The Garrulous Jay – Horizontally Challenged

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Every now and then throughout our working lives we screw up, or become aware of somebody else’s screw-up. We get that prickly feeling on the back of our necks and start to wonder if anyone is watching us. When it happens the pressure to sweep things under the carpet and hope the issue goes away can be enormous, but deep down we know this seldom ends well…

The unfolding tragedy of the miscarriage of justice suffered by the UK’s sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses at the hands of their employer almost defies belief.

They say that truth can be stranger than fiction which may go some way towards explaining why ITV decided to dramatise the plight of the posties in a four-part series I would urge anyone to watch.

The story of the way in which sub-postmaster Alan Bates resolutely stuck to his conviction that the Horizon IT system was to blame for the accounting problems in his own post office all the way to the High Court is a real-life tale of David versus Goliath.

Listening to parts of the on-going Public Inquiry yesterday was every bit as uncomfortable as it was compelling. One was left with a sense that for the Post Office and the supplier of Horizon, Fujitsu, this 24-year scandal is only going to get worse.

As with the Covid Inquiry, the objective is to learn lessons and, as the saying goes, “ensure this can never happen again”. But it will…

Nevertheless, there are lessons I think we can all learn or relearn from this appalling example of corporate psychopathy.

There will inevitably be a search for guilty actors and individual scapegoats, and there is no argument with the fact that if there has been any criminal wrongdoing on the part of those that pursued and prosecuted the sub-postmasters they themselves should now be brought to justice.

But in a way this is to miss the point. The ‘guilty parties’ here are not individuals but the organisations for which they work.

As we go through our lives we play multiple roles in different situations: with family, friends and of course at work. Each setting demands we behave in different ways.

What will have been at the heart of the Post Office and Fujitsu will have been a rotten culture: a place where calling out what felt wrong itself felt wrong, and where it seemed safer to keep quiet and carry on.

I expect a cocktail of individual and corporate fear, arrogance, incredulity and wilful blindness will continue to emerge as the Inquiry and court cases unfold. Individuals may even struggle to recognise themselves in the way they behaved inside these organisations.

What was irrational might have seemed rational, while a focus on the trees as people performed their individual roles lead to the wood disappearing from corporate view.

It is simply impossible to underestimate the importance of the way culture drives behaviour in any organisation. That starts at the top but we all have to own it.