Dominic Raab’s ResignationA Man So Unwilling to Learn is Undeserving of Our Sympathy
The relationship between ministers and civil servants is, by definition, an unequal one – it takes courage to stand up to a minister or offer an opinion contrary to their own, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall
Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.
Managing people is one of the hardest aspects of being a leader. In a highly pressurised environment, when you are feeling under stress to deliver, it is easy – though never acceptable – to lash out impatiently at a colleague who, in your view, has failed to perform to an acceptable standard. Ministers are human beings and fallible like everyone else.
In other circumstances, I might even have a smidgen of sympathy for Dominic Raab because – and, even years later, this still causes me deep anguish – I myself was once accused of bullying by a person I line-managed.
To protect this person’s identity, I won’t reveal the precise details, but it involved a subordinate who was not doing the job for which they were assigned, and had instead become overly preoccupied by a consular-type case, which was distracting them from their normal duties. I understood my colleague’s passion for the case because it was a very emotive one. But it was outside their core responsibilities.
I struggled for months over how to redirect them. I tried sympathy and engagement. I tried persuasion. I tried direct requests. I tried highlighting the issue in formal appraisal and feedback sessions. I tried asking colleagues to talk to them. Before each meeting with the person, I agonised over how to get my tone right. After each meeting, I lay awake at night worrying about my failure. My only reassurance came from the fact that my predecessor had struggled with the exact same issue; and also that both my line manager, and the head of mission, agreed that this was a problem which needed addressing.
Nevertheless, none of us succeeded. If anything, our collective efforts to redirect the person just made them more determined to stick to their guns.
The kicker came when, in their parting comments before they left their post, they accused me of bullying. Though the allegation was dismissed as unjustified, it left a searing mental scar on me.
I had always been insecure about my management style and always obsessed about how my staff viewed me – to the extent that one of my line managers actually told me I needed to stop over-compensating and trying too hard. But even though I was exonerated, the accusation of bullying completely destroyed me.
My paranoia deepened during my next posting, when I was responsible for the management of almost the entire embassy team, and again had the difficult task of trying to redirect a member of staff who was not performing to standard. Again, I sweated at night about the right approach. Again, I tried a mix of cajoling and more blunt talking. Again, none of it worked.
The difference this time was that I did not have the backing of my head of mission. Even though he agreed with me on the problem, he left me entirely to do the ‘dirty work’ of managing it by myself, while he remained the ‘nice guy’. This was a situation that was destined to end badly.
Ultimately, I decided to fire the person – but as they were a very popular member of staff, this went down poorly with many other staff members, and my reputation never recovered. It ended up being the unhappiest period of my career. I lost about 30 pounds in weight. I developed acute anxiety and depression. I lost all confidence and, eventually, I cut short my posting and left.
It took me years to recover from those two experiences. However, I never – for one moment – blamed the individuals. I only ever blamed myself. I thought there were genuine reasons for my concerns, and I did think the situations I found myself in were not entirely my fault. But the management failure was still on me.
It took me two years to pluck up the courage to apply for another posting, this time as an ambassador. When I did so, the legacy of my management style still hung around my neck like an albatross. When I failed in my first two bids, I decided to tackle the issue more head on.
I openly discussed my anxiety and insecurity with the Foreign Office’s HR department, and chief executive officer. I asked for professional counselling and mentorship. I read endless books about management and leadership. I wrote down lists of all the things I felt I had done wrong through my career and how I would do them differently now. In interviews, I volunteered without being asked examples of where I thought I had struggled as a manager, and what I had done to try to learn from those mistakes. I scoured my conscience and bared my soul.
When, to my great joy, I was appointed Ambassador to Georgia, my learning did not stop. I continued with professional counselling. I wrote a plan for how I would try to start off with the embassy team on the right note. I wrote myself a couple of ‘bucking up’ kind of flash-cards which I carried around in my purse, and looked at to give me confidence before every meeting or diplomatic event.
I also wrote a ‘Ten Commandments’ list of guiding principles for how I would try to conduct myself on the job. I printed these out on a big poster which I stuck up behind my desk in the embassy. During my very first day, at an introductory staff meeting, I showed these Ten Commandments to the staff and asked them to let me know if they ever felt I was falling short. I actively sought private feedback from trusted colleagues, and asked my assistant to let me know if she became aware of any festering staff grievances.
With all this preparation, and safeguards in place, I like to think Georgia was finally where I put my biggest management insecurities to rest. I think I did an okay job. I genuinely came to love and respect the embassy team and believe I established a good relationship with them. Even so, there were still times when I know I could have done better – when I didn’t handle a situation in the right way, and of course, my management style wasn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste.
Dominic Raab’s resignation as Deputy Prime Minister – after an inquiry into allegations of bullying found he behaved in an intimidating and insulting way – has brought all these experiences flooding back into my mind.
I have been in his shoes as a manager, in a stressful job, trying to address issues of poor performance. I know how hard it can sometimes be to stop frustration and impatience from showing. I even understand why he might feel somewhat aggrieved about some of the accusations made against him, since not all of these have been found to be justified.
Moreover, my only direct encounter with Dominic Raab was a relatively positive one, shortly after he became Foreign Secretary and visited Washington. Not only did he make a friendly remark to me about our common background working on human rights (when he was a junior lawyer in the Foreign Office and I was head of its human rights department), but he also – almost uniquely amongst ministers at that time – listened to our advice about taking US concerns about Northern Ireland seriously, and engaged effectively with members of Congress on the issue.
Yet, ultimately, I have limited sympathy for his plight – for the simple reason that, in his resignation letter, he refused to display even the slightest bit of remorse over the allegations of bullying, any awareness that others might perceive his behaviour in a different light, or any willingness to reflect on how he might do better.
His letter was one long self-serving attempt at self-justification and exoneration.
Don’t miss a story
He failed to acknowledge or accept any responsibility for his actions, and even implied that a certain level of bullying was acceptable – writing that his experience risked making the bar “too low”. Its accusatory tone and parting shots at the Civil Service added insult to injury.
The relationship between ministers and civil servants is, by definition, an unequal one. It takes courage to stand up to a minister or offer an opinion contrary to their own. Members of a minister’s private office serve at their beck and call, frequently late at night and over weekends. The best private office officials try to shield more junior members of staff from ministerial criticism or wrath, and take it on themselves. The stress is enormous.
The best ministers use their private office officials as private sounding boards, seek their honest feedback, and welcome their guidance and help in interacting with the rest of the department. The relationship depends on mutual trust and respect.
Raab had apparently been given warnings on many previous occasions that his blunt style risked humiliating and intimidating officials. Yet he chose to ignore all these warnings and continued in the same manner. His resignation letter only makes clear his continuing disdain and contempt for the Civil Service, and his manifest unfitness for leadership.
It is hard to feel sympathy for a man so unwilling to learn.