The People Manager
All posts from: April 2011
It is probably not a big surprise to learn that work place conflict is on the increase. Redundancies, pay freezes, changes in working practises, fewer holidays, loss of bonuses and reduced pension entitlements, it would be surprising if these unwanted changes didn’t increased conflict in the work place.
So no one will be particularly shocked by the findings of a recent Charted Institute of Personnel Development survey that grievances, disputes and the threat of industrial action have increased in the public sector over the last 12 months. But managers still need to get on and manage the business day to day despite all this going on around them. So how do you manage through a period of conflict?
You might be able to get away with saying pay freezes and pension changes are outside your control but redundancies, management restructuring and changes in working practises will still be seen as management decisions.
Is it possible to claim to value staff and cut their pay? Can you maintain a position of openness and honesty when you are going to make people redundant? Can you afford to be sensitive and caring when you are going to cut services to vulnerable people?
Perhaps managers in the current financial climate need to develop a thicker skin to do the unpleasant stuff and to let the anger and frustration wash over them without taking it personally.
But some managers find it very difficult to be the bad guy, to introduce a more “efficient” shift system: which involves staff working longer hours often under so much pressure they are unable to take the rest breaks they are entitled to, cutting staffing levels and refusing to fill vacant posts to save money - and then pressurising people to cover for colleagues at short notice.
It is one thing to bring in changes that are unpopular with staff that still offer a better service to customer/patient or reduce costs, but it is another to makes changes that will affect care, increase waiting times, leave people in pain longer, reduce help and support to stressed cares or leave vulnerable people more exposed.
This is the difference: conflict in the workplace due to unpopular changes in working practises and terms of employment are to be expected, managers must use their negotiating skills to bring about these changes as best as possible. But conflict in the workplace due to the impact budget cuts are having on the quality of care to the sick and vulnerable? That’s a different battle altogether.
The days are already getting longer in the NHS
I have already seen effects of the above first hand.
My wife is in hospital having her gall stones removed. The hospital is clean, the care is good, the food is excellent, so no story there.
She did however comment on the long hours the staff routinely work. It appears that auxiliary staff do one week on, one week off. That nurses come on duty at 6am and go off duty at 8pm when the night staff come on duty. So instead of the traditional three shift system early, late and night, there are two shifts, the day shift and the night shift. The consultant was still on the ward when visiting ended at 8pm Saturday evening.
Then in my Sunday paper I read that research by ICM on behalf of the Royal College of Nursing found 95 per cent of NHS nurses worked more than their contracted hours and one in five does so every shift.
The findings also reported that 25 per cent of nurses provided last minute cover for a colleague at least once a fortnight. Many nurses told the survey that they have to skip meals and rarely or never have time to take the rest breaks they are entitled to.
On my way out of the ward I saw on the staff notice board that management were focusing on absenteeism. I wondered if they might make a connection!
Your income, your lifestyle and more importantly your life expectancy is determined by your job, which in turn is determined by which university you went to - which is largely determined by which school you went to. Nothing new in this, why do you think the rich pay so much for their kids to go to private school? Don’t Oxford and Cambridge have more pupils from private schools? Isn’t the Cabinet made up of people who went to Eton and then Oxford or Cambridge?
What is new is how competitive and expensive it is to get into university. Which means brains and academic achievement do not in themselves guarantee a place. Your university application needs to be supported by an impressive list of interests and skills which make you stand out.
Sporting prowess has always been valued by university admission tutors but we are not talking about playing for the school first eleven, you need to have represented at a county level at least. Being a chess champion, playing a musical instrument and voluntary work with the homeless are clearly not something you can suddenly embark on in your last year in sixth form. You need to demonstrate that you have always been a talented, creative and interesting person with a social conscience and a good team spirit.
What better than voluntary work in your local hospital?
Obviously you have a much better chance of getting into medical school if one of your parents is a doctor but perhaps each GP surgery could be linked with a local school so that bright sixth formers from deprived back grounds could shadow the practice nurse or be mentored by one of the GPs.
Just as your parents started your university fund when you were born acquiring the right experiences can’t start too early. You need to do your homework to get your grades but you also need to keep at the piano lesions, if bat and ball aren’t your thing then swimming or cross country will have to do and of course you can’t drop either of those foreign languages but they may be helpful on your gap year in Africa.
In other words your very bright working class kid has even less chance of getting a place at the right uni and therefore going on to enjoy a healthier and longer life. Unless of course you were sponsored by your local GP commissioning consortium - cheaper in the long term!
As NHS providers increasingly have to compete for customers/patients they need to get better at marketing their services. Advertising is no longer about just providing information, it is making people want what you are selling. You’re not selling shoes; you’re selling beautiful feet.
Marketing is about identifying who is going to buy your services and making them believe only you can give them what they really want. Even if they don’t know yet that they want it!
After all, you didn’t know you wanted 3D TV until you heard how much more “real” the pictures were.
When it comes to the NHS, never underestimate the power of a pretty girl. Sex has sold everything from sofas to chocolate bars. What you need is a photogenic nurse for the promotional literature and may be a TV star from Casualty or Holby City to front the campaign.
On second thoughts that may conjure up images of old style NHS hospitals when you’re selling a five star hotel experience. You’re giving them private rooms with en suite facilities, al a carte menus and a decent wine cellar. Of course in reality the last thing on their mind before the operation will be which wine to have with the chef’s special. The staff will be pushing fluids after the op but it won’t be alcohol!
Having your own toilet is not a luxury these days but after the op you will have a catheter and be severely constipated so you won’t get much use out of it. Your own single room will at least provide you with a bit of peace and quite unlike those noisy old fashioned wards. Or it would if it wasn’t for the fact that after the op you’re on 24-hour observation which means they have put you in the room opposite the nurse station and have wedged the door open.
Now you hear all the conversations about what staff watched on TV last night, what they are having for tea tonight, why they are not going to sort out the linen cupboard before their break and what they really think of that young girl from the agency.
It’s a pity you’ll be discharged before you can enjoy the “superior experience”. But hey, at least you’re not on reality 3D TV, warts and all. Be thankful for that.
When I worked on the front line I used to say it, when I was a senior manager I used to hear it and when I was a middle manager I used to defend it. The latest policy on the use of agency staff or overtime, the new idea for making efficiency savings, the tough approach to absenteeism or the revised procedures for staff recruitment are rubbish and won’t work.
It’s uncomfortable being in the middle being responsible for ensuring senior managers’ messages are passed to the front line and their expectations carried out. There is a tendency to shoot the messenger.
Unfortunately, this means dodging the bullets from both directions because senior management don’t want to hear why their initiatives won’t work any more than front line managers want to hear yet another initiative or new set of priorities.
You can’t deflect the antagonism by saying, “don’t blame me it’s a senior management decision.” Well, you can and some do, but in practice if you don’t own the initiative you will never get your staff to commit to it and it never does any good to tell your boss it’s not happening because your staff think it’s stupid and unworkable.
Life for middle managers is particularly tough at the moment. They have felt the full impact of the public sector management cull. This is the level at which proportionately most posts have been dis-established, it’s the level at which most of the resulting redistributed work is picked up and it is also the level responsible for ensuring senior management strategies get translated into action.
Traditionally there is a lot of ambivalence about middle management. First line managers think they are the ones who deliver the service and middle managers are just a mouth piece for senior management. Senior management blame them if they think their policies have not been properly explained to staff but give them little credit if their polices and strategies work.
Both groups question why there are so many of them.
It is in the nature of middle management that your best work will go unseen and unrecognised by all but the most perceptive of observers. This is because your job is largely that of “behind the scenes fixer”. The first line managers who claim not to know what middle managers actually do are the same people who say they need more support whether that be in dealing with personality conflicts in their team, complaints from service users, undue pressure from a councillor or MP, getting HR to release posts, finance to be more flexible or dealing with staff resistance to change.
Middle managers don’t just explain polices and strategies, they take their experience of the front line and try and use it to influence how strategies will be delivered. That is why they are involved in so many projects and working groups.
As more of the change agenda has to be delivered in partnership with other organisations, senior managers find themselves more and more reliant on their middle managers to represent them at all those multi-agency meetings, workshops and conferences designed to develop a shared understanding, a common language and good working relationships at a grass roots level.
Perhaps it is time to re evaluate the role and value of middle management.
As we look increasingly like adopting the American model of health care, welfare and education we also use American business expressions. Or “expressionisms” as George Bush Jnr. might have called them. So ambitious managers need to learn the management language and the rest of us need to understand what they are on about.
The USA is the land of the sports fan and America’s business and sport have one big thing in common: they are both very, very competitive. So it is not surprising that American business language is full of sporting expressions. The three big sports in the USA are basketball, baseball and (American) football - not to be confused with soccer. Some of the expressions may not, therefore, be as familiar to a British/European audience.
My favourite at the moment is a “slam dunk” which is a basketball expression for when a player gets a basket with an emphatic delivery. It means can’t miss, a sure thing, the opposite of a long shot. “Stepping up to the plate” is a baseball phrase used to mean taking responsibility and “the ballpark figure” you hear so much about is the estimated or rounded up number, as in the attendance at a sporting event.
“The whole nine yards” is an American football expression meaning to go the full distance.
Of course not all expressions have a sporting origin: some just creep into common usage or become popular because someone famous used it on TV or in a film. Remember the Godfather: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”? Well here’s another one that has American gangster overtones.
“What would it take to make this go away?” This means, how can we fix this between us, what do I have to give you to change your mind? This might sound like a bribe to a British/European ear but it is in fact a plea for a frank negotiation. A popular expression in the American business community is “leverage” as in, “what leverage have we got?” meaning what pressure we can bring to bear.
“Wake up and smell the coffee” was made popular on the American election campaign and means read the writing on the wall - it’s obvious if you think about it. Another favourite of America politicians was “where is the meat?” This was apparently taken from a TV advert for beef burgers and came to mean “this is just froth, where is the substance?”
Some of the old favourites are still in use. “It’s not rocket science” is intended to emphasise that something is not difficult. Running an idea “up the flagpole” is about drawing an idea to everyone’s attention like waving a flag.
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” is a cooking-themed way of saying, you can’t get something done without upsetting someone and ultimately the end result is worth the short term pain. And you’ll hear “we are all on message” or “singing from the same song sheet” when everyone is clear what is expected and we are all saying the same thing to our staff and customers.
A much used management expression at the moment is “this is not an exercise in ticking the boxes”. This is intended to convince staff that we are not just going through the motions but want to see real action. The expression comes from the fact that we have all become used to completing computerised tick box forms. If you want to negotiate a good deal or make a persuasive argument, you need to get everything in order, or get all your ducks in line. In the current harsh financial climate senior managers can be heard referring to the low hanging fruit meaning all the easy pickings for making savings have been taken. Finally senior managers can be heard trying to impress upon staff the dramatic nature of the budget situation and a sense of urgency by referring to standing on a burning platform.
If we sometimes find it hard to understand our American cousins they also have difficulty with our expressions; after all if we make a “cock-up”, they won’t understand. And looking it up on Google could lead to a disciplinary.
Life would be a lot less confusing if we all just said what we mean, and managers and staff at all levels “cut out the BS”.
As the Americans would say: “it’s a no brainer”.
Management in 100 words - inspired by Fabio Capello
The England football manager claims he only needs 100 words of English to manage the team. On the assumption that, like the England team, your team understands the basics, what would your 100 words be?
I came up with “Yes, top priority, well done”. After some thought I added “No, not good enough” and “stay in budget”.
After all, if you cut out the small talk about holidays, football and kids, what’s left? Just a few motivational phrases? “Don’t let me down”, “don’t let yourself down”, “just do what we did last time”, “you can do it”.
Of course, body language greatly extends the vocabulary, he said, head bowed, hands in pockets as he scurried back to the car park after another boring and frustrating meeting in which Wayne forgot his papers and Joe knocked over the water jug.
That’s enough words. Now get out there and get the job done!
I have heard local authority councillors reject a candidate for a senior management job because he wore brown shoes. I have heard councillors complain that a senior manager looked scruffy and needed a haircut. I have heard councillors complain that an officer came to committee without a jacket and tie. But I have never before heard two councillors complaining that the chief executive was too smartly dressed for the job.
Their complaint was that their chief executive looked “too glamorous” and expensively dressed for the current harsh financial climate. As evidence they quoted the cost of her designer handbag and the frequency with which she changed her hairstyle.
Their argument seems to be that the chief executive was being insensitive in having a photo in the local press looking glamorous alongside of an article on the council’s budget cuts.
The lesson here for all chief execs in the public sector, including those who work for the NHS, is that there now appears to be a dress code for announcing budget cuts.
To ensure no one else falls foul of this unspoken code I thought it might be helpful to spell it out.
“In future all senior managers should wear black or dark blue when discussing redundancies, service cuts or closures. Whilst senior managers and especially chief executives should look professional they should not look prosperous. They should avoid designer labels, not drive expensive cars and of course they should holiday in this country whilst the current economic situation exists. And it is very bad form to have private health care.”
Complying with this simple voluntary code will avoid the need for the board to ensure all senior managers promote the right image by insisting a proportion of a manager’s salary is paid in ASDA vouchers.