In the film ‘Stand by Me’ (which I saw again yesterday, for the first time in years), there’s a scene where a young lad out camping with his friends sees a deer early one morning. I won’t spoil the storyline, but I do recommend the film – it’s a great tale about friendship and growing up.
Anyway, I had my ‘deer moment’ on the way to work this morning. As I turned a corner on a dark country lane I saw three shapes in the roadway – illuminated by my headlights, two large deer and a smaller one initially froze as I stopped my car to let them pass, before bolting towards a fence that bordered the roadway. The first of the trio leapt the fence with relative ease and the other larger deer was about to do the same, but hesitated.
Given that the second deer was roughly the same size as the one that had gone over the fence, it didn’t dawn on me at first why it might have paused, as I reckon it would have cleared the fence without much difficulty. Instead, it and the smaller deer ran back across the road, searching for an alternative escape route, before changing direction again and running along the carriageway side-by-side for a short distance. They then spotted a gap in a hedgerow and were gone.
My first thought was, “It was nice of your mate to hang about!” but then I guessed that as Deer Number One was closest to the fence it was just a natural reaction to leap over it without a second thought, as opposed to a ‘leg it and leave your mates to face the music’ moment.
As I drove off again, I thought about the behaviour of Deer Two. Here was an animal that had the means and opportunity to escape in the face of a perceived threat, yet apparently chose not to leave behind its smaller companion, who would have patently been unable to jump the fence. Deer Two opted to stay with Deer Three and find a way out together instead.
Well that was a truly heart-warming story of selflessness and cervine camaraderie, but before you can escape over the nearest fence in the style of Deer One, you might guess that there’s a systems lesson coming up, so stay put!
Deftly sidestepping any debate regarding whether deer are capable of making rational choices, my sense is that the actions of Deer Two came about as a result of an innate desire to protect the weaker and smaller Deer Three.
This is exactly what we do in public services. We protect the weak and vulnerable. We choose to put ourselves in danger to help others.
But why? Well let’s consider what it is that motivates people to behave in this way. I argue that innate stewardship characteristics predispose public servants such as me to act in the interests of others. This means relying on your internal compass to do the right thing in the circumstances, rather than seeking out personal gains. The result is that effort is focused towards organisational and societal goals, rather than short term personal benefit.
Ask any copper why they joined the police and they will probably tell you something along the lines of, “To help people and catch baddies”. That’s why I joined anyway. What about teachers, nurses, doctors, firefighters, social workers and so on? Their reasons are probably not that different.
Even in the private sector, the notion of workers wanting to do their best to achieve organisational aims is not unusual, as Tom Jones would put it. Who joins any organisation with the intention of doing a bad job?
Why then is the established disposition of Western management coloured by the assumption that workers will only perform if made subject of targets, standards, service level agreements, audits and other controls? Why does anyone think that pitting individuals or departments against each other within a system will result in better system performance? It’s nuts.
Imagine that Deer Two was offered an incentive to stay alongside Deer Three; perhaps some extra deer food or something. Or maybe a threat – “You’d better stay with Deer Three or you’ll be put on an action plan!” Would any of this make it more likely that Deer Two would stay with Deer Three? Of course not – the creature acted in the way it did because of natural instinct. It would behave like that anyway.
Attempts at managing performance or influencing behaviour through extrinsic motivators (i.e. ‘carrots and sticks’) miss the point, because they do not tap into the real reasons why people do stuff. They ignore the possibility that people might simply want to do a good job – a natural instinct.
The best we can hope for is that such misguided efforts have little or no effect on behaviour. Unfortunately however, they often succeed at driving precisely the wrong types of behaviours and this leads to the ‘Deer Threes’ of the world being left to fend for themselves.