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Chief Secretary of State Gets Taken Hostage Shock!

Eddie Mair, is a fine radio journalist on the BBC known for his probing and assertive style. Just recently however, this assertiveness has, not so subtly, changed into a more aggressive approach culminating in a high profile interview with Boris Johnson in which he said to the Lord Mayor of London “Let me ask you about a barefaced lie" and "You're a nasty piece of work, aren't you?".

I don’t know if this ‘land-a-punch’ style is being encouraged by his producers at the BBC, anxious to garner publicity for its news programmes, but I could not help feeling that all this style was invoking was a trained avoidance strategy rather than getting any closer to some sort of truth!

Just a few days previously to the Boris Johnston interview I heard Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, being interviewed by Mair about the recent budget; Mair wanted Danny Alexander to admit that it would be bad news if one of its initiatives went wrong and therefore there was a risk to it that might cost the country dear.

Taken Hostage?

Alexander was summoning up his best media-trained responses to simply not answer the question. Mr Mair “noted” sniffily that the Chief Secretary had refused to respond to his questioning.  What struck me was that it was blinking obvious that there has to be a risk and a downside to any initiative. In fact, in these straightened times we are often being encouraged to be more risk taking and adventurous to kick start the economy. So, why couldn’t two intelligent people have a conversation about the nature of that risk and why on balance it was worth pursuing? Because Mair was anxious to prove a point and score a win and Alexander equally anxious not to say anything which could be edited later into screaming headlines such as “Government admits big risks with own strategy!” The Chief Secretary of State was in fact taken hostage by the questioning of Mair and felt unable to say anything other than the most circumspect way.  

Conversations without repercussions

This got me thinking how often leaders in organisations and elsewhere pursue a line of questioning which is similarly ‘hostage taking’;  trying to force a result, admission of weakness, error, failure or ineptitude, rather than gather any insight or understanding. Virile this may feel, but the ability to have ‘conversations without repercussions’ which enable people to express openly what they think and feel is critical to maintaining a realistic and practical grip on what is happening. Hostage-taking questions undermine everything from programme and strategic reviews to career and performance development conversations.

Comments on this Post

Rob Twigger on 14th May 2013

sensible stuff Steve

Maggi Evans on 8th May 2013

Absolutely! I really like the phrases 'hostage taking' and 'conversations without repercussions' We've all seen the power of these conversations in coaching or facilitated board sessions. How can we help people to build the trust to do more of it?

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