A guide to doubling your income by listening nice
Take Away Line
It’s always good to peak over the hedge to see how the neighbours do things. I was in Hamburg this summer and saw that this city, which has twice the income per head of ‘thriving’ Northern English cities, has not only adopted different policies but works together in a different, but more integrated and co-operative way, for mutual benefit. So many of the big players in social sectors on this island seems to compete, even when it’s evidently against their own (and the community’s) longer term interest. So, have we got to learn to play nice?
The lampposts of Hamburg
First on one lamppost, then, further down the same street, I noticed another brightly printed poster advertising the city council’s desire to consult on extending the cycle lane along this same street. Not so unusual, you may say, perhaps apart from how nicely presented the little posters were, really encouraging input from the neighbourhood. Perhaps indeed not so different from the smaller notices about the local cat that had gone missing. A community speaking to itself, sharing news and getting things done.
I was in Hamburg for a few days this summer, my first time in this city, and I was curious to know how an old port city of nearly 2 million people ticks.
Later on the U-Bahn, the city metro, I happen to get out at a certain station and see a booth, that once no doubt would have been a kiosk, but is now not actually selling anything; rather it offers to listen to anyone who wants to speak. Actually, this is a bit of an ahah moment for me, because I had read about the initiative on the Emilienstrasse station platform before, set up by Christoph Busch, who, along with other volunteers, offers to listen to whoever wants to tell their story. Neither therapists nor counselors, they simply offer to listen. Nice little booth, flowers and everything. And all very visible, as you can see in the photo here.
Am I, in my short stay picking up a theme here? Is this a city that seeks to listen better, to bring together all views?
Rich Hamburgers – Plenty of Bread
Back in my rented apartment I decided to look up the figures. A large city, Hamburg was destroyed in World War 2, and rebuilt itself from zero to have an income per head (average GDP) of between $62,000 and $73,000 per annum, twice that of Manchester or Liverpool, two of the UK’s large northern port cities ($32,000 in Liverpool and $38,000 in Manchester, the latter often described as ‘thriving‘).
Even though comparisons are invidious and German apples are just not quite the same as British pears, this is a very big difference and the question simply has to be asked: why are the citizens of this port city twice as rich as the UK’s, not least when major cities in both countries started with rubble in 1945? Now, health warnings abound at this point, but we do know that GDP is more evenly spread in Germany generally, compared with the UK, where income and wealth disparities are larger between the rich and the poor. Costs of living may too be a factor, although I’m not sure I see much of a difference, even with the collapse in the value of the UK Pound recently. No, the citizens of Hamburg are just richer and, walking around the town, you can see all the superficial signs of health, wealth and happiness – yes, it was a sunny day! – along with an amazing public infrastructure of fine roads, public transport and recreational facilities.
And there are some obvious and well-known policy differences. We know from Pickett and Wilkinson’s work that more equal societies tend to be richer and we know that Germany has a more devolved system of government which taxes its citizens more – you can have Swedish style public services, if you, er, tax like they do in Sweden. In the UK, by contrast, low tax is seen as a virtue.
But there is something else in all this, which I think the examples of the posters and the listening box illustrate: there is a difference not just in what is done, or in the levels of funding and its devolved nature, but in how things are done, a difference in style. Indeed, I wonder if that’s not the main thing here. I’m talking about an integrated approach, something that concerns the nature of the conversation that a community has with itself.
Not really Listening
Like Izuzu and Nissan partnering with their now long gone British counterparts in the early years of Japanese motor manufacturing, eager to learn how the best did it, I want to learn how the Hamburgers got so rich – and, quietly, happy, it seems. And don’t tell me they work harder. They work more productively, much more so, but not by working as long as the Brits do, but my much more investment in skills and equipment.
Apart from policy differences, what seems to happen is that there is more talk and more involvement of all actors in the process before action is taken. The shorter-term approach of the Brits expects returns quickly and is impatient of longer term processes. [‘Too much talking: can’t we just get on with it?’] We are famously pragmatic. But that can easily mean more efficient in the short run, but less effective in the longer term.
Let’s be specific here and name names. Well, almost. Most of the Housing Association senior staff that I know and have worked with over many years are at the very least chary of their engagement with their local authority and other statutory partners. They do connect of course, but many of them tell me, without much relish. And the feeling is mutual. Same turf, but in some senses rivals. Often, local authority boundaries are are far from coterminous with a housing association patch and each seeks to mazimise their own strategic freedom, working as efficiently as they can for the longer term health of their organisations and their missions. What’s wrong with that, then?
There are fine examples of social landlords and other agencies in the public realm taking a different approach, but it is so often said that police (with a different geographical patch) and health and rescue services, also often with a range of geographies, are not working well together. This is not about housing associations; it’s about a culture of not really listening and, for mutual benefit, being integrated. Indeed, each is very often openly suspicious of the other. Of course, there are structural challenges, and a range of initiatives to help overcome this problem (‘placeshaping‘, for example) and little imperative or incentive in the short term to collaborate, but the main block here is, I think, cultural: we’re just not used to doing it.
The opportunity costs of an unintegrated approach to the economic and social development of an area must be vast. No-one’s listening to anyone else, not really. And even in the case of consortia, we know that competition can sometimes rule over co-operation. We just don’t seem to play nice together. We default to fragmentation.
So, what if we did play nice? We know that strong teams produce synergies over and above the sum of their parts. This is true of agencies working in partnership too. And it’s true of whole communities. The Brexit debate was and remains a shouting match, far from the relative subtlety of the Scottish independence and the recent Irish referenda on social questions. Perhaps playing nice would be encouragement to solve some of the structural blocks to collaboration for community benefit?
The street posters on the streets of Hamburg make me think of a number of questions that, regardless of investment levels and which silly new structural re-alignment of a sector of public service a minister is playing with today, would deliver higher levels of what Lencioni calls in relation to teams vulnerability based trust, the ability to be vulnerable, to not know and in doing so, build a stronger partnership and relationship. While there are plenty of fine examples of deep partnerships in the social sector, it seems that our preference, our default, is all to often to compete, and to avoid deeper partnerships, even when it’s in our mutual long term interest do do so. We’re relationship phobic! Crazy, hey? But that seems to be one of the critical ways to double the wealth of your community: you just gotta play nice.
So, here are my questions to help us all think about how to play nice.
- Which agencies is my organisation not talking to that could potentially make a difference to how successfully we deliver for the good of this locality?
- What issues are we not talking to them about?
- What’s holding back effective, trust-building, relationships? And what can we do to bridge that gap, possibly with others who are facing the same thing?
- Have we put in place processes that really enable us to hear what’s going on in our patch, with our customers/beneficiaries, etc? How are we showing we’re hearing them?
- In our own personal behaviour at work, how are we demonstrating that we create opportunities to listen fully to what people want to say?
Now then, take yourself off for a (sustainably produced) hamburger and reflect on this. The results of your thoughts could double your income. Not just more hamburger; more bread too.