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The People Manager

All posts from: January 2012

Are leaders a product of their environment, or is it the other way round?

25 January, 2012 Posted by: -

Miss Congeniality they are not - but then they weren’t fast tracked because of their people skills. No it was the ability to manage a budget, hit performance targets and rationalise unpopular decisions. It seems a bit unfair now to complain that they are strident, competitive and unimaginative.

I am talking about senior managers on the NHS Top Leaders Program but I could be referring to any group of up and coming mangers in the public sector.

These were the findings of a detailed assessment of 900 participants in the NHS Top Leaders Programme under taken by the Hay Group consultancy for the National Leadership Council.

Three quarters of senior managers on the program were assessed as over confident, lacking insight into their own limitations and despite their above average verbal reasoning skills were poor at providing colleagues/staff with clarity. I think this description is not limited to those who are being fast tracked but go so far as to highlight the management characteristics which get people promoted - and not just in the NHS.

The problem is that these skills may get you the job but if you are to succeed in the job they do need to be supplemented. To transform the service you need to be able to innovate, to develop partnerships and establish a harmonious working environment. To achieve this you will require insight into your own behavior and how it affects others.

Senior managers rarely get this sort of direct feedback. Who is going to tell the chief executive that they are unclear about what they are telling them to do, that the way they respond to requests for clarification is seen as abrasive or that any attempt to debate is seen as disloyal? Much easier to help managers gain these insight on their way up, when hopefully they will be more receptive.

So we should not be too critical of the senior managers on the Top Leaders programme for being over confident, lacking insight and thinking they are better communicators than they are. They are after all a product of their environment. We should however encourage the type of individual detailed assessment that confronts managers with their skills gaps and a leadership development programs that address these deficiencies. 


If staff morale is at an all-time low you know you are doing something right

Who would make such a provocative statement? The thick-skinned health service minister, the no nonsense chair of the board, the over confident and ruthlessly ambitious chief executive?

It is in fact a quote from Michael Wilshaw, the chief of Ofsted, in an interview he gave to the Guardian newspaper this week. A sign of the times that we could imagine any one of a number of public sector leaders saying publically what they must have often thought privately.

Does this indicate that in the current financial climate public sector leaders expect staff to be unhappy about the changes taking place because they view staff as an obstacle to change? I have heard this summed up in the expression “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”. It reflects a leadership style based on imposing change by sheer force of personality. In the interview Mr Wilshaw is referred to as having a reputation as a “heroic head” and is quoted as saying “a poor leader runs a poor school; a good leader runs a good school”. So it is all down to the leader!

Some might argue that whilst the leader certainly sets the tone and has considerable influence success is determined by a range of factors such as team work, effective collaboration, political support, adequate resources and may be a little luck. And how far can you go by simply imposing change on a disempowered staff group?

Sometimes a leader must say “this is the right thing to do even if it is unpopular”. I have said it myself but this is very different to saying “I don’t care what staff think”. You would not think much to a colleague from another agency who announced during partnership negotiations that they “didn’t care what you thought”. So whilst low morale may be a consequence of pay freezes, redundancies and fear of unemployment it is not a measure of effective leadership. In fact, those that would boast that morale is at an all-time low would sound like a bully not a leader.

Comments (1)

The issue of heterosexual discrimination

17 January, 2012 Posted by: -

They thought gender was no longer an issue but the statistics on women in top jobs proved that wrong. They assumed race had been overtaken by faith in the “be careful what you say category” but were still wary. They regarded disability as an occasional recruitment issue despite the prevalence of mental health problems in the population.

It was sexuality that was making them feel uncomfortable.

They kept coming across references to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexuals. “They” were managers. They had heard the one about the man who wanted to be a woman and HR’s advice that he/she should use the unisex disabled toilets. Most viewed that as an interesting HR issue, not an everyday management issue. No, the hot issue was managing gay men.

Ever since the chief executive had come out as gay the organisation had become decidedly gay friendly. It was most noticeable at head office where there was a dramatic increase in the number of young gay men employed. The organisation had probably always had the usual cross section of people within its staff group; the difference was people now felt empowered and able to discuss, perhaps even flaunt their sexuality. Or at least the men did. But whereas people were clear on the rules for behaviour at work for heterosexuals, were they different for homosexuals?

The former chief executive had a bit of a reputation for surrounding himself with young women so was this chief executive’s behaviour any more unacceptable? However the former chief executive wasn’t in the habit of inviting his junior staff out to lunch or for after work drinks. It was the cliquey nature of this that drew the comments; these same young men seemed to be on a lot of working groups chaired by the chief exec.

Clearly some managers felt that some of their staff had more access to the chief exec than they did. And some staff made the most of this, dropping into the conversation at every opportunity what he had said at lunch yesterday or on Friday when a group of them went for a drink after work. The implication was clear: they had a powerful friend.

This was perceived as a potential problem should there be issues of time keeping, attendance or quality of work. Mangers also claimed to feel under pressure to approve applications, to attend conferences and workshops which they felt were more about sexuality than of direct relevance to the business.

It was the senior women managers who felt most excluded. They referred to the “gay mafia” and complained they were often out the loop since conversation had obviously taken place outside of the senior management team meetings.

It all came to an abrupt end with the chief executive’s sudden departure and the instillation by the board of an acting CEO - who was a woman.

Managers are not always comfortable with the diverse nature of the modern workforce. In the past people management issues tended to be about tackling homophobic bulling, inappropriate “jokes” and supporting staff who felt they were being excluded or talked about because of their sexuality. Now we have managers who don’t know whether they are feeling uncomfortable because of a person’s sexuality or because the behaviour is inappropriate.

Profit and loss in the 'new' public sector

17 January, 2012 Posted by: -

It is very clear that the new public sector is going to look very different to the old public sector.

The state is to have an increasingly smaller role in providing public services, private hospitals are likely to have the same number of NHS patients as private patients and as many as 50 per cent of NHS hospital beds could be taken up by private cases.

Local authorities have already closed most of their homes for older people in favour of buying places in private sector homes and have replaced their in-house home help services with private sector care providers.

The driving force behind this transformation has been money.

Initially, it was imperative to be more efficient in the face of increasing demand due to an ageing population creating a need to buy more with the same amount of money. The private sector offered this by providing cheaper services, largely achieved by paying their staff less than the public sector did for the same work.

But we have now gone way beyond making the public sector more efficient. The aim now is to make the public sector a commissioner of public services which are then provided mainly, although not exclusively, by the private sector. There appears to be no service that could not be contracted out to this sector, in fact the only obstacle to increasing their provision of public services is the question of profit.

The government are keen for the private sector to increase its role in providing public services, however this sector is not driven by ideology but by profit. There is, no doubt, much profit to be made out of providing selective public services both in health and social care but we have already seen companies go bust when they get it wrong.

The profit margins in caring for older people are so small that homes will make a loss if occupancy rates fall even a fraction, fees are not up rated in line with inflation or running costs increase. And these costs are increasing - gas, water, electricity, food and staffing are all going up in price - however local authorities are refusing to increase fees and are unable to afford to fund increased placements.

If the market is left to find its natural level then in some areas there will be considerable turbulence; a lot of homes closing, a lot of distressed elderly people being shunted around and a lot of very bad publicity.

The experience of the private sector providing publicly funded care services for older people is a warning to both providers and commissioners. I can see private sector companies cherry picking the most profitable areas of public services, but what about the rest?

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Don't presume that racism is no longer a problem

10 January, 2012 Posted by: -

HSJ today carries a report that the Central Manchester University Foundation NHS Trust has been found guilty of institutional racism with the award of £1m to a former manager. The trade union that represented the manager calls for an independent enquiry into the trust’s disciplinary policies following the discovery that whilst 2 per cent of the workforce are black they form 25 per cent of those subject to disciplinary action. 

The trust strongly disputes that institutional racism is a feature of the organisation. This comes a week after the convictions in the Stephen Lawrence trial and the subsequent Macpherson enquiry into the police investigation which first gave us the term “institutional racism”. It is clear that some organisations do not understand what institutional racism is or simply refuse to accept it exists. 

Stephen Lawrence was attacked because he was black. Eighteen years after his murder two of his killers have been sentenced to life in prison. His death and the inquiry that followed not only highlighted the level of hatred some white people directed towards black people but that police, intentionally or not, treated black people differently.

They were treated with suspicion and assumed to be more likely the perpetrators of crime rather than the victims. Black youths were stereotyped as violent gang members, drug dealers and drug users. The Macpherson enquiry gave a name to this unthinking prejudice based on ignorance and negative stereotypes, and said it could be found throughout our society. The point was emphatically made that racism was not just about the extreme behaviour of a few wicked people nor was it limited to unprovoked assaults, abuse shouted in the streets or outright discrimination.

As a result public sector organisations reviewed their recruitment practises and set targets to employ more black people. They provided staff with training to make them more aware of the experience of black people, the need to address their under representation in the workforce and the opportunity to examine negative stereotypes. But most of all to make it clear to staff that they should not use language that was offensive to black people, they should not make so called jokes about skin colour or race, and they should not discriminate against black people as colleagues or service users.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this because it is clear that some people have never understood the concept of institutional racism or have steadfastly refused to accept that it exists. “This organisation is not racist” they say. “I am not racist nor are any of my colleagues” they say. “Just because there aren’t any black senior managers doesn’t mean it is because of racism. We don’t care what colour someone is, we treat everyone the same.”

There have been changes over the last eighteen years: the casual racism in which people would refer to the “Paki” shop on the corner or made offensive jokes linking race and intelligence have become socially unacceptable. However black employees are still under represented in senior posts, a male black manager is still likely to be described as aggressive when the same behaviour from a colleague is called assertive, black staff are more likely to describe their manager as unsupportive, in many organisations black staff are disproportionately subject to disciplinary action. Perhaps as a consequence black members of staff have less faith in the organisation’s disciplinary and grievance procedures.

After the energy, enthusiasm and commitment to change following the Macpherson report there is a general feeling that the reality for black staff does match the rhetoric. There is also a feeling that senior managers have moved on, that austerity has brought a new set of challenges and priorities and that whilst individual’s personal commitment remains, their time and energy is directed elsewhere.

Can you make a racist remark and not be racist?

Last October, an incident took place that rocked English football, in which Liverpool football player Luis Suarez was alleged to have racially abused Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. According to Evra’s statements, you can make a racist remark and not be a racist.

Was he just saying that the opponent who he accused of repeatedly racially abusing him was not racist to appease his fellow professionals? Did he mean: “look this guy is not a wicked person just ignorant and insensitive”? I can understand the reluctance to call someone a racist, it is after all one of the worst things you can say about someone in our society. Presumably that is why no one ever admits to being a racist even those who use racist language and hold racist views. Being a racist is without dispute a very bad thing.

If a racist is not someone who uses racially abusive language, however, what does a racist do that makes them so? To be a racist do you have not only to abuse someone because of the colour of their skin but hold views that some people are inferior due to that reason and therefore do not deserve to be treated the same as the rest of us? So if you only meet part of this criteria does that mean you are not racist? If you call someone “black so and so”, that is useing racist language, but if you claim at the same time to believe in treating everyone fairly and not discriminating on the grounds of colour does that mean you are not a racist?

I know it sounds like we are just playing with words but what people say and how they say it is important, as is what we assume when they use this type of language. I belive that most people I have come across through work or socially are not racist but I have heard racist language used at work and in social gatherings. I explain this by the fact that people are often ignorant of other people’s culture, circumstances and feelings. That people are constantly fed negative stereotypes about Muslims, Asians or black people and so they often speak without thinking or realising the impact their words will have. But if an individual repeatedly makes these remarks despite being told it is offensive, hurtful and racist then clearly this is not ignorance but a true reflection of the way they think.

But does this view that using racist language, especially due to ignorance or insensitivity, does not make the individual a racist then result in people claiming that there is no racism in football or in this office - and lead to the concerning implication that nothing needs to be done?

Abuse and negelect: what 2011 will be remembered for

9 January, 2012 Posted by: -

2011 will be remembered as the year that the image of the caring nurse was shattered by widespread evidence of neglect on NHS wards. This was the year we realised the disturbing truth that inspecting services could not prevent abuse. It was also the year we were confronted with the knowledge that complaints, even serious complaints, were all too often not taken seriously. 

It is comforting to think that those who neglect and abuse vulnerable people are bad people. Better that than acknowledge they are the same as you and me and that given a certain set of circumstances we are all capable of the indifference recently revealed to be widespread in the care of elderly hospital patients. A few bad apples can be removed and better recruitment and supervision could identify the wrong un’s at an early stage. So why is abuse and neglect of people with a learning disability and older people such a recurring and widespread problem?

Neglect and abuse persists despite recruitment practises aimed at selecting people who have a positive attitude to old age. Bad practise and indifference to the discomfort of individuals continues despite renewed emphases on supervision. We should acknowledge that the problem is not simple one or two bad people. We need to recognise that disciplining and dismissing the worst offenders and providing more training for the rest won’t stop abuse and neglect from happening if the causes lie outside of the individual.

Of course we should dismiss those who abuse older people but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg. Those who shout or swear at a patient for being incontinent or steal their money and valuables or bruise them through rough handling are easily identified and dealt with. But neglect and indifference is more subtle than this, it is ignoring requests for assistance so that the individual soils or wets themselves, it is putting off cleaning them up in the hope that it can be left to someone on the next shift.

It’s making the individual feel that they are being a nuisance with their requests for a drink or to be helped sit up when you are so busy. It is giving a patient a bath whilst carrying on a conversation with a colleague as if you were washing a car not a person as you share what you did last night and what you are having for tea later.

This is the real problem: the staff group as a whole stop seeing patients as individuals, they become just another incontinent, confused, feeble body that needs washing, feeding and toileting. The way things get done is organised to make life easier for the overworked under-resourced staff. The good patient is the one who places no demands on staff but is grateful for any help, the good patient is cooperative and cheerful.

We cannot rely on inspections to prevent abuse and neglect although we can reasonably expect that a properly resourced inspection service will make it harder for it to go undetected. We cannot assume that just because a complaints system is in place mangers will act decisively although we have a right to expect they will. We should not think that abuse and neglect is down to one or too bad people because the persistence of abuse and neglect despite dismissals disproves this.

We can, however, do our best to make 2012 a good year for patient care.

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