Day to day management is largely about doing the basics, monitoring the budget, checking performance against targets, ensuring that agreed strategies are implemented, explaining why we are doing what we are doing, asking good questions and chasing up the responses.
‘Every so often a manager is faced with something out of the ordinary which will test their leadership skills, willingness to act and ability to reason over emotion’
All these tasks involve attending many meetings and reading a lot of emails. Every so often a manager is faced with something out of the ordinary which will test their leadership skills, their willingness to act and their ability to reason over emotion.
Flip the switch
Picture this: you are standing on a bridge over a railway track when you see a runaway carriage hurtling toward five railway workers.
A large man is standing next to you. The only way to save the five workers is to push this man off the bridge and onto the track below (and you are too puny to stop it if you jump in front yourself). The man will die but his bulk will stop the carriage.
Now an alternative: a runaway carriage is heading for the same five men who will face certain death if nothing is done.
‘Faced with this hypothetical dilemma, most decide that it would be wrong to push a man off the bridge and more acceptable to operate the switch’
You can save them by operating a switch that will divert the carriage to a sidetrack but there is a single workman working there who will be killed if you do decide to pull the switch.
Faced with this hypothetical dilemma, most people decide that it would be wrong to push the big man off the bridge and more acceptable to operate the switch, despite the fact that the number of people lost and saved are identical either way.
A tough management decision
Now translate this hypothetical scenario into a management decision on whether to make 50 people redundant rather than risk 500 people losing their jobs.
Would you close all council-run homes for older people because they can be bought more cheaply from the private sector despite the distress this will cause existing residents and the risk that cheaper care will result in poorer care?
Another scenario: a disciplinary investigation has revealed widespread circulation of “humorous” emails which are sexist and in some cases explicit. Initially HR wanted you to take an uncompromising stance but they are now backtracking because of the sheer numbers involved and a suspicion that some senior managers might be implicated.
HR are now advising a more pragmatic approach - an amnesty for all those who have passed on emails with a general warning to all staff that any further misuse will lead to disciplinary action and possible dismissal.
‘Some actions will directly cause suffering for some but are the least worst option’
Or perhaps there is an offer on the table to take over all your support services at a saving of £5m a year - the very sum you need to save from the budget. This money would mean you would not have to cut child protection services which have always been protected at the expense of all other services.
However if you did take the offer, staff in support services would face redundancy or new employment contracts on lower pay with fewer leave days and less sick pay in an organisation that refuses to recognise trade unions.
Choosing the least worst option
These management scenarios are the equivalent of saving the five men on the railway by flipping the switch and diverting the runaway carriage. These actions will directly cause suffering for some but are the least worst option and preferable to looking on in horror and doing nothing.
So what would be the management equivalent of pushing the man off the bridge and are we still confident that our leaders are not prepared to do it?