Gavin Williamson’s resignation teaches us what happens in teams from hell

Tuesday 8 November. Another Westminster politician resigns in disgrace. Gavin Williamson had a controversial political career after working for a doubling-glazing business. That would have given plenty of ammunition for political opponents. He might have risen above the taunts of being a double-glazing salesman. But he didn’t. Maybe it also shaped his career. He became an enforcer of party discipline, appointed by Theresa May, one of the hard bunch know as the whips. The archaic language may have come from the days that Parliament  was familiar with sport of fox hunting, with members of the servant-classes whipping the dogs into action. 

The language persisted, as well as a love of fox hunting, in the Tory party. Gavin was ideal material selected from the servile but ambitious lower classes.

As a whip, he brought enthusiasm to his work, and a style suggested he followed Machiavelli’s advice on the advantages of a leader in becoming hated. His props for the job are illustrated in a photograph of a darkly-brooding Williamson, with a whip on display more suited for human punishment than field sports. 

Missing from the image was another part of his brand, a pet tarantula which he kept on his desk. Better, but no subtler than a loaded revolver. Among the accusations arising now, there are documented and undocumented ones of bullying. 

It is easy to assume that with such a start, he had not acquired many close political friends as he elbowed his way into a political career. He was appointed defence secretary by Theresa May but removed for leaking  sensitive information, a charge he denied.

Boris Johnson appointed him education secretary, in a period of chaos over examination grading during the COVID pandemic. During the period he told a newspaper he had held a meeting with Marcus Rashford, when the Govt was resisting the footballer’s campaign to extend free meals. He had in fact been talking to another black footballer.He returns to the back bench obscurity but is granted an honour, a knighthood, unkindly assumed to be in return for dark secrets obtained earlier.He returned to Govt with Rishi Sunak as new PM only two weeks ago. His new post had vaguely defined responsibilities as a ‘minister without portfolio’ . I read this as a euphemism for a kind of repeat of his old whip role, maybe without the tarantula.Current revelations include televised accounts and press reports including threats to a colleague  ‘to slit your throat’. 

His resignation is to ‘devote time to dealing with the various allegations’ brought against him.

These are the fact of the case, m’lud. 

I’d like to widen the story by looking at what organisation group theory tells us about the case, and what the case tells us about organisational theory.

In a recent post and podcasts, I have mentioned teams from hell, as a rarely mentioned aspects of theories of team processes. This case has some highly specific aspects. Gavin Williamson worked as a member of the top government team, the so-called Cabinet. So generalisations to simpler project teams or sports teams have to be treated with caution. 

Hovever, at a molecular level, psychologists have found a large number of personal factors which  are the atoms of a person’s behaviour. These can be assembled into a few more general molecules of behaviour. These have produced a wide range of commercial products assisting in the identification of human behaviours, and how different types might work well or not so well in teams.

Millions of people are assessed in work in thousands of different ways of varying levels of validation. Even more than in science, we are a distance from a unified theory and philosophers seem to be accepting that such a theory does not exist,However, back to pragmatics. As the Williamson case emerged, I was already thinking about the likelihood that Rishi Sunak had acquired a team from hell. 

New thoughts

New thoughts emerge. Work on teams has tended to focus mainly on the positive. The components are suggested ‘in search of excellence’ as one best-seller put it. Now, suppose there is a team role considered valuable to a leader and I’m inclined to call in a Gavin. The Gavin role goes back to agricultural drovers, and further. They were the whipper-ins. I was told they were used to retain order at schools. Now I picture the Galley slaves feeling the whip. 

The Gavin has to be chosen with care. To recycle a saying I am fond of, we get the leaders we deserve. But maybe leaders get the Gavins they deserve

More constructively, there may be some useful research into Gavins, and how to deal with them, to the benefit off others with whom they work.


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