The seven deadly signals – a Martin Plackard masterclass

NHS Improvement and NHS Horizons have teamed up with NHS Blithering’s digital emoting lead Martin Plackard to produce a bite-size guide to virtue signalling. This is the art of expressing opinions that demonstrate one’s compassion, good character and moral rectitude. 

Virtue signalling is a skill that all aspiring managers should cultivate and that the best NHS leaders display in everything they do. It is the key to optimal personal positioning on issues that matter. 

There are many kinds of virtue signal and this guide lists some of the main types. You may think of others. Write them down as you go or, better still, put them into practice on Twitter.   

The aim of the guide is to help you to maximise your personal signal strength. It will support you to become a more accomplished virtue signaller or even a qualified virtue signalling practitioner (VSP), an emerging role that is rapidly gaining professional status in NHS bodies. (See links at the end of this document to relevant courses offered by the NHS Leadership Academy and current vacancies on NHS Jobs.)  

The virtue signal has several uses:

  • Showing that you care
  • Demonstrating that you are right-thinking
  • Cultivating a sense of belonging with like-minded people
  • Implying that you’re prepared to put your words into action  
  • Easing feelings of guilt in yourself
  • Inducing feelings of guilt in others
  • Attacking the positions of others without appearing to be aggressive
  • Enhancing your reputation
  • Establishing your leadership credentials 
  • Increasing your following on social media.

Virtue domains – the seven deadly signals

  1. Heroic – in which the signaller exhibits such characteristics as being superhumanly busy and capable, long-suffering and impressively resilient. Choose whether to go for sympathy, admiration or both. (Example: “Just worked 14-hour shift in ICU, now helping my kids with their algebra homework, cooking gourmet meal and solving problems for my colleagues. Swim in icy lake later if time.”)
  2. Humble – the kindness of others, your brilliant colleagues and the suffering of others are all opportunities for self-deprecation and expressions of unworthiness, two of the virtue signallers most potent weapons. Humility provides the perfect cover for letting everyone know how great you are. (Example: “Honoured to be a small part of the amazing team that changes people’s lives on a daily basis. Thanks to my terrific colleagues for the opportunity to lead and inspire them. I couldn’t do it without you #MyTeam #MakingADifference #NotAboutMe”). See also Plackard’s Guide to Humblebragging.   
  3. Peacemaking – stepping in to resolve disputes without taking sides yourself shows enviable leadership qualities and is infuriating for the protagonists. This technique is particularly suited to those with highly developed passive aggressive skills. Don’t be afraid to use them.
  4. Righteous anger – possibly the most popular form of the genre. Being seen to be angry about a social injustice or political failing is a very effective way to build a large and rabid following on Twitter. This is one of the few areas in which it’s fine to resort to personal abuse without risking charges of bullying. (Example: “Millions rely on food banks while fat-cat politicians telling Brexit lies and cutting NHS budgets gorge on the profits from corrupt PPE deals and deprived families on zero-hours contracts die 50 years younger from Covid than people in affluent areas with no access to social care, basic sanitation or iPhones. Blood on your hands, Mr Johnson. Hang your head in shame #ToryLies #NotFair #VeryCross #BuyMyBook).    
  5. Victimhood – if you can’t be bothered to make the case for injustice to others, write yourself into the story. Try not to sound too sorry for yourself. The braver you pretend to be, the more sympathy you’ll get. (Example: “Don’t know how much more I can take of lockdown. Need more Palestinian olive oil but know I shouldn’t go to Waitrose and put others at risk as I was only there for Tuscan polenta yesterday. Own-brand extra virgin will just have to do! Know there are people worse off than me #Selfless #MakingDo”)  
  6. Disappointed – disappointment can be much more effective than anger when aiming for the guilt trip, which is one of the main goals of the virtue signaller. Disappointment is also a good way to raise the issue you want to discuss in contexts where it is not up for discussion – a tactic that emphasises just how heavily it weighs on you. (Example: “So disappointed to see nothing about gerbils in last night’s documentary about the history of aviation.”
  7. The reflected glory seeker – no cause is too big or small to make your own. Knowing nothing about something is not a disqualification from having a strong opinion about it. Find one you like and plagiarise it. The world is your mirror. It’s up to you how good it makes you look.


What’s the right amount to care?

It’s never enough to care. You have to care “passionately” or “very passionately”.  You may also be “reduced to tears” from time to time, but not too often or people may think you’re unstable.

Do I have to practice what I preach?

Absolutely not. Never confuse virtue signalling for virtue. They sound similar but are completely different. 

Is there such a thing as too humble?

No. Practice your humility in a mirror, film it on your phone or get a friend to watch you being humble. Take a break when it becomes unbearable.

Is there a risk that other people will dislike me?

Yes, but the important thing is that they won’t be able to show it without exposing their own envy, aggression or small-mindedness. The skilled VSP may induce feelings of hostility in others but remember that if these feelings are expressed in public you’ve won. (Top tip: When you win, show empathy for the loser. Say: “It’s not the winning that counts”, “It’s not a competition” or “We’re all losers when one of us loses”.) The more people who hate you, the more “likes” you’ll get in social media.

Do I have what it takes?

Almost anyone can learn to virtue signal. Don’t worry if you feel uncomfortable at first. Study the technique of experienced virtue signallers and copy what they do.  Originality is not necessary or even desirable, so start by simply retweeting the posts of signalling leaders. Passive virtue signalling embodies some of the best attributes of the art, including humility and positive groupthink. Try tweeting: “I’m so impressed that [insert name] has had the courage to share [insert impressive achievement, heart-warming anecdote or sanctimonious statement]. I’d like to think we would all follow their example and stand up for [insert cause].”  

Are some people just not cut out for it?

Sadly, there is a small minority of individuals who will tell you that virtue signalling is “embarrassing” or “fake”. Try not to listen to negative voices. Better still, reach out to these people on social media to let them know you’re not judging but just feel sorry for them. 

Is it okay to invent anecdotes that show me in a good light?

If you need to ask this, you may need to consider whether virtue signalling is for you.


  1. Mike Barnett says:

    I’m just so proud to be someone who does not feel the need to talk about the work I do in the community in my spare time, virtue is its own reward #retweet #tagmyCEO #tagPrerana #tagBev

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Conspicuous modesty. Well done


  2. ComplexWales says:

    Proper laugh out loud but equally, incredibly sad that it’s so ubiquitous. My particular favourite signaller is the Leaderist who vigorously retweets anything remotely positive, yet produces no content of their own. I think I may have to rename one of my stooges as a VSP 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. smaustin54 says:

    So glad to have rediscovered you – I’ve really missed the NHS Networks blog and the Blithering saga. I think I’ll focus on Peace-making and honing my passive aggressive skills – been practising for years and my family tell me I’m quite good – just need to ramp up a couple of notches 👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you did too. Well done for working on the passive-aggression. Keep listening to your family (or pretending to listen) and prepare for the dizzy heights of leadership


  4. whizzy4 says:

    God I’ve missed you, thanks for making my week. Struggling at the coalface with no thanks or reward can be so hard without a good laugh.


    1. I’ve missed you too. I don’t struggle at the coalface. I sit at the pit head drinking tea. So this is my small contribution.


  5. Christine Clark says:

    I have missed you so much! Delighted that you are back!


    1. I’ve missed you too. Thank you


  6. southlondongp says:

    Indeed NHS Networks got far too serious and boring. I stopped reading it. We GPs have it all in the NHSE&I Primary Care Bulletin, which is full of links to other sites and documents that contain other sites and links… I have spent the pandemic reading the emails and directions telling me what to do/not do and how to do /not do it, occasionally interspersed with information about how someone else is doing it better … sometimes I even find time to talk to a patient. But now I have found this blog I am cheered up.


    1. I’m glad to hear it. I’ve always believed that cheering people up is the main purpose of the health service, second only to preventing them from dying too early

      Liked by 1 person

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