Rights and obligations

Society has become obsessed with rights, but seems unwilling to accept the obligations that come along with that.

We claim the right to be completely safe from harm, including self-inflicted harm. We should be warned that coffee is hot and could scald, that babies should not play with plastic bags, even (my favourite) that butter contains milk. Where is our obligation to use a little common sense? What about our own responsibilities – for ourselves and our nearest and dearest, and for society as a whole? This is all, of course, fuelled by lawyers (bless their cotton socks), especially the ambulance chasing variety who are making their presence increasingly felt.

In a massive piece of hypocrisy, we point at the reactions we have all generated, and call them “health and safety gone mad”. Mad possibly, but whose fault is that? I’m delighted to see that, in a move to rescue their reputation, the Institution of Occupational Health and Safety are sponsoring the 2007 World Conker Championships.

Sorry, got into a bit of a rant here. What has this got to do with healthy organisations and galvanized people? This obsession with rights is played out in the workplace as well. Increasingly, managers who try to set demanding expectations of their employees are accused of bullying. No-one could be more against bullying than me. It goes against everything I believe about distinctive organisations, and everything I’ve said about eliminating misery at work. In any case it’s completely counter-productive. But there is a big difference between bullying people and setting out their obligations and accountabilities. In the face of the rights obsession, managers become fearful about taking action, and they tolerate poor performance to a damaging degree.

Poor performance damages the organisation’s achievements, and destroys the morale of the people affected by it. Work isn’t social welfare. As working people we all have rights. As employees of distinctive organisations in particular, we have many rights. We also have obligations, and we should expect to be held accountable for them.

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