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This is a phrase I keep coming across, “You can’t sack people in the public sector”.

Here is the catch:  When you want to bring about cultural and behavioural change there will be some people who cannot, or will not, change their behaviour.  They retain the behaviours of the old regime or approach.    The problem is, that if you leave these people in place, (even after giving them a chance to change) you are condoning the old behaviours and culture.

If you leave these people in place, and condone the old behaviours, people will not think you are serious about change: A s a result, they will not change either.  Therefore, no culture or behavioural change.  You are wasting your time with the change programme.

OK, I know I am on controversial ground, here, so first some background.

How do Chief Executives change organisational performance, through changing the culture and behaviours?

I don’t believe that culture eats strategy for breakfast.  To me that simply means that you haven’t got a strong enough strategy for changing the culture and behaviours in the organisation.  It is lazy thinking. (“Why ‘Strategy eats culture for breakfast’ is wrong“)

I also know it is true because I have searched our Chief Executives who have brought about performance change in their organisation, by changing the culture and behaviours.  They have changed the behaviours that have become learnt, embedded and then deeply embedded over time.  The have changed the deeply embedded learnt behaviours (what I call DELBs).

One part of their consistent approach to behavioural change is to recognise that  some people, may be high performers, whilst not exhibiting the desired behaviours and values of the organisation.  Whilst they might appear to be “high performers” what is actually happening is that, through their behaviours and values, they are reinforcing the old unwanted culture and behaviours.  They are holding others back.  They are in fact holding the whole organisation back.  Worse still they might be operating as bullies.

Sure, give these people a chance to change: to take on the new behaviours. Give them the chance to change their stripes, to get on the bus.  But meanwhile, be very aware of malicious compliance: the apparent compliance with the new regime whilst they talk about how it will fail, undermine it and generally disrupt the change process in the background.  They are undermining the change programme and any move to the new behaviours.  They need to be removed.  Sacked.  The the only way to change the organisation is to explicitly and symbolically remove these people.  “Sack them!”

Back to the public sector

However, I keep coming across public sector organisations who at this point say,  “You know this is the public sector, don’t you!”  In other words, they are saying, “We can’t sack people in the public sector!”

I need to explain, I did not make that quote up.  It comes from a meeting with an NHS organisation.  In the meeting were both Board members and members of the Executive team.  I had been asked how to bring about cultural change and was explaining what needs to happen.  It was at the point when I said, “You may well need to sack a few people to demonstrate you are serious”, that I got the response “You know this is the public sector, don’t you”.   Ironically, whilst I was being ‘challenged’ with this response, another director was starting to applaud me.

You see it is clearly recognised that such people stop change happening.  They hold back the organisation. So, something must be done.  Something serious and symbolic.

But here is the rub:  The public sector is not very good at sacking people.  For some reason it thinks it can’t sack people.  It is not that good at making people redundant (I know that should be – their role’s have become redundant).  It is not very good at removing those who get in the way.

Yet here is the problem: If you don’t, nothing will change.  You are implicitly condoning the behaviours and culture that you want to change.  You are saying to people, “We would like you to change, but if you don’t want to, that is OK.  These others will continue to operate alongside you, behaving the old way, even though you are making the effort to improve.”

No wonder it is so difficult to change the public sector.

So you have a choice: Either condone the existing culture or take and act on some hard decisions.

But it is a choice between changing the organisation for the good, or half-heartedly pretending to change the culture.

It is your choice.

(Oh and if you are looking for options at this point….  here are some alternative ways to get rid of people).