The effects of management: an open letter to Ian Lynch

Some days ago, ‘Disappointed Idealist’ posted a long polemic about the shortcomings of educational management. I commented on what I felt was a heartfelt and perceptive observation, since when a dialogue opened up between Ian Lynch and me on the comments section. I don’t think it is reasonable to conduct an extended discussion on the comments board of someone else’s blog, so I have moved here to continue my response. The following is therefore a specific reply to Ian Lynch’s comments, in effect an open letter. The previous discussion can be found here.

Ian:

Have you come across Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness? If not, I suggest you read it. It might explain some of my doubts about the efficacy (or should that be sanctity?) of management. I suggest you also look at Obliquity by John Kay, and Drive by Daniel Pink for why the current approach is wrong and doomed to failure. Details of all of these can be found on my reading page.

They represent, of course, just one world-view, but I think we can probably agree that management is a very complex matter. I will repeat: my objections are not some kind of a grudge. Indeed I have always tried to act in a constructive and professional way for the management of my school; they deserve respect for the difficult job they have undertaken. But equally, no one makes people take those jobs. Too many of them may have been taken due to personal ambition rather than aptitude. The view that you can do more good from higher up is, in my view, deeply flawed.

My own early attempts at entering management were, admittedly,  unsuccessful; there may have been many reasons for that, but with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, I am greatly relieved that I never did so. I think I was not ready for it at the age when it was expected that one ought to be looking for junior management roles, and somewhere inside I knew that. I will admit that I would also find it very difficult to suppress my own strongly-held views and experiences just for the sake of holding the management line. Maybe, in the conventional sense, that made me unsuitable.

Teaching is a job where long service delivers perspectives that simply are not available to new entrants, no matter how talented they may be, and particularly if they flit from school to school. How much bad management is a result of people being pushed to take roles for which they have insufficient experience or perspective? Decades of doing the job throw a very different light on what is important and what is not. Young turks may not see this, instead being more anxious about making their mark. So much damage is done by actions that have little to do with education and everything to do with demonstrating the so-called effectiveness of the manager. As you say, this is made all the worse by the accountability trap.

My objection to management is not over-idealistic; it is born from two very practical considerations which relate to the assumptions made not only about its own potency, but about the real nature of the world we inhabit:

  1. Management as a concept is predicated on the belief that it is possible to control things centrally. This in turn is based on the view that things happen for identifiable cause-and-effect reasons. While this may be partly true in the material/mechanical world, it is not as directly so for the behavioural world, even in the commercial sector (think bankers’ behaviour). The causal density of human behaviour and interactions is so high that it is effectively impossible to identify, let alone anticipate, the actual effects of one’s actions. Therefore, management is doomed to failure because it is simply attempting too complex a task,  to co-ordinate closely the real behaviour and motives of a hundred or more adults, let alone the children. This is all too visible in the amount of time people spend trying to circumvent imposed constraints on their actions and trying to cover their backsides from the perceived or real consequences of not doing what management wants. This is not productive activity.
  2. In any organisation, management is a construct. It does not produce anything of itself; it is not the core activity of any organisation. It therefore constantly needs to reinvent reasons for its own existence – and these largely consist of coming up with new ways of telling other people what to do and then checking up on them afterwards. Sometimes that may be helpful or necessary, but it all too easily becomes a self-serving activity the key purpose of which is to preserve its own raison d’etre, let alone the prestige of those in those roles. As I mentioned before, it sets up too many conflicts of interest ever to be otherwise.

 

I am an educated, thoughtful and conscientious individual, and I do not go to work to be patronised, or told what to think and do with no reason,  like a mindless automaton. My loyalty is to be won, not demanded. I expect to work hard, but I do not expect to have the job made more difficult than it needs to be. I have a life beyond work to which I am entitled, and I do not expect to be condemned or criticised for protecting it. I do not expect to have it gratuitously invaded by people who seem to think they have unlimited rights to my time.

You may argue that such things are inevitable; be that as it may, the effect in terms of morale, let alone dehumanisation of the workplace, is still the same. You suggest that we need to accept that which we cannot change, but I see no reason why I should accept the distress and demoralisation of either me or my colleagues just because it seems that not much can be done about it because I am not powerful within my school. That is not the same as claiming that such things are done deliberately – though there are times, even in a good school like mine, when it comes close. There are some things that are simply wrong – and the way that too many people get treated in the workplace is one of them. It is not compatible with a modern, civilised country.

As for doing something about it, I have spent my career fully engaged in professional dialogue both within the school and more widely – but you cannot discuss things with people who are unwilling to listen, and who in effect consider they know better because they are somehow ‘more important’. You cannot change things from the inside if you cannot gain access to the inside because your ideas don’t ‘fit’. I have acted in numerous roles in an attempt to argue certain cases – always with the same conclusion: the default position of management seems to be to listen to nobody but itself – and to do what it wants regardless. Ironically, increased local freedoms only seem to have made this worse.

No matter how inevitable you think this is, the effect is too often a destructive culture within organisations whereby too much effort is expended on in-fighting and the them-and-us mentality which often exists. While there undoubtedly are individual teachers who hold grudges, I am genuinely not one of them – and I still feel I can say that over nearly thirty years, the divisions have been created more from above than below.

We would be much better off accepting the real limitations that exist on the ability of a few often-remote individuals to control the minds and actions of others; it is the inability of management to accept this fact that causes a lot of its problems.

Management would be more effective, if it accepted that its job was to establish minimum expectations, go about winning hearts and minds by creating a good ethos and then allowing people to operate within those basic expectations with as much freedom as possible. Tom Sherrington wrote as much a few months ago. Certainly there is a role to weed out the genuinely bad, but the constant drive to impose uniformity on people does nothing more than deny human variability and individuality and is guaranteed to cause dissatisfaction and demotivation.

You may claim this is idealistic – but there are countries where it works, such as Switzerland (as I have written before in these pages). I have seen teachers working in a genuinely collegiate manner, with a minimal flat management structure for overall coordination. It works fine – and it also used to work in this country – until the point when education caught management sickness and it became the only real route for ambitious teachers to ‘prove’ their worth. I have also worked in leaderless teams at times – and nothing ground to a halt. Belgium ran itself for many months without a government, while the Soviet Union collapsed under its management’s inability to control its citizens’ lives sufficiently closely to command their compliance. That is the reality of reality – it is oblique and polycentric; it does not work to centralised command, no matter how much some people might want it to.

The biggest obstacle to improving this situation in this country is the confirmation bias that tells managers that the only solution to poor management is more management. Certainly we need some – but not the debilitating parasite that it has been allowed to become. Until they accept that management is no more indispensible and no less fallible than the rest of us, we are not going to get far.

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13 thoughts on “The effects of management: an open letter to Ian Lynch

  1. So what is your practical solution? Why not set up your own free school and show how your ideas can work? Writing blog entries might well help alleviate frustration but its not likely to change very much. You need concrete exemplars of how to do it better and then persuade others to implement your methods to build support.

  2. Autonomy always beats management because the speed at which it can respond is far quicker. Plenty of companies give more power to their staff as the staff know what is needed with regards day to day running. Management should be about allowing the staff to do what us needed.

    If management is good then clearly by extension the Russian communist system was the best as that was the most highly managed, obviously this isn’t true so the necessity of management fails the reductio ad absurdum test.

  3. This is why small business are associated with innovation and large bureaucracies maintaining the status quo. Allowing the staff do “do what is needed” depends on who makes the decision about what is needed and confidence in the staff to do it. Totalitarian states generally don’t have anywhere near the level of accountability. If a business is badly led with bad management it will go bankrupt. A school does not have the same degree of competitive accountability as a private sector company and relies on bureaucratic regulation to a much higher degree. This is why I have said, you can’t have your cake and eat it. If you want to reduce the amount of management in schools you also have to let go of a lot of the surrounding bureaucracy. Sure you will be able to tweak things at the margins but for a really significant change you are going to need to radically change the methods of delivery and that would require a complete change in culture and that is not too likely. http://thelearningmachine.co.uk/how-to-pay-teachers-100k-per-year/

  4. Ian, this issue is so complex that I’m struggling to compose a coherent answer to your points. I am also hamstrung by the fact that I can’t easily exemplify my points without breaching reasonable confidentiality about my own workplace.

    But here are a few observations:

    This past week, I have seen a hard-working junior manager reduced to a near-breakdown by the sheer unreasonable and conflicting demands of management. Nothing to do with the pressures of teaching children at all. That is not right – and it is certainly not productive. That it appears at least some senior managers are in denial that there is a problem, hardly helps just when we need them.

    With his/her mention of umbrellas and funnels, disidealist didn’t mention the third kind of manager: the sh*t FAN. They exist, and they create havoc, believe me.

    As I have remarked before, “Treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen” as a management policy is ultimately counter-productive. You cannot *command* people’s loyalty or commitment, only earn it – but you *can* easily destroy their willingness to go that extra mile, as I have seen this week. And once it is gone, it is not easily regained. The fact is, too much management alienates its workforce, but I do NOT believe that is inevitable, as you almost seem to.

    I would suggest that being awarded ‘outstanding’ for management by Ofsted perhaps does not help in terms of approachability. But then, Oftsed’s management criteria don’t exactly seem to extend to the more subtle or humane aspects of the art either.

    I would also add that this is wider than just a school problem: my wife works in higher education, and we are seeing similar problems there; I know people who have seen the same in the NHS, and other friends who have encountered similar problems, where there is overblown, hubristic management. Neither is the solution in a private/public dilemma: there are plenty of private organisations where the treatment is at least as bad.Once upon a time, I was treated to an extended close-up view of the effects of self-worshipping management at the International Olympic Committee. It was not a pretty sight.

    The few places where such problems seem to be less tend to have small or light-touch management. Go figure.

    Despite the above, this is still not a personal grudge. This is why the Tragedy of Commons struck such a chord with me: it shows how well-meaning but ill-conceived actions can have negative outcomes. Unfortunately, many of those with the power to initiate such actions either don’t understand that, or are too focused on their own gain to care.

    As for criticising me for not having my own solution, that is a cheap ad hominem attack. If the solution were easy, better people than I would have found it by now. I don’t claim to have an answer – but without wishing to be melodramatic, I do know that history shows that the only strategy available to relatively disempowered groups is to engage in a battle of ideas. I have done that, through being at various times a co-opted staff observer on governors’ committees, an H&S rep, a union rep and more. I also undertook this blog as a way of disseminating my ideas in a small way. I run CPD, not in any rebellious way, but to offer less-heard perspectives to interested colleagues; they have been very well-received.

    I would emphasise at all times, that my only intention has ever been to improve what I believe is a bad and unproductive situation – in the current jargon, to add value. I can’t help it if I am talking to people who don’t want to hear – but that doesn’t make me wrong, and I don’t intend to stop. I am writing a book on the subject – if only I can find someone willing to publish it…:-(

    As for starting a free school, I did actually look into this some time ago. I rapidly came to the conclusion that they are not as free as they appear – and that the scope for doing what I would want was non-existent. Money alone would see to that – and let’s face it, a school founded on making teachers’ lives easier is hardly a good selling point to politicians and the public, no matter how sensible it might actually be.

    Besides – and this will probably not satisfy you – why would I wish to tackle this issue by becoming part of the problem myself? I do not for one moment believe that I would somehow be immune from the pitfalls of management blindness that cause these problems in the first place. And they are something I would not wish to perpetuate.

    I am certain you are right that nothing is going to change soon. We are stuck with a management model that might (just) have been suited to a Nineteenth-Century pin factory – but it is patently not fit for the intellect-based, high-functioning, multi-dimensional workplace of the Twenty-first Century. As I said, read Daniel Pink! Unfortunately, those running it either can’t see that, don’t know about the alternatives, or have too many vested interests for not changing it. In fact, they have even tried to reduce education to a matter of pin-counting in order to make it fit their misconceptions.

    Management needs to learn to use the workforce as its fast-response eyes and ears rather than a set of machinery to be flogged; it needs to accept that it doesn’t always know best – and have the humility to listen. The entrenched positions need to disappear. Unfortunately, human weakness – in particular hubris – seems to militate against this – and we have created a system that then bulwarks the problem. But that is no reason to stop arguing for better – it’s all the powerless can do.

  5. There are two quite distinct issues here. One is working in perceived coercive bureaucracies that are stressful and damaging to health – teaching is not unique in that respect but that is not to say it isn’t a particular example. I’m sure those working in the NHS or police will have their own stories to tell. The other is whether or not it is possible to have large public sector bureaucracies without this downside. I suspect it isn’t because there seem to be few examples of workers in such situations saying they are given autonomous flexibility to manage themselves as they see fit. The management model is simply a symptom of the underlying bureaucracy. If you do not think you can do anything about it, then that probably reinforces that it is something you need to accept or change jobs.

    I don’t think it is accurate to say the management systems applied to schools would be suited to a pin factory. The purpose of a pin factory is clear and simple, the purpose of education is complex and does not have consensus. The consensus there is is what the democratically government decrees and yet that is often opposed by the “executive in the field”. Hence “the blob”.That is why the management of such a system causes all sorts of tensions. Politics complicates it and that genie is not going to go back into the bottle. I don’t need to read Daniel Pink specifically, I have a MSc in Education Management and I have studied the work of most of the management gurus.

    Good managers – and there are some – get the best from the resources and teachers are the most expensive resources in education. Entrenched positions won’t disappear because they relate back to politics, not rational simplicity like optimising the production of pins. In secondary schools the dominance of performance measures means that to some extent the approach of the pin factory is justified if the main aim is to optimise those results. If we really want to change this it will take completely changing the organisational approach to education which I tried to show in the blog link I posted is actually not very efficient. paying teachers 100k a year is possible with a class size of 15 within the current budget but that would require a complete dismantling of schools as we now know them and making all teachers self-employed. Personally if I was young enough to start again I’d be in favour but I should think a lot of teachers are so institutionalised in the system they would not know how to work in that way and would therefore fight tooth and nail against it. Back to politics.

    • You may well be right about the structural issues – but in which case, I’m not sure that your solution of dismantling the system is any more helpful than my feeble efforts to improve it. Smaller organisations may well be the answer – yet if anything, we have made them larger, presumably for economic reasons – but at what wider cost? And subdividing them doesn’t help – just creates more potential for empire-building.

      You misunderstood me about the pin factory. I am saying that this is precisely the *wrong* model for a non-mechanical, motivation-based organisation like a school. The problem is that often management appears to think there is *no* difference, and that you can run a school just like you run a manufacturing production line. You can’t, and pretending otherwise does not change the deep differences between the goals of those two activities.

      With respect, I am cautious about people (managers or otherwise) who say “I don’t need to…” Complacent thinking. Daniel Pink is not a management guru – precisely the opposite, at least in the context of the book I was recommending. Plenty of managers have higher degrees – and it doesn’t seem to make them any better, so no caveat. Management theory doesn’t seem to major on the basic human qualities that are what actually make all the difference.

      When it comes to good managers getting the best from their employees, well maybe, but I’m having to think hard to find of any unequivocal examples of this…I think this may be another professional fiction. The thing is, most teachers are internally motivated, and other than early help with basic classroom practice, we all really need to find our own way in this work…I can say with utter honesty, that the greatest improver of my own teaching has been my own willingness to soul-search (and perhaps learn anecdotally from colleagues) – nothing that management has done. On the other hand, management *needs* to believe that motivation is something that can be externally imposed and controlled…

      Incidentally, I am not only meaning senior management in my comments – but the whole construct that believes in big power-hierarchies. As much of the problem comes from middle management as anywhere else – anywhere where one individual presumes to impose a system on another that compromises the ability to function effectively. And as with bullying, the only judge of that can be the recipient.

      I have read your recommended blog post a couple of times, and it makes sense. As you say, it is also unlikely to happen. I’m not sure that paying teachers more is the answer anyway. That’s a businessman’s answer, not an educationalist’s.

      I prefer to start from the hopefully-optimistic premise that most of the problems come as a result of unintentional errors rather than anything more malign. That said, I am fully aware of the sometimes-cynical methods employed by those in power.

      One of the consequences of remaining at grass roots level is that I see the impacts of those behaviours from a perspective that few managers themselves do. But I also have the experience to read them and question them in a way younger colleagues may not. I remain hopeful that the management at my own school is *not* aware of the degree of extreme anguish and stress that their policies and behaviours sometimes cause: that is only expressed in private, in team-rooms and classrooms after school, in the pub, the car and in people’s homes, where managers can’t hear… And if they *are* aware, then maybe there are indeed bigger questions that need to be asked.

      A long-standing colleague has just gone part-time prior to retirement. He is no longer SLT but a classroom teacher again. He is an utterly decent, down-to-earth individual. At the start of this term he remarked, “Blimey! I’ve not had a full teaching day for fifteen years. You just can’t get anything done!”

      It is that kind of fairly elementary blindness that can afflict anyone which is where the problem comes from – and it stops managers seeing the real consequences of what they are demanding. Yes, it is worse if they don’t *want* to see in the first place – but that should call into question their fundamental suitability for the role.

      I think a lot of the problem is hard-pressed individuals not being able to think sufficiently deeply about what they are doing. A less febrile environment (which we all create) could help that, and could be achieved. I’m not certain that the kind of management training on offer emphasises the kind of soft skills I’m talking about. I suspect it is much more about lever-pulling and corporate compliance. If so, it is reinforcing precisely the wrong approach.

      I would rather believe that talking back to real people about the actual impacts of their actions might appeal sufficiently to their inner decency that they would think again. Regrettably, that does seem to be rather naive and it is not always the case – but I think it is the only way forward within the present system.

      • I’m not suggesting dismantling the system as I don’t think it is a practical option for the reasons cited although moving more towards that position might be possible. Personally, I’m not in that bureaucratic system so I don’t have to worry about it too much but if I did I’d probably be trying to change it :-).

  6. Very easy to hypothesise about a system when you are removed from it, or its effects. The very issue that is at the heart of the management problem.

    At base, a system that is making its key workers depressed, demoralised, miserable or ill is a system that is not working. In my experience, that IS the reality.

    That alone should be enough to prompt decent managers to think again.

  7. I’d say I can see it without the baggage of being part of it. I can see the management and the managed perspectives without needing to take sides and I can do it having been part of it directly for a number of years and being exposed to it regularly now. I also can draw on the background of having done a Masters in it. I’d say those observations are likely to be better informed and more impartial than those of anyone with a particular axe to grind working within it. Not so much a hypothesis as empirical evidence from observations from representative samples.

    All bureaucracies are accused of depressing and demoralising their inhabitants. You might as well just say politically driven bureaucracies are bad for people and I’d probably agree. Decent managers by definition have “thought again …and again and again” The difficulty is that the landscape will not look the same from their position as it does from yours and probably too few people have “a decent manager’s” perspective. I don’t think vilifying management in general will change that.

    • A fair point, so long as the limitations are also recognised. I have always tried to be scrupulously fair, which I think is a professional obligation on all of us – but I can also say as a matter of fact that one does not always receive equally even-handed consideration in return. Surely an obligation of management (at all levels) is to uphold the high standards they espouse?

      I always try to separate management as an issue from the specific individuals involved, and I make it a point of principle never to engage in personal attacks (as opposed to occasional reasoned critique) – though this can be hard when you have had a week like my last one. I hope it can be said of my blog in particular and my approach in general that I am fair and considered – though that does not mean always upholding the status quo. At what point is genuine anger justified?

      It is true that managers have difficult problems to resolve, but I think insufficient attention is often given to the personal qualities that can make even unfortunate circumstances more palatable. It is too easy to deflect responsibility for considerate behaviour by blaming the need to take hard decisions. There is no need for effective management to be heartless management.

      I see nothing to justify why people should have to expect to be routinely made miserable on account of their work or workplace. In the case of teaching, we shoulder enough as it is.

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