We have all been there. The committee receives a note from quality control saying that the practice it oversees is ‘non-compliant’. The chair gets that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. It is the feeling you get just before you go into the dentist, a mixture of shame, fear and pain: shame because once again your teeth brushing has not worked (what must he think of me?); fear because you know what’s coming; pain because you felt it all before. Of those three I suspect that shame is the most powerful feeling, certainly for the chairperson in question. What will they think of our division, what will they think of my committee, what will they think of me? ‘They’ are the ‘public’, and shame is about our failings being made public- partly guilt to do with responsibility of the non-compliance and partly the excruciating feeling that everyone can see not just the problem but that it is something to do with me. Ultimately it comes down to judgement about you and I, and about our worth.
All you need is a strong hierarchy and a tough system of regulation and we can then live off shame and its close friend fear for a long time, hitting target after target….until, that is, we get wise. Someone has to say to the regulators, ‘Thank you very much for pointing this out, we will now take our time to consider what this involves and get back to you. We might even want to have a conversation’.
Conversation in this context is often a novelty. After all, what is the point of having regulation is you have to have a conversation. Why can’t you just get on with it and comply. Here is where wisdom kicks in. Compliance is about metrics, fulfilling certain targets or standards. Wisdom is about reflection on core purpose and how we embody it. The wise chair will enable this and may even judge that after due thought that it will take much longer to enable the practice to be brought up speed. We could take a blunderbuss to the people in that area and get them to do as they are told, or we could take a longer time to ensure that professional practice on the ground was based in understanding and how best practice could be achieved. The wise chair would also have to be courageous because quality control has just told him that the figures need to be secure for this year because the external regulators are coming for their triennial visit. At this point shame is seeping into quality control, who do not want to be seen as ‘failures’ any more than the CEO, or the board for that matter.
Atop of this hill of shame stands our government, who insist that tough regulation is actually necessary for good professional practice. The dynamic is interesting and there is not enough space here to develop, but it seems to suggest that the government is perfectly aware that their system is built on ‘shaming’ rather than the development of professional judgment and practice. But don’t underestimate the power of shame and our capacity to be shamed, and don’t underestimate how shame focused on targets can lead to loss of the practice of core professional virtues, such as wisdom, temperance and courage, and the loss of core professional practice not least careful deliberation. It is hardly surprising that Cyril Chantler has suggested that professionalism and trust is being destroyed by regulation.
Scrap regulation? No, but let’s revisit it to see what it might actually enable.
Simon is the Director for the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility at Leeds Beckett University. He focuses on business and professional ethics, the nature and practice of responsibility, responsibility and pedagogy, governance and leadership ethics across all sectors. Running throughout this is a concern about the meaning of responsibility, focused in virtues, ontology, culture and critical dialogue. He is also working on spirituality and leadership.