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On the ethics of shouting at the help

Here in the UK the week began with shouting at tea and is ending with shouting at permanent secretaries. Home Secretary, Priti Patel is accused of doing the shouting and as a consequence there be ructions. Now this is probably not the time to offer an opinion on whether Patel is guilty of this non-crime, but it does raise the question of whether we should care or not.

Being shouted at is not a lot of fun especially by your boss. All things being equal bosses shouldn’t do it. But bosses are not paid to be nice they are paid to be effective. So, does shouting help? Or hinder? Or not make much difference?

Some examples come to mind:

Churchill. He used to have blazing rows – hours-long blazing rows – with Alanbrooke. But the shouting was both ways. Also – outside 1940 – was Churchill effective? Discuss.

Margaret Thatcher. Despite her fierce reputation rumour has it that she was nice towards her staff. Much the same used to be said about her colleague, Norman Tebbitt, the Chingford Skinhead.

Douglas Haig. Apparently he was very calm. As a subordinate you had to really push it get him angry. But was he effective? I have studied him for years and I am still not sure. Probably yes. Paul Marks, on the other hand, has no such doubts. Definitely not.

In my personal experience, the calmer bosses seem to be more effective but as an employee it’s often difficult to tell.

17 comments to On the ethics of shouting at the help

  • Roué le Jour

    I believe Norman Tebbitt was satirized as the Chingford Strangler.

    You can’t actually hurt permanent secretaries, so what else is there besides harsh language?

  • Philippe Hermkens

    If you’re yelled at,it is rightly or wrongly If it’s wrongly and if you stay, you are nuts If it is rightly you have to quit

    If you are a boss and if you yelled at people who stay you have a big problem and it’s your problem

  • Nullius in Verba

    “In my personal experience, the calmer bosses seem to be more effective but as an employee it’s often difficult to tell.”

    Probably true, but I would suspect that it’s that effective bosses don’t experience the frustration and anger and fear that leads to shouting.

    It’s a display of aggression, an evolutionary threat display prior to violence, aimed at getting a rival or a threat to back down before actual violence leads to bodily damage. It’s a way of settling dominance disputes, while reducing the cost of constant battles for dominance. And when an insecure dominant feels their dominance is being challenged, it’s a cheap and easy tool to get compliance. The instinct, unless one really is seriously challenging for leadership, is to submit. Even when you know the threat of imminent violence is a bluff, the instinct is still there.

    So it’s a tool by which you can temporarily get/maintain control over subordinates and rivals. However, the fact that you need to use it implies that you feel you don’t have control. If that’s true, then the effect will likely last only as long as you’re watching them. Plotters won’t stop plotting – they’ll just take more care not to get caught. If it’s not true, you have turned what was supposed to be a cooperative working relationship into one of dominance and forced submission, which is far less effective. You’ll get obedience, but you won’t get initiative, risk-taking, or improvement. And once things have turned actively hostile, the moment they can find a way to undermine you without getting caught, they will. It puts you into a dangerous, precarious position, which then requires constant further aggression to maintain.

    The implicit subtext here is that the Senior Civil Service have been doing their ‘Sir Humphrey’ routine, subtly obstructing and undermining ministers trying to enact policies to which the ‘Deep State’ Establishment is vehemently opposed. Ministers while nominally the boss, are not in fact in control. The frustration this gives rise to might indeed lead to shouting. But for an experienced civil servant, shouting is an amateur move – if you can resist the instinctive submissive cringe, it is totally ineffective, could not be escalated into actual violence without giving the subordinate the upper hand, and is a clear sign you’re winning. If they could actually fire you, they would, so if they’re only shouting at you, you’re perfectly safe. No civil servant of Rutnam’s long experience would resign just because someone got shouted at. Something else happened. At a guess, the politicians had proof that he had orchestrated the briefing against his own minister, and he was told he could either resign or be fired. And he must have believed their evidence was sufficient, or at least that the process would be sufficiently punishing, that he didn’t want to take the risk. But that’s just unfounded speculation on my part – I expect more will come out in the coming weeks.

    Ethically, it’s fine if it’s understood by all parties that it’s not actually going to lead to violence. If it’s just a way to vent your passions harmlessly, to be able to argue without having to divert mental resources to constantly censoring yourself, and both sides know it, it’s harmless. If, on the other hand, the implicit (even if illusory) threat of violence is used to force others to submit against their will, then it’s a use of force. Whether that is justified is determined, as usual, by the Harm Principle.

  • I take very seriously the suggestion that the permanent secretary in this case makes Sir Humphrey Appleby look obedient, respectful and effective in carrying out government policy. God knows, I am no fan of Amber Rudd but I suspect there is content in her description of how the Windrush affair was a wilful Home Office department foul up, intended to discredit the idea of immigration control, complete with the permanent secretary arranging to be absent, unavailable for her to consult, on the crucial days, as if well aware when it was due to go public.

    There is a swamp to drain here as well as in the US. The departure of senior civil servants who act and think like mandarins is what I voted for in December.

    BTW, if the politics of the two were reversed we would be hearing lots about how the white male disrespected the coloured female.

  • Glory be, for once, Nullius in Verba says something I can agree on: “No civil servant of Rutnam’s long experience would resign just because someone got shouted at.”

    Something else is indeed afoot. I think the civil service just picked a fight it isn’t going to win. Maybe guerilla warfare for so long makes you overconfident?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Glory be, for once, Nullius in Verba says something I can agree on:”

    🙂 🙄 There’s a big difference between libertarians and conservatives!

    “I think the civil service just picked a fight it isn’t going to win.”

    Maybe. One possibility is that an employment tribunal gives them cover allowing them to expose all their evidence and claims about Priti’s behaviour in public, which will provide plenty of ammunition to other parts of the machine in the media. Getting fired, the enquiries would have been held in private. The war’s not over yet.

  • mongoose

    Not making efforts to disassociate oneself from comments isn’t a fundamental breach of the chap’s contract. It’s a bit thin IMO. So the man is picking a fight to damage the government via Patel. It’s anti-BoJo PR. And it’s too soon.

    If I was HMG I’d be tempted not even to defend the case. The lawyers’ bills will be stratospheric. Say just that, and pay whatever award comes by if it comes by. It’s capped at about 90k for most situations. “Small tatties; we’ve a country to run.”

  • JohnK

    Perhaps if Jim Hacker had got mediaeval on Sir Humphrey’s ass he might have been a more effective minister. Instead, “Yes Minister” neatly showed how ministers who lack any conviction soon become the puppets of their civil servants.

    If Priti Patel does indeed have the courage of her convictions, then the resignation of this snivelling tosser is undoubtedly a Good Thing. He seems to have used selective leaking to see off Amber Rudd over Windrush, and no doubt thought he could do something similar to Priti. How reassuring that she is not playing his game.

  • Eric

    In my personal experience, the calmer bosses seem to be more effective but as an employee it’s often difficult to tell.

    I don’t know how alike the US and British civil service is, but having worked with the US variety I can’t fault someone for venting a bit when confronted with the sort of bureaucratic guerrilla war at which these people excel.

  • Fraser Orr

    The curious thing about his letter is this claim for constructive dismissal. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the unionized job for life attitude of the civil service. But isn’t that the whole point? The elected Home Secretary has, supposedly anyway, the mandate of the people. The job of the civil service is to carry out that mandate as she directs, and an important part of that is the ability to select and rearrange your staff appropriately. The fact that the Home Secretary would NEED to dismiss constructively instead of directly is at the root of the whole problem.

    When you are the boss you have a group of subordinates who you want to carry out your agenda, but, because they are human beings, they actually want to carry out their agenda. And so as the boss you must use various tools to force them to align their agenda with yours. One way to do that is to cause them pain if they stray off the track that you have set. That pain can take various forms — termination, demotion, reduction in bonus, reduction in responsibility, persnickety and excessively frequent reporting requirements and yes, shouting and perhaps a little peer humiliation. The latter approach is never great, but sometimes it is a necessary last resource as a kind of shock and awe thing, as we sometimes might do with our children. In organizations where it is impossible to fire people, affect their promotion, salary or responsibility (such as government jobs) the boss is often reduced to less pleasant options.

    Though perhaps she could simply have withheld their honours? https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5v4ri0

  • mickc

    Outside 1940, of course Churchill was not effective.

    Happily, others were.

    Unhappily, many of those were Labour busily introducing the Socialist big state for which the catastrophe of WW2 provided the rationale

  • There should have been a mass sacking of higher-ups in the civil service on Dec 13, 2019. Or at least a mass re-assignment of jobs. If it was too difficult to sack Rutnam then he could at least have been re-assigned to an office in the Highlands looking after mosquitoes.

  • Mr Ed

    If your barrister hasn’t been shouted at by a judge in court at some career stage, then you have probably made a poor choice of brief.

  • Paul Marks

    I am not aware of any battles that were won by Douglas Haig – in spite of his own claims to the contrary. For example he was neither in strategic or tactical command in 1918 – General Foch was in strategic command of Allied forces, and Generals Plumer and Rawlingson were in tactical command of British forces. That is the truth – and the various forms of Haig’s dairies and other writers (upon which establishment histories are based) are not true.

    HOWEVER, the mention of General Plumer above reminds me that a man does not have to shout in order to be effective.

    General Smith-Dorien was removed, in part, because of his ill temper – and he was an effective General (without Smith-Dorien the British army might well have collapsed in 1914 – certainly General Haig was of no use). But General Smith-Dorien was replaced by General Plumer – who does make mistakes (most certainly), but was generally effective.

    General Allenby in the Middle East is effective and is well known for his outbursts of temper – but Allenby himself admitted that when he was in a rage he was NOT effective.

    The ranting-and-raving Allenby is actually INeffective – it is the calm and considered Allenby (the man who was interested in flowers – and once spent an hour studying the carvings on a church door) who is effective.

    Indeed one reason that Allenby is more effective in the Middle East than he had been on the Western Front is that he has more time to think (more time to calm down) – he also has a lot less pressure above him, as he is his own man in the Middle East (he does not have to worry about a commander above him).

  • Paul Marks

    As for the Civil Service generally and the Home Office in particular, these are not, generally, people who are known to be pro British – rather the contrary. So I would not put any weight on their claims – any more than Winston Churchill put any weight in the horribly dishonest and self serving claims of the Ministry of Supply during the 2nd World War (which is why he set up the “Toy Shop” to get round the Ministry of Supply – and that is why the “Toy Shop” is abolished as soon as Winston Churchill stops being Prime Minister).

    The Civil Service has had more than three and half years to prepare for us leaving the European Union – but my new passport (which arrived a couple of days ago) still looks like an European Union passport.

    Three and half years to prepare and the Civil Service still managed to mess it up – and only by the personal intervention of the Home Secretary is anything being done.

    For some reason I am reminded of General French’s words about General Haig (although they eventually reconciled) “he should be taken out into Horseguards and shot”.

  • NickM

    The General

    By Siegfried Sassoon

    “Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
    When we met him last week on our way to the line.
    Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
    And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
    “He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
    As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

    But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

    About Haig? I dunno.

    Eisenhower is an interesting case. A damn good manager by all accounts who managed his two key sub-ordinates – men of incredibly contrasting temprements – Monty and Patton – very well.

  • About Haig? I dunno. (NickM, March 3, 2020 at 10:57 am)

    At my school, we were taught that it was definitely about Haig – by an English teacher who was quite good on his own subject but – I realised long after – had confused Sir Douglas Haig and Sir John French in his anecdotes. However it seems very likely that Sassoon had Haig in mind. (By contrast, his similar poem “Base Detail” is about the staff.)

    That of course does not mean it is necessarily fair. Sassoon was a poet and a very junior infantry officer – not a strategist or a historian. Paul Marks has argued his very negative view of Haig out against the less hostile assessments of me, Patrick Crozier and others at length in old threads – where I invite anyone interested to seek details.

    “A nation like Germany, after having forced the issue, will only give in after it is beaten to the ground. That will take a very long time. No-one living knows how long.” (Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, War Minister, August 1914)

    Kitchener could equally have said that it would take a great many military deaths inflicted to beat Germany to the ground – and therefore a great many military deaths suffered. In assessing Haig, it is important to start by knowing that a great many dead British soldiers were inevitable whoever was in command – and that “No-one living knows how long” was one of a number of things no-one knew in 1914 which took even the best commanders a very costly time to learn.

    It is, I think, much less contentious to reply to mickc (March 1, 2020 at 6:45 am) that Churchill was often very effective before and after 1940, as well as during it.