The People Manager
All posts from: September 2011
A couple of weeks ago, the papers were again full of criticism of the former prime minister. His one time chancellor Alistair Darling was sticking the boot in. It was an attack on the man’s personality, not his policies: a savage criticism of his management style, not his achievements. He stands accused of being a bully who did not tolerate dissent and didn’t encourage debate.
The hypocrisy in all this is the pretence that this is an unacceptable and untypical management style when in fact it is part of a widespread culture in politics and the public sector. The people who rise to the top tend to be the scary bullies.
They are the ones with the personalities so dominant and self belief so uncritical that people around them shrink. They promote Yes men and Yes women. Their decisions and mistakes go unchallenged. Without genuine debate, collective responsibility becomes a question of personal loyalty or fear. Senior colleagues own the decisions through commitment to the leader or through fear of the leader. Neither, however, make for good decisions.
The argument centres on Nick Clegg now. Is Clegg just a Yes man to David Cameron’s policies? Are the Liberal Democrats being bullied by their Conservative counterparts? Many would claim so, although the recent Health Bill concessions would suggest some balance is in operation.
However, the majority of observers would agree that the coalition is not run on a 50-50 split. Moreover, Cameron and Osborne are trying to push policies which many Lib Dem MPs and supporters directly oppose.
It might not be on the same level as Alistair Darling’s comments on Gordon Brown, but if we don’t want this type of leadership to prevail - and we shouldn’t - then we need to stop focusing on the individual and concentrate on the merits of the arguments. Where they exist, we need people who will stand up to the bullies, not Yes men and women.
A story about responsibility…
The curtains were drawn and the flat was in darkness even though it was mid afternoon. There was a strong smell of burning. The lights didn’t work. The electricity had been cut off. It was colder inside the flat than out side. There was not a stick of furniture in the living room and no carpet on the floor.
In the centre of the room were the charred remains of a recent fire made of twigs, waste paper and broken furniture. A quick check revealed the tenant was known to mental health services but they said he did not have a mental health problem. According to the psychiatrist he just had an awkward personality and possibly a mild learning disability.
The combined health and social service leaning disability team disagreed. There was no evidence of a learning disability. The local social service team for older people didn’t want to know because he was under 65. Housing said they had received complaints from neighbours but had failed to find anyone in when they called. The benefits agency said he had failed to keep a number of appointments despite several letters so they had stopped his money weeks ago. “That usually does the trick,” the benefits officer said.
No one wanted to accept responsibility but everyone felt someone should do something.
The story has a happy ending. The worker at the drop in centre got the benefits restarted, the electricity back on and some second hand furniture.
The issue is not, what powers do agencies have?, or what rights an individual has, but who is going to take responsibility to sort out the problems.
In the end it wasn’t that difficult but it could have been a very different ending: an eviction, a charge of arson or a compulsory admission to psychiatric hospital. Or something even more tragic.
Transforming the public sector on the scale the government requires was always going to be difficult. A recent Ipsos MORI survey of public sector leaders reveals just how difficult as three quarters believe the changes will not improve services.
The government should be worried if the majority of those responsible for driving through changes don’t share their belief that this will result in better services. Yet rather perversely these same public sector leaders think the government plans are the right thing to do!
The explanation for this contradiction is that public sector leaders have taken on board that their number one task is to make cuts to budgets and deliver savings. Where they disagree with the government is that it is possible to do more with less. In fact many see efficiency initiatives not as delivering the same with less but delivering less with less. In other words reduced budgets even if spent in a different way will result in fewer people receiving a service and or a reduction in the quality of service.
Seven out of ten leaders polled felt that the government was forcing the pace of change too quickly by making budget cuts too fast. A view they believe is shared by the majority of the general public judging by the lobbying of local politicians and the reaction of local media.
Whilst the government still seems to think the Big Society will fill the gaps the majority of public sector leaders think it won’t. Almost half those polled thought it would make no difference locally.
Is it any wonder that staff, service users and the general public have picked up on this scepticism and responded with accusations that changes are not about improving services but saving money!
The reality is confirmed by the nature of senior managers’ ”conversations” with staff and service users. Chief executives talk to staff of standing on a burning platform to illustrate the need for fast and dramatic action. Senior managers “consult” with service user groups not over whether libraries, museums, swimming pools and sports centres will close but which ones. The debate in youth services is not about how best to spend the budget to better engage with disaffected young people but how much can we get away with cutting the budget by?
The talk of increased choice and control by users of social care has been replaced by how much can be saved if help and support is restricted only to those older people in greatest need.
In the NHS managers now openly admit waiting lists are getting longer. No one is pretending this is improving services. No one, that is, except the government.
The announcement last month that Steve Jobs was stepping down as chief executive of Apple for health reasons had an immediate impact on share prices and has prompted discussion about whether it is good for a company to be so identified with one individual.
The so called “cult of the chief executive” is also recognised in the public sector. These are individuals who are credited with turning around failing organisations or for making mediocre organisations great. Some come in at a point of crisis, work their magic and go on to bigger and greater things; others build over many years and go only reluctantly when retirement beckons.
But whichever type they are, they present the same problem: what happens when they leave?
I am sure even Steve Jobs, credited as he is for making Apple a globally successful company, has a very competent team of senior managers backing him up and that Apple has some of the brightest and most innovative people in the industry working for them. So why was the stock exchange so nervous?
Put another way - why does any successful organisation, service or team worry about the impact of a high profile leader leaving, unless they think what has been achieved is all down to that individual?
Some of this can be explained by natural anxiety along the lines of, what if the replacement isn’t any good or wants to change everything? There may be a concern that some of the most able and experienced managers will see this as the time to go, their loyalty was to the individual not the organisation. New chief executives, like new senior managers, want to surround themselves with their own appointments, people who think like them and don’t keep referring to how things were done under the predecessor. So some closely associated with the old order may be encouraged to go. There may be concern that these changes of key personnel will adversely affect the organisation albeit in the short term.
It could also be that this high profile, highly regarded charismatic leader’s achievements were down to their sheer force of personality, people at all levels in the organisation believed in this person and were prepared to go along with their vision and their decisions because they liked and respected them.
Nothing wrong with that, you might say, we want and need leaders who inspire their staff. Well in my view we don’t.
This type of leadership may be very effective in a crisis but this “cult of the leader” is very damaging for an organisation in the longer term. To use a sporting analogy this would be the difference between a great team and a great club.
A great team goes a whole season without losing, a great club is one that has a succession of successful teams: even though the individuals change the philosophy behind the way the club is run doesn’t. In organisational terms the culture is not follow the leader, the culture is based on a shared set of values, a shared vision of the future and an agreed way of doing things. This will not change - even if the leader does.
There are two types of manager: those who tell people what to think and those who want to make people think.
Now that all managers are expected to be leaders, to inspire their staff and take responsibility for making things happen, it is all too easy to claim to be the latter but perceived to be the former. When you address staff your passion and enthusiasm, your dismissal of the sceptics and cynics, your conviction that this is the right way can be heard as lecturing and sound like you’re telling people what to think.
Are you going to concentrate on changing behaviour or influencing thinking? Organisations often claim to want to change the culture but in focusing on the way things are done they end up with new policies and procedures but no new mind set.
Staff know what they are supposed to do but they don’t necessarily think it is right. You can give the staff the “have a nice day” script but that doesn’t guarantee they will be customer friendly.
If you want to make people think, you don’t simply tell them your vision and what you believe in. That can come across as preaching. You tell stories, you quote some challenging statistics and you ask questions. You give people the opportunity and space to think about the issues and you create a safe environment to challenge and be challenged. Naturally this involves a lot more risk.
Applying these two approaches to the challenge of employing more staff with a disability would involve different initiatives. You can change behaviour by introducing an interview guaranteed scheme for all applicants registered as disabled. You can set recruitment targets, you can change the wording on application forms and job adverts to make it explicit that the organisation positively welcomes applications from people with a disability but this is unlikely to challenge the stereotypes and myths of those on the interview panel or make work colleagues think about disability.
The most effective way I have experienced of getting people to think about disability was when a young person with a learning disability was placed in the admin team supporting the senior management team. This was more than work experience, some hours were taken from an existing vacancy to create a part time post for someone with a learning disability as part of meeting a recruitment target, but also to identify and overcome any problems, real or perceived, in employing someone with a learning disability.
The result was a lot more thinking, debate and shift in views than would happen through any exhortation to equality or training course because of course this was no longer about people with a disability - this was about an individual.
Of course this was risky and involved a lot more management input. Which is why so many managers resort to telling staff what to think: it’s easier!