The People Manager
All posts from: May 2011
Managers don’t spend a lot of time thinking they might be wrong. They do, however, spend a lot of time trying to persuade staff they are right. This is not surprising but if we are so sure we are right, why do we think everyone else is wrong, and how does this affect the way we act towards them?
If people don’t agree with us we assume they have not understood what we are saying and that once they are in possession of the full facts they will come round to our way of thinking. Isn’t this the real motivating behind those ”consultation” exercises? And isn’t this the purpose of the “discussion” in the senior management team or the open meetings with large staff groups?
If despite being made aware of the facts they still don’t understand then they must be idiots, right? Either that or they do know the truth but are denying it because it suits their own self interest to do so. Isn’t that when someone says “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”?
Why are we so sure we are right and so adamant that others are wrong? It’s not just at work either: have you had the right way to load the dishwasher debate? The best way to get to my/your mother’s? Ask yourself how often are you wrong in a day? Hardly ever? 50 per cent of the time? How do you feel about being wrong? Embarrassed? Like when you were a child being told off?
Well that’s not surprising. We learn in school at a young age that people who get it wrong are stupid and people who get on don’t make mistakes, that getting something wrong means there is something wrong with us so we just stick to being right. Once we have used up our arguments if pressed we may say “well it just feels right”.
In our personal life and in our professional life we would concede that we have got things wrong in the past, our problem is conceding this possibility in the present. This is not about admitting you got it wrong after the event or being prepared to say sorry; this is about conceding during the decision making process that you might be wrong.
According to Kathryn Schulz in her book “Being Wrong” that’s why we should ask ourselves, what if I am wrong? She is talking in general terms about all of us but I think it is a question all managers would do well to think about a little more often.
Giving the bad news
I’m giving the captaincy to someone else. Your job doesn’t exist in the new structure. On this occasion you have been unsuccessful. The budget cuts mean we can’t continue to fund your post. There is a lot of bad news around at the moment and it’s down to managers to tell people what they don’t want to hear.
Is there a good way to break bad news? No, bad news is bad news however it is delivered and whoever delivers it. This does not let line managers off the hook, you can’t delegate this task to HR or send a text. Well not if you want to retain any credible claim as a decent human being!
If you are interviewed for a job you know there is chance you will be unsuccessful. If there is a major restructuring you know there is a possibility your job will go. If there are big budget cuts you know there may be no money for your post. If bad news is expected it is less of a shock. Most people say the worst part is waiting to hear. They want a clear time scale for when they will know and the sooner the better. They want to hear first not read about it in the local paper. No one wants to find out from a colleague the bad news that your manager hasn’t yet found the right moment to tell you.
Everyone is happy to ring up the successful candidate and give them the good news but I appreciate a manager who rings up the unsuccessful candidates to tell them the outcome of their interview and provide some helpful feedback.
As a general rule, I feel, bad news should be given face to face. In the current financial climate bad news is often about service reductions. This is a different audience. The politicians and senior managers will talk to the media to explain the budget positions, the tough choices to be made and awkward questions to be answered. But it is the local line manager who finds themselves standing in front of parents of people with a learning disability attending a Day Centre earmarked for closure or relatives of the elderly person in a home to be closed. People will be upset and angry. You are the figure of authority they direct their feelings at.
You can’t duck this: staff need to see you giving the bad news and not leaving them to take the stick. The services users have a right to hear it direct from management and a right to tell you the problems and distress this will cause. It’s difficult, you probably don’t want the place to close either. It’s not for you to defend the council’s policy or criticise the covernment. You are there to give the facts, explain what will happen next and absorb the pain and frustration. It’s not pleasant but it is in the job description.
On the news and in the papers this week was a highly critical report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The report details the repeated failure of Leicestershire police to recognise that a single parent with a daughter with learning disabilities was vulnerable and was a repeat victim. Fiona Pilkington and her daughter suffered 10 years of abuse, threats and vandalism until in a state of utter despair she locked herself, her daughter and the family pet rabbit in the car and set it alight.
This was not just a failure by the police, it was a failure by the housing department, by the social services, by the community health services, her neighbours: all failed to act. This collective failure is now being repeated by the media who continue to fail to recognise and describe this for what it is - hate crime.
This is what I wrote at the time of their deaths. Unfortunately it is still needed saying:
“We know that people are abused, assaulted and even killed because of the colour of their skin. We know that people have been the subject of violence and death threats due to their religion. We know of people who have been kicked to death for no other reason than they were believed to be gay.
We know of people with a learning disability whose lives are made hell by local children shouting abuse and throwing stones at them in the street. We know from a survey carried out by Leonard Cheshire Foundation that one in ten disabled people have been the victim of hate crime.
To abuse and assault someone simply because of their colour, religion, sexuality or disability is a crime motivated by hate. Whilst such crimes are recognised in law as different and more serious because of their motivation, do public sector services and the general public see it this way?
If you work with people who have a learning disability your aim is to help them have a job, a home and a social life but the more you succeed the greater the risk of exposing them to the ” hate” of some in the community. Those people who don’t want “them” living here.
The abuse can get so bad it drives the individual to suicide. It happened in Leicestershire recently; a mother killed herself and her disabled daughter by dousing her car in petrol and setting it alight with the two of them inside. They were driven to this level of despair by a local gang of youths who had terrorised them for years.
Why was this allowed to happen? The main reason seems to be that those who should have offered protection did not recognise this as hate crime, dismissing it instead as antisocial behaviour. I am sure this will not be the only place or the only example of the public sector services failing to recognise hate crime.
How do we get agencies to recognise hate crime?
Clearly there is much that can be done through raising awareness. Police, housing, schools and social service staff can gain an insight into the experience of those who have been the subject of prolonged and ongoing abuse and violence by hearing their stories. Agencies can adopt a more sympathetic response and challenge their own attitudes in much the same way as police and housing officers have done in relation to domestic violence.
And like domestic violence this is not just about getting agencies to treat these offences more seriously and use the law more effectively, it is about changing attitudes in the wider community.
This starts in schools and involves recognising the difference between bullying which is unpleasant and unacceptable and homophobic bullying or racism which is a crime. It means being able to defend this position against the popular media’s cries of political correctness, in much the same way as treating this in the wider community not as antisocial behaviour but criminal behaviour.”
Many people will be surprised at the statement that NHS trusts are undermanaged, although perhaps not surprised to learn they are over administered.
This is the conclusion of a report by The Kings Fund following a nine-month inquiry into leadership and management in the NHS. The report states that NHS trusts are in need of a new style of management leadership. A situation they describe as urgent in view of the harsh financial climate and big changes required in the NHS.
As the report states big changes are required in how things are done in most trusts. The culture change is to convince managers that poor performance is an issue for the line manager to address and can’t be simply passed over to HR.
However this is a deep rooted problem which stems from the traditional way of appointing managers. All too often excellent professionals are appointed to management posts with no clear understanding of what being a manager is all about and no desire to get involved in the messy business of taking people to task over their performance, attendance or behaviour.
In future when posts are filled people need to be recruited for their people management skills as well as their budget management skills and relevant professional background. Existing managers need to be given support to acquire the necessary skills and confidence to lead their staff.
Most organisations start with rewriting the job description and person specifications for management posts and go as far as redesigning their management development programmes. It is a start but the real challenge is, as this report states, to develop managers’ leadership skills. If you are interested in reading a case study of introducing such an in-house management leadership development programme, you will find a detailed case study in Equipping managers for an Uncertain Future, published by Russell House.
Chief executives say the daftest things
So I read in the Guardian this article by an NHS chief executive on their top tips for making savings. The timing of this helpful advice couldn’t be better because as you know the public sector is having to make savings. Up to 30 per cent in the case of some local authorities.
Most chief executives will have been struggling with demanding budget reductions for many months leading up to the new financial year in April. They will now be monitoring how effective their plans are in practise. What better time to get a master class from a high profile chief executive of a foundation trust who is also chair of a mental health confederation.
So this is how you do it:
- Cancel meetings to save travel costs;
- Stop using outside venues for meetings and training sessions;
- Stop staff attending conferences;
- Tackle sickness levels;
- Use less agency staff;
- Set targets for savings.
I am reminded of the comedy sketch where “Blue Peter” children’s presenters announce they are going to show the audience how to play the flute and how to cure all know diseases. The instructions for the flute are ”blow down here and place your figures over the holes”. They go on to say that in order to cure all know diseases they must “first become a doctor and then invent a cure for all known diseases”.
Most organisations don’t know how many disabled people they employ, how many gay people work for them or which faiths make up the staff group. All they do know with any degree of certainty is the age and gender profile of their organisation, plus maybe some information on ethnicity.
The reason for this is that staff have proved very reluctant to disclose what they consider to be highly sensitive information about their sexuality, a disability or even their faith for fear of prejudice and discrimination.
People can see if you’re black but not if you’re gay or hard of hearing. Why tell them if you don’t have to?
If you don’t know who you have employed, how do you know if your recruitment policies and practices are fair? How can an employer demonstrate that their workforce is in fact representative? How would you know if discrimination is taking place?
The challenge is to create a safe environment within your organisation so that staff feel able to identify themselves for who they are without fear of prejudice.
It’s going to take more than a two-day awareness training course to bring about what is a culture change in most organisations. The starting point has to be with senior managers to show leadership and give permission for people to discuss issues of race, gender, disability, sexuality and faith openly.
The aim is for people to say what they are really thinking in order that they can be challenged or supported. Of course senior managers and HR (Human Resources - Personnel and Training section) will be only too aware that this process has to be managed since it will unleash some powerful emotions.
Some skilled facilitation is required within a range of forums designed to increase awareness and encourage discussion. A case example of applying his approach and the discussion material used can be found in An Elephant in the Room-an equality and diversity training manual published by Russell House.
Encouraging staff to talk openly involves finding innovative ways to get hot issues out into the open. This gives the organisation/senior managers the opportunity to challenge myths and explain policies. The case study shows how a large organisation used its intranet to get these questions out in the open - and answered - however uncomfortable the questions might be. A lot of the questions came from a series of two-day equality and diversity awareness courses. The case study includes some of the most frequently asked questions and the answers that were provided.
The case study also details how equality and diversity champions were recruited and supported. These were people from all levels within the organisation who were prepared to put time and energy into raising awareness. Typically with in organisations groups set up to address equality issues all too often become characterised by inertia and a lack of passion. The case study shows how this was avoided by replacing nominated representatives with people who identified themselves as champions and examines the issues this raised and how they were addressed.
Batman and Robin were the original dynamic duo. Batman was the leader, older, wiser and stronger, but he could not have defeated his wicked and often devious opponents without his loyal side kick Robin.
So it is with many successful leaders that they work best with a deputy. Look at Brian Clough and Peter Taylor: brilliantly successful together managing Derby City and Nottingham Forest football clubs, but on their own, well, just ordinary.
The post of deputy is in the news due to the coalition government but in local government and other parts of the public sector deputies are no longer fashionable. The harsh financial climate in the public sector has led to a cull of management posts and deputies were early casualties of management restructuring.
In many authorities the post of deputy has been replaced by a rotating deputising role. In other words people take it in turns to deputise for the boss in their absence. This devalues the role to just covering whereas a deputy does so much more. A deputy is part of a double act - good cop bad cop, one is good with the politicians the other is good with the troops, one has all the ideas the other knows how to turn them into reality. In short, complementary skills.
One characteristic common to all deputies is loyalty whatever happens the deputy and boss must appear to be united. The deputy can listen to criticism of the boss but never appear to agree with it.
But sooner or later every deputy wonders if they couldn’t step up. Maybe they will be tempted to apply for the top job elsewhere, occasionally they decide to go for the top job where they are even if the post isn’t vacant!
This is one of the risks in having a deputy: if things aren’t going too well and the members are unhappy with you and they have a ready-made replacement in your deputy they might decide they can afford to let you go.
I can understand why a recently appointed chief executive might want to bring their deputy with them and possibly other members of their successful team. This happens in sport and may be acceptable in the private sector but it’s not the way thing are done in local government.
Members are not prepared to give up their power to appoint all senior officers especially as this often involves some horse trading behind the scenes between the leader and cabinet members along the lines that I will let you have your way on this one on the understanding I get my way when it comes to my area of responsibility.
Of course all chief executives want to recruit their own senior management team and a high turnover of senior managers following the appointment on a new chief executive is not uncommon. Members wish to retain the power and the organisations equal opportunities policy may mean the new chief executive can’t bring their team with them but that doesn’t meant they can’t get in touch to encourage them to apply for the up and coming vacancy. You might not be surprised how often they are successful.
Heroes and villains
The actor who played Dr Who a few years back, Christopher Eccleston, was asked whether he preferred playing heroes rather than villains. He replied that acting was all about finding the hero in the villain and the villain in the hero.
Management is also about heroes and villains. The manager cutting services, increasing workloads and making people redundant is often seen as a villain. The same manager champions equal opportunities, upholds professional values, challenges bad practice and inspires staff.
So if you are a manager who is asked to play the villain then the bad guy you will be but you need to find the hero within the role. You may be carrying out unpopular decisions but only a pantomime villain would judge success by the volume of boos.
Being a hero doesn’t involve a big dramatic show of defiance - “the manager who resigned rather than cut services” - it involves struggling on day in day out just trying to make a difference in a thousand little ways that go unnoticed by the majority.
I’ve been to New York, and seen the future. Our public services, if they follow the previous pattern of imitating the US business model, will be like a New York breakfast.
That is, fast, efficient, cheap and intimidating.
It needs to be fast because everyone is in a hurry. It needs to be efficient because it’s very busy and people don’t like waiting. It needs to be cheap or people will go elsewhere and of course there needs to be extensive choice because the customer expects it.
If you know exactly what you want and you know how the system works you can get a cheap, quick breakfast of your choice. But efficiency depends on people being decisive and the speed depends on people knowing what to do and not asking lots of “dumb” questions in a hard to follow accent.
For those not used to this self service system it is off-putting, even intimidating.
The result for me was not getting the breakfast I wanted but the one easiest to order. Cheap and quick but not a satisfying experience. The thing is, you do get used to it.
No doubt this is how our health service would be if the public sector adopted the US fast food business model. I can see that in personal social services people with a physical disability would soon get to understand the system, the middle class parents of people with a learning disability would exploit it to their benefit, most elderly people would be put off except those lucky enough to have a capable son or daughter to guide them.
This approach is not a million miles away from the “Easy Council” and its no frills service based on the economy airline model. This too requires a certain amount of no how and confidence to book on line, to understand the need to travel light due to weight restrictions and limits on hand luggage, the implications of not having allocated seating and the fact that every thing is an extra which is charged for.
What these models have in common is that they are cheap, they are efficient and, insofar as they do what they say they do, good value for money.
But I can’t help thinking they are neither customer friendly or accessible to the whole community. Cost and choice are not the only measures of success. The danger is that the supporters of NHS reform think they are.
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Make ‘em laugh
Whoever the audience, whatever the topic, it helps if you can make them laugh. Humour can defuse a tense situation and it’s hard to stay angry if you’re smiling. People like a laugh and they like people who make them laugh.
But it’s risky, as the PM found out. Service cuts and redundancies are no laughing matter so your joke may be seen as flippant and be taken to show you neither understand the implications for your audience nor care.
There are three things to remember. First it’s not how funny the joke is, it’s how appropriate it is. Second, making a joke at your own expense shows you have a sense of humour; if it’s at someone else’s expense, it shows you are insensitive.
Third, people laugh at the boss’s jokes, even if they are not funny.
When it goes horribly wrong, not only do they not laugh but they get upset, and saying it was only a joke is not a good defence. To then accuse the offended person of lacking a sense of humour just proves how insensitive someone is.
Those guilty of sexist, racist and homophobic remarks often claim they were only joking and say the person who complains is being ”over sensitive” or excuse themselves saying ”other people thought it was funny”. As someone who has chaired many disciplinary hearings, if that’s your defence, expect the worst.
The advice to managers is clear. Don’t make inappropriate jokes, only tell funny stories at your own expense and if you upset some of your audience apologise immediately. Otherwise you risk being considered a bit of a clown - and not a very funny one at that.
Management development programmes are no longer about giving managers a qualification to put on their CV. They are about changing the organisations culture in response to a harsh financial climate. No longer being able to afford to do things the way they have always been done means things must be done differently.
Most management development programmes fail to change the organisation’s culture for two reasons. They run out of steam before they reach the critical mass of managers and they fail to build on the initial programme.
The harsh financial climate means that organisations have cut back on training and management development. However organisations need to deliver a transformation agenda in response to budget cuts and they need to do it at a time when some of their most experienced managers have taken voluntary redundancy or early retirement.
The resulting skills gap needs to be met by an in-house programme that can train up large numbers of managers quickly. This is about a cultural change since these organisations will look and behave very differently as a result of 30 per cent budget cuts over three years.
Corporate management development programmes are not new. Sometimes they are delivered in partnership with other agencies in the locality; often there is an input from a university or management consultants. They start at the top with senior managers with the aim of working their way through to middle managers and eventually cascading down to all managers but invariable run out of momentum and money before significant numbers of middle managers have been on the programme.
Organisational change will only happen if a critical mass is reached in numbers and tiers of management. Whether the programme is delivered as a block or one day a month such large scale programmes typically take years to deliver and all the time there is a turnover of managers.
What’s more, like any training, if it is not built on its impact on the individual quickly dissipates. Then a new chief executive arrives and asks: “what we have got for all this money we have spent over the last few years?” and the programme gets scaled back or wound up.
You can reasonably predict that in a medium to large organisation if you get two thirds of managers through a management programme within three to four years you will have dramatic and powerful organisational cultural change, provided you have installed the follow up to build on the initial programme. This critical mass may vary from organisation to organisation and may depend on how dramatic the shift required is.
Programmes fail when not enough planning goes into achieving a critical mass within a realistic time scale and insufficient thought goes into supporting managers when they come off the initial programme. Inevitably over a three to four year period there will be shifts in priorities and changes of policy what won’t change is the need for managers with good people management skills.
The aim of the programme should be to get senior managers to have a common understanding of what type of managers and what type of management behaviour the organisation wants. The management development programme is just one way of reinforcing this message. Managers can be supported and the programme built on through mentoring and management learning sets.
A detailed case study of a successful management development programme in a large organisation can be found in Equipping Managers for an Uncertain Future published by Russell House.
The health secretary will hear you now
The politicians may claim to be listening but what’s the betting at the end of the consultation there will be many who say they were not heard. By consultation a politician doesn’t mean “we are seeking a consensus”, what they mean is “we recognise that what we propose is unpopular in some quarters but we think that if people better understood our plans more would support them”.
Politicians recognise that it is not simply about making a good business case for these change; there are interest groups to placate and a calculation about whether short term unpopularity will carry through to the next election.
Put another way politics is always a balance between pragmatism and idealism: what a politician says and what they mean.
So when a politician says “We have no plans to privatise this service”, this does not mean they are not thinking about it.
”There will be a full consultation process before any decisions are made” translates roughly as the politicians and their political advisors know what they want to do.
“Nothing has been agreed until it has been put before Parliament”, but the cabinet have already calculated what they can get through.
Some compromises may be made along the way, a few sops to the more vocal pressure groups, a phased introduction or a toning down of some of the most radical changes in response to the more powerful interest groups - but the plans that were consulted on will be implemented.