The key, of course lies with Oliver himself. Of course, in Dickens’ novel, he’s just a boy and isn’t master of his future in any shape or form. The fact that he has several adventures and then finds his fortune is almost nothing to do with him – others in the story control his destiny. There are ‘bad’ characters like Fagin and Bill Sykes who force Oliver to rob and steal against his will, and ‘good’ characters such as Nancy and his long lost relatives, who never give up hope of finding him, and eventually do. Oliver is a child and has that excuse. Frequently though, in training courses and indeed in the workplace, we meet ‘Olivers’ who either don’t realise that they have a sphere of influence over their own lives and circumstances, or they refuse to accept it. We often come across people who have, for example, no sense of control over their career progression and personal development. They’ll get a promotion or a salary raise when their boss decides to give it to them. They’ll have to find another job if they get made redundant…but other people will make those choices. There are others who, throughout a training course will spend all their time telling you how they won’t be able to apply the principles of, say, time management, because their boss always gives them too much work to do, or their department runs differently from anywhere else (and apparently outside the laws of the universe!) The point is, someone else is in control. The choice to take different actions, adopt different behaviours and apply new skills IS with the individual, but they have allowed others to take control – unwittingly or otherwise. So what does this mean in terms of training and development? If Oliver does not feel empowered to use his new skills and does not feel that he has influence over his decisions, he will not implement his training fully. It will be down to chance as to whether his manager is supportive or not, and therefore whether that training budget was well spent. Training and development should be as much about confidence development as about the teaching of new skills. The workhouse boys - and many departments and teams – operate on a tribal basis rather than a true team basis. It’s survival of the fittest, and anyone who seeks to be different must either get back in line or be destroyed. It would be too easy to prescribe a teambuilding away day. Individuals within the team must be led to an understanding of their overall responsibility to the group, and recognition that if one part of the team suffers, the whole team suffers.
© Smith Beckwith 2008.
And what of Mr Bumble? His power base is gained and maintained by leveraging authority. He is not a leader – he maintains control by fear and punishment. How he sees himself, though, is something very different. Simply looking at leadership styles in any abstract sense might not be effective – he, after all, thinks he’s doing pretty well. In fact, if he filled in a personality profile questionnaire, he’d probably be misguided by his deluded sense of self, and come out of it looking pretty good. More creative methods must be used to encourage self awareness than discussion and analysis. An experience is needed – one which holds the mirror up and allows him to see himself as he really is. And in another novel – A Christmas Carol - Dickens himself uses that concept of learning by experience in the visitation of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future to transform one of his greatest fictional creations, Ebenezer Scrooge.
© Smith Beckwith 2008.