Can Oxfam “sex scandal” controversy be completely avoided?

Between the human condition and the extreme conditions international aid work is often carried out, probably not. Not entirely. That said, screening, safeguarding and whistle blowing processes must be in place to prevent abuse of any nature. However, when deplorable acts are uncovered and dealt with, they should be seen as a success of these processes, rather than an indictment of the agency concerned. The wrong doings of a few rogue elements shouldn’t be used to ‘pathologise’ the whole organisation as bad, as some have done in this case Oxfam, an organisation that has and continues to do so much good.

The best any organisation can do is to put in place rigorous processes to reduce the risk of abuse and to enact protocols for dealing with transgressions when they happen, swiftly and openly.

For British charities, developing and codifying (mis)conduct, safeguarding and whistleblowing  policies is mandatory and in many ways the easy part of the equation – write the policies, stipulate the consequences and sanctions for misconduct and communicate this throughout the organisation.

However, turning desired behaviours into lived practice and creating a culture of zero tolerance to abuse given the geographical spread, busyness, complexities and chaos of crisis response is another matter altogether.  Getting the whole system to be committed to living ethically is a relational achievement and involves communal engagement activities that results, not only in organisational members embracing but also embodying espoused values in ways that heightens vigilance to unacceptable behaviours. Unfortunately in a sector increasingly obsessed/stressed with meeting compliance requirements and driven by of KPis and ROis such culture building activities are often seen as a luxury and a waste of time.

International charities need to be both diligent about developing and implementing preventive policies; and pay equal, if not more attention to co-creating an ethical culture where all organisation members are working towards eliminating all forms of malpractice. Having done this, when things go wrong, and they will, we should hold the organisation concerned accountable for learning from their mistakes and for making tangible improvements, rather than hounding them in ways that reduce their support and consequently their ability to serve their beneficiaries.

Oxfam is a great humanitarian organisation that has and continues to do so much good. They should be encouraged and supported to do better. A retributive approach does not serve the greater good.

Most aid workers put themselves in harm way to serve others. When the instinct is to run away from danger, this special breed of people run towards it. They do so out of compassion and a desire to alleviate suffering. What this current debate ignore, is that for each incident of aid workers abusing beneficiaries, there are an equal, if not more, abuses perpetrated on aid workers and volunteers. The ones I know carry on regardless. Don’t let the misdeeds of a few taint the honourable, often self sacrificial work of the many.

Extra, Extra…Read all about it. Especially as it’s free for the month of Feb!

I had a really pleasant surprise last week when this email hit my inbox:

Dear Patrick Goh,
I’m delighted to inform you that your article published in Voluntary Sector Review was one of the Journal’s top five most read articles published in 2017. As such we will be making it free to access for the month of February and marketing it on our website ( and on the Voluntary Sector Review twitter feed.

As the email didn’t ask me to fill in my personal information, I’m fairly certain it’s not spam. :)-

My reward? It’s being featured as a free download for the month of February 2018… so get it while you can.

#Don’t you wish your boy / girl friend was hot like me? JK! 

The article’s called Systemic practice and workplace as community: alternatives to managerialism

Data Analytics in People Management

Why am I wary about the use of data analytics in OD/People Management? Let me count the ways…

Human systems are dynamic while people surveys are temporary and static (ie, at best they only provide a snap shot in time).

Management by data analysis is a disembodied form of organising. It focusses on numbers and statistical analysis rather than real experiences.

It is based on on scientific assumptions of how the world/people works. Organising as quantitative science rather than qualitative human knowing.

It’s unrelational. Data doesn’t take account of quality of relationships and social effects of politics, power).

Benchmarking data against other organisations is uncontextual. We don’t know the context behind the stats of other orgs, so data is treated unrealistically as ‘ceteris paribus’, when we know its not.

It’s based on notion that truth is objective and discoverable through scientific/statistical endeavour rather than subjective and socially constructed.

It’s based on belief that the analyser can be separated from the analysed when everything is connected.

It is based on individual, logical rationalism rather than communitarian sense-making.

It’s is based on the assumption that the analyser can be neutral and unbiased.

(Language) Games People Play: #1 The Performance Appraisal

Are performance appraisals subjective? Yes.

Are performance appraisals done in the context of differential power relationships and personal agency? Yes.

Are performance appraisals influenced by office politics? Yes.

Despite this consensus, like a juggernaut the practice rolls on.  We’ve even tired to improve the ‘game’ by adding 360 degree feedback into the mix.

If we know that this is a flawed system why can’t we, don’t we, come up with something more meaningful?

I think Richard’s Rohr’s observation about Western culture also applies to organisational culture. He notices that there three kinds of cultures in the Western world today each with its own “bottom line”: political cultures based on the manipulation of power, economic cultures based on the manipulation of money, and religious cultures based on the manipulation of some theory about God. These ‘discourses’ have detrimental social consequences, although this is usually denied or unconsciously created by proponents. The  underlying values and their implicative effect of these discourse are usually hidden from the causal observer because they are uncritically accepted as the norm, ie, it’s the way we do things around here. Rohr gives a dramatic, perhaps overly pathologising warning about the effects of these dominant discourses when he concludes that “evil gains its power from disguise”.

What is the effect of your leadership on others?

There’s a saying… “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” I think it’s the same with leadership…

“Do not let unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up…”

I’m not advocating the ‘thought’ police. However, having seen how words can hurt, I think there are times where we need the ‘talk’ police.

When Patrick met Meg…

Well… I really felt like a groupie at a ‘In conversation with Meg Wheatley’  event yesterday:

Leadership in These Times Facing Reality | Claiming Leadership | Restoring Sanity. 

To be up close and personal with someone whose books has had such an impact and influence on me over the years was pretty awesome.

Meg shared her latest thinking in her new book Who do we choose to be?’ in which she develops the idea that modern culture has power over and on us, and to stand apart from this is a choice. Her prognosis is bleak… things will continue to fall apart, especially in America where she feels that there is a “war going on for the human spirit”. 

I live in America – its a terrifying time – we are in an age of destruction.

Power and greed seems to be more powerful than common good.

Politics seems to be about creating fear. When people are fearful, we become savages.

What do we need in this context? According to Meg,

We need leaders who recognize what harm is being done to people and planet through practices that dominate, ignore, abuse, and suppress the human spirit.

We need leaders who are willing to sacrifice self for others.  Sacrifice means to make something ‘scared’.

We need to work in small groups, create islands of sanity, that generate generosity and grace.

We reflected on Gandhi’s thoughts on 7 Social Sins:

Following a discussion about whether these were too propositional, too judgemental, too binary and therefore unrealistic/simplistic, Meg was adamant that this was a helpful frame from which to make sense of what’s going on in the world today. And that, there was a need to take an ethical stand.

She put forward the idea that one way to take a position is to create “islands of sanity” where we are – where those committed to serving others use their power and influence to co-create relationships that bring about generosity, contribution, community and love, no matter what. Inspirational stuff. 

At the beginning of the day Meg asked those in the room to re-call a time where we chose to be the kind of leader we are today, to rekindle this memory, and to tell the story about that. I have many! One is about how in 1992, her book Leadership and the New Science precipitated the journey I am now on as a systemic practitioner. As a disillusioned HR Manager, it was liberating to ‘discover’ that there was another, non-mechanistic, non-positivist, way of looking at organising and leadership. I will always be grateful for this gift! The following quote from Issac Newton sums up how I feel:

At the end of the day, I had to tell Meg about my other hero John Shotter, who once said to me:

The question is not what should we do, but rather who do we want to become.

Don’t do things better, do better things…

I’ve been glued to the recent BBC documentary about the Vietnam war. It’s a compelling but utterly depressing watch. As the credits rolled at the end of the last episode rolled, I found myself asking whether the world has learnt from this tragic, but on hindsight, avoidable human catastrophe? In that this experience has not prevented America from going to war again, the answer is no. What they have done, however, is to get better at warfare. Exponential improvements in war tech and greater investment in armaments have seen to that.

When discussing my doctoral research, people often ask, why study ‘leadership’, especially when there are a myriad of leadership theories and models already out there? Too many to mention, hence the question.

Well, I’m not interested in learning about leadership per se. What I am curious about is, what our notions of leadership, does. What kind of world do they create?

In 2008, Pearce (Littlejohn and McNamee, 2013) made the distinction between research that helps us do the same things better, and research that helps us do better things. He elaborates this by citing the example of wars… “rather than learning how to fight wars in new places such as outer space, a better thing to do might be to learn how to make peace so that we don’t need new weapons when we move into out space”.

I’d like to think that this applies to my research on leadership. It is not about perpetuating current leadership discourse by doing it better, but rather to suggest doing something better by altogether re-framing leadership.


Littlejohn, S. W. & Mcnamee, S. (2013). The Coordinated Management of Meaning: A Festschrift in Honor of W. Barnett Pearce, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.