It’s not magic. It’s the small ways we treat people every day.

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In his book ‘The Utopia Experiment’ Dylan Evans makes this rather surprising statement:

It’s hard to seem normal in a mental hospital.

He goes on to explain what he means

Even the most innocent actions can seem suspicious when they are carried out by someone already labelled as crazy.

He expands his point with reference to an experiment conducted back in 1973 by the psychologist David Rosenhan and published as On being sane in insane places. Rosenhan asked eight volunteers to present themselves at various psychiatric hospitals and to pretend to be mad. He called them pseudo-patients. They were all admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders.

Once admitted the pseudo-patients stopped pretending and told staff they were fine and wanted to go home. But nursing staff saw all their behaviour through the lens of mental illness. The pseudo-patients were detained in hospital for an average of nineteen days even though there was nothing wrong with any of them.

A research and teaching hospital challenged Rosenhan to run a similar experiment involving its own diagnosis and admission procedures. They were convinced that they wouldn’t be fooled so easily. Psychiatric staff were warned that at least one pseudo-patient might be sent to their institution and their task was to try and identify who they were. During the experiment period 193 new patients were admitted by the hospital and 83 were believed to be actors by at least one staff member.

In fact Rosenhan had sent no actors to the hospital.

If we look for what’s wrong, what’s broken, is it any wonder that that’s what we find?What if we expect to see strengths, potential and achievement?

There have been other social experiments that have sought to understand the impact of positive expectations on outcomes.

In 1964 the Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal, carried out a fascinating experiment at an elementary school south of San Francisco. He got all the children to sit a basic IQ test. He told the teachers that it was a specially designed Harvard test that could predict which kids were about to see a big increase in their IQ.  He then randomly selected a number of pupils from each class and told the teachers that these were the kids who were about to make a step change in their progress at school.

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Rosenthal tracked the children over the next two years and found that “if teachers had been led to expect greater gains in IQ, then increasingly, those kids gained more IQ.” But why?

Rosenthal’s subsequent research that the teachers’ expectations affected the way they interacted with the children in a thousand little ways. The children they expected to succeed were given more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval.

“It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy,” Rosenthal says. “It’s…these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day” that makes the difference.

If our expectations of how others will behave and what they are capable of achieving, can have such a significant impact on how we treat them and what they achieve, then what of the expectations of social landlords?

So many of the ways we first have contact with new customers, the things we ask them about and our attitude towards them that these things betray are negative. We frame conversations around whether someone has ever been evicted or had a criminal record or owes a previous landlord money. We design our services around things going wrong…people not paying their rent, not getting on with their neighbours, not looking after their home. At best we prepare to step in and rescue at worse we send officious letters or threaten court action.

Very few are brave enough to admit it but Kate Davies from Notting Hill Genesis put it brilliantly a few years back when she was describing the relationship between Notting Hill and its customers:

They didn’t trust us and we didn’t trust them

Building trust is at the heart of Bromford’s transformation programme. We are determined to redesign every part of our organisation so that it builds on and supports a different kind of relationship with our customers. Through our neighbourhood coaches we are seeking to shift the relationship so that the focus is on purpose, strengths and where people are trying to get to in life. But we know we’ll only achieve this if we’re building trust through every interaction, every letter, every conversation, every day.

It’s a bold, ambitious goal and one that we’ll only achieve by believing in the possible.

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