PPMA Annual Conference 2019 – Power Dynamics, Neuroscience & Hokey Cokeys

20th June 2019
by Sara Peake

I’ve just come back from #PPMAHR19 – one of the most energetic and thought-provoking conferences in my professional life – celebrating the amazing and transformative work conducted by public servants every single day.

The strategic board at the PPMA pulled together some world class speakers at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole and ensured that the #Don’tWorryBeHappy theme was front and centre in everyone’s mind. This most definitely wasn’t a moan-fest.

The opening keynote set the tone for the next 48 hours – combining two inspirational speakers: John Higgins, academic and author of Speaking Truth to Power and Jo Miller, Chief Executive Officer at Doncaster Council.

Power Dynamics

John reminded us that human beings are “built of twisted, crooked timber” and as such, we are neither perfect nor entirely aware of our own advantage blindness. Those of us in a position of power believe that we are making it easy for colleagues, team members and direct reports to come and talk to us about anything and operate on a “my door is always open” basis.

These good intentions only amplify the power dynamics in play in any organisation and deter open and honest conversations. Research shows that junior staff feel most guarded during formal meetings so will never speak their truth in these settings.

Another key takeaway was that approachability matters – an unapproachable boss undermines employee openness. Leaders need to find a way to get their people used to talking normally to their senior team – that way, the truth will always come out. We need to support our people in having courageous conversations – as an organisation we need everyone to be able to say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard.

Jo Miller followed John with her personal experience of speaking truth to power and learning how to play the game. Knowing when, whom and how to challenge is the most effective way to ensure that change happens.

Her plaintive question, “How well does your organisation get the why?” put purpose firmly in the front seat as to why people choose to work in the public sector. Quite simply, they can all get more money and more flexibility elsewhere, but they choose to make a difference instead. Jo inspired everyone (apart from Tottenham supporters) with her rallying cries of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and brought the house down with “You are all Guardians of the Galaxy”.


Day two brought the colourful and informative Maria Paviour to the stand, who took us deep into the realms of neuroscience. Her discussion compared our everyday heroes with psychopaths and zombies – and how toxic behaviours of our leaders and colleagues can impact on personal and organisational performance.

Professor Beverley Alimo-Metcalfe took us on a journey: From Stressed to Flourishing – simple ways leaders can transform wellbeing and outcomes at work.

Two of the key challenges that she took us through really resonated with me:

1. How to survive in an era of perma-austerity
2. How to create an organisation that creates no human damage

Her belief that “stress is highly infectious – it’s viral” and that “engagement isn’t a choice – it’s a gift” struck a chord throughout the room. She led us through her 5 drivers of human effort (Meaning, Autonomy, Mastery, Appreciation, Safety) and how these drive employee engagement and high performance.

We also learned that leadership has changed fundamentally, from leadership as a position, to leadership as a practice. It is also a social process – dynamic and collaborative; and that leadership should result in learning and growth.

So, how do you measure effective leadership? Beverley demonstrated the successes and flaws of the tried and tested 360-degree feedback process. Interestingly, the staff’s ratings of a boss were the most valid and effective for accurately predicting performance/development requirements. She also reiterated that these should only ever be used for developmental feedback – they are disastrous in every other context.

Undoubtedly, my key takeaway from this research-packed session was that you must embed engaging leadership in the culture of your organisation.

Hokey Cokeys

Day three’s closing keynote, Spreading the Happiness, with Shonette Bason-Wood, was hilarious, interactive and emotional – a truly great way to close two days of learning, meeting new people and laughter. I did not expect to have a one-on-one Hokey Cokey with a 6ft 6in New Zealander or to don my deflector cape to keep the lemon-sucker’s negativity away from me.

To be honest, I’m still trying to process everything and I suspect it may take some more time before everything I learned becomes clear. But that is the hallmark of any brilliant event, after all.

Tanya Corsie

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