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Political Psychology Section

In the name of common sense

01 December 2020 | by Political Psychology Section

Ashley Weinberg, chair of BPS Political Psychology Section, explores the nature of toxic behaviour in political workplaces and asks how it can made a thing of the past.

People do what they do because they can. It’s this that makes politics such a dangerous game and why for some politicians it’s so toxic: there are relatively few others with the power to say ‘you can’t’.

Processes within politics also make it challenging for voters, as the chance to say ‘enough’ comes round relatively infrequently – even in the course of one year, so much can change, as we have seen.

Politics is about power and so taking control to make things happen is a daily challenge. Showing leadership is very much part of the job.

This is not to say being assertive is a deficit, however not everyone’s understanding of its meaning is the same.

It’s when the individual behaves ‘assertively’ in ways which impact so negatively on the well-being of those around them, and with regularity, that it becomes apparent there is a pattern suggestive of a problem which by common consensus is considered unreasonable.

The mantra ‘I can’t help it’ can be reeled off as an excuse, however even as a plea for absolution - whether convincing or not - it should come as a lightbulb moment for all concerned: ‘Have you considered getting help?’

In a workplace where power counts, who is going to ask the question, flick that switch and have a quiet word?

Sometimes it’s hoped that the culprit’s partner or a close associate at work might be that person, after all, to whom will the individual be most likely to listen?

Sometimes it comes as a shock to let them know ‘this is not the best way to get the change you so desperately want’.

Indeed it was arguably one of the most successful politicians, Mahatma Gandhi who said, ‘Be the change you wish to see’.

For some who display unreasonable behaviour in politics, a solution comes about by the intervention of a stronger force - perhaps an effective political leader or indeed a strong-minded electorate.

Naturally, it is heartening to learn that the UK Parliament has its own behaviour code which ‘calls for respect, professionalism, understanding of others’ perspectives, courtesy and acceptance of responsibility’.

There are processes for making complaints, but bringing about change can be challenging.

For example, Dame Laura Cox published a report in 2016 titled ‘Bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff’, but only last year, an independent inquiry underlined the need for urgent action to implement her recommendations.

Historical precedent shows that failure to comply with reasonable requests can lead to even greater challenges – as Thomas Paine’s call for ‘common sense’ showed almost 250 years ago.

It’s important to remember that unreasonable behaviour in politics is a worldwide phenomenon, as sadly remains the case in too many workplaces.

Equally, we cannot divorce ourselves from our environments and it is well-known that we face a range of pressures (or stressors) at work which cause us to manifest a range of emotions. In politics, this is no different.

Indeed, nine sources of pressure facing politicians and their staff have been investigated in a recent BPS report ‘Cognitive strain in Parliament’: whether carrying the weight of public expectation or vitriol, or experiencing a lack of control over so many job demands (see Flinders et al, 2020).

So how can unreasonable behaviour be addressed?

The tone and culture of an organisation is often clearly demonstrable at the executive level of its structure and governments are no different. In toxic cultures, toxic behaviour thrives.

Clearly the multiple approach of addressing the sources of strain in order to safeguard the future, as well as tackling unreasonable behaviour as it arises, is the way forward.

Behaviour in politics is often in public view - whether in a press conference, Twitter feed or debate - yet behind the scenes there is much more to the job.

Naturally, there are times when life feels like a duel, but that doesn’t mean we would trust ourselves with a sword. Yet the UK Parliament still has a place for each MP to hang one!

If we want the UK Parliament to be the best it can be - and ideally an exemplar for all organisations in the UK - then it is high time to ditch the provision for swords and the outdated styles of behaviour which can accompany them.

The art of politics is not how to use force, unless as a last resort, as relevant techniques can be trained and coached.

Failing these, direct intervention should show individuals the exit and not be waived as individuals see fit. In sport, a system of yellow and red cards is applied and in many sectors there are clear rules of engagement.

Such approaches in politics have been difficult to apply where tradition expects a leader’s endorsement of sanctions. Indeed precedent is the way in which so much is known, but unwritten, when it comes to Parliament. This does not mean that organisational culture cannot change.

Tacit agreement about standards of behaviour became a hot topic as the expenses scandal unfolded in 2008 and with it recognition of the need for more transparency and accountability.

The accepted ‘norms’ of claiming expenses were shaken up in dramatic style and an independent watchdog IPSA) appointed to oversee future claims.

Many MPs recognise this has not made for ease of use, but understand clearly its importance for public confidence in their role.

Nevertheless, the expansion of a personnel style approach to considering the human side of Parliament is one way in which standards can be determined and upheld in organisations.

Not only could this remove the prospect of political decisions about whether to apply due process or indeed historic precedent, but it would also signal expectations about behaviour and what happens where unreasonable behaviour is evidenced.

The absence of a clearly defined employer remains a major issue for Members of Parliament, as the stakeholders include political parties as well as us, the voters.

Yet, democracy tends to benefit from effective processes – for example, reforming the induction process for new MPs so they can get on with representing their constituents, instead of being shown a desk with a phone in corridor and being told, ‘There you are!’ as used to happen.

As a professional body working daily with all forms of human behaviour, psychologists recognise the importance of culture in organisations and the significance of setting expectations.

We would welcome actions by the Speaker of the House of Commons and relevant parliamentary and civil service authorities to institute whichever processes are necessary to apply the highest expectations to all in the UK Parliament.

Making unreasonable and toxic behaviour a thing of the past for all who operate in political workplaces, would be a major step to changing for the better the working lives of countless employees far beyond Parliament.

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