Sunday, 13 December 2009

Sledgehammer Management

My last post was around my concern that by trying to be a liberal manager who appreciated a lot of the trouble that his employees were going through (I am not allowed to call them 'my team' because apparently they 'belong' to my own boss not me) that I would end up being too much like the manager, David Brent, in the television series 'The Office' making embarrassing fauxs pas.  I do think some of my employees do look on me as if I am rather odd, but I guess that comes from being a Goth in the workplace and from the clothes I wear resembling some hybrid of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes (1984-94) and the Herr Flick character from ''Allo, 'Allo' (1982-92; played by Richard Gibson with David Janson taking over for the 9th and final series in 1992), especially in the very provincial town I am now working in.  However, generally I seem to get on pretty well with those who have been assigned to me.

The same cannot be said for those above me, especially my immediate manager and, fortunately to a lesser extent, her successor.  Like many companies, ours is currently under pressure, making a loss and looking for ways to do the same or more work with fewer staff.  There are no redundancies (something the management wants us to keep reminding our staff, the 'whip of unemployment' being cracked on a regular basis) but when people leave (the best always go first from a company that is struggling) they are not replaced.  The new requirements of the Border Agency have been put on one of my units meaning extra work for the staff remaining.  At this time of year with illness and with one person on maternity leave not covered, it is tough to ensure all the work is being done.  It is, but most of the staff are working flat out and all of them doing jobs outside their job description to cover missing staff.  New systems are being brought in, but letting someone go off for the necessary training can really dent the capacity of my units.

So, what does a new manager do in such circumstances?  Well, I was repeatedly told by my boss that my staff were 'inefficient'.  This is taken by the workforce, unsurprisingly, as seen to mean 'lazy'.  So I started by surveying all their activity and in fact I feel many of them are working too hard.  They are very flexible in adapting to extra jobs to cover missing colleagues and to some degree this is where any inefficiency is creeping in, that hardly anyone is now doing the work they were employed for or trained in, they are doing fragments of 2-3 other people's jobs and are adapting very well.  Such steps are fine in the short-term but they are hardening as the weeks and months go by and there is a fear that when the 'music stops' with the reorganisation in the Summer that people will be left fixed with this collection of functions that is not rational, simply dished out ad hoc.  I am told that staff should 'rise to the challenges' and seek regrading if they feel their work is now of a higher level, though, of course, that takes time and is very uncertain especially with a freeze on posts and promotions. 

Repeatedly I am told that the units would not be in this position if they had more of a 'can do' culture.  The sense that they are working below full effort is not based on any objective measurement it is simply because someone who resigned from one of the units a year ago had complained that they were 'bored' in their post without exploring why that might have been the case; it was simply assumed she had too little work to do and that assumption, from one person's passing opinion, has become the basis for all approaches to the units even while the numbers have continued to fall and new work assigned to them.

For challenging, what in my mind is an inaccurate perception, I have been summoned to three very unpleasant meetings in which I have been accused of being 'disloyal' to the management, and then ironically accused of trying to create an adversarial environment in the company, wherease in fact I have been battling to reduce the feeling of 'them' and 'us' that has been built up and that I was dropped into.  My management style was well known to my boss before I was taken on.  I had an hour of interviewing and activities and am always explicit about how I manage.  Ironically I was told I was taken on because of my sensitivity to the workforce which is certainly what seems necessary at this time not just because of new work and the economic situation but also company reorganisation.  With six months to go we have little idea what the company will look like or how various units will be grouped.  We keep being told there will be no job losses, but that is little help as we cannot plan our work for the year ahead with so little information.

Of course, a lot of this stems from the attitude of my boss who even back in 1983 would have jarred with how businesses are actually run let alone with current management practice within the company and best practice as outlined in all the training I have attended over the past six years.  She accused my staff of lying to me constantly and accused me of not only being disloyal but also naive.  In that case, the last laugh is on her for employing me for my expertise and experience.  It turned out this week that once I was appointed I was used to threaten others in the company with her saying that I would have some kind of enforcer role for her policies.  The level of fear this has engendered is unpleasant.  One colleague at another site stopped me mentioning something only indirectly related to the manager, about a policy not even the woman herself.  The level of concern reminded me of the Eastern bloc or contemporary China.  The woman might have been over-cautious but her manner was as if she expected the room to be bugged or one of her staff to betray any views she expressed.  You cannot have discussions about working effectively in such an environment.

My challenging of my boss's views led to me subsequently being told that what I was writing in the term of mundane minutes and emails was in fact would form the basis of disciplinary action and might even be the basis of litigation against me.  I was accused of trying to create 'a resistance movement' in the company! I had expressed to colleagues the need for more staff in our unit to carry out the tasks we have been assigned and to end any secondments until we have less pressure, but apparently that is improper to face up to reality and I should have kept on with the lie that they were not working hard enough.  My first contact with the union at this company was to ask for advice for facing disciplinary action despite having only worked for four weeks so far at the place.

The challenge is, of course, that for the second time in my career I have a boss who believes that her view of things is the only truth.  She does not accept that there are differences of opinion or that she might not have the total facts.  Consequently someone who even diverges mildly from her opinions is 'lying' (she lays this accusation against people very freely) and as a result must have some perverse and sinister motive that leads them to say anything contrary to the 'truth'.  In her world there is no room for compromise.  Her talk of loyalty is not about loyalty to the management, let alone to the company as a whole, but to her. We will all fail in this regard, because we cannot be inside her head and see things the way she does, so even those who are very loyal to her in person, often slip up, especially as she has been loath to give us any detail of the future she wants.  I have now stood up to her three times in person and fortunately she now feels that rather than being her enforcer I am beyond the pale and she will not work with me any more.  Of course, steadily I have found that she has irritated many others on my level in the same way.  She seems entirely oblivious to the damage she is doing to morale at middle management to shop floor level among the staff, persisting with her view that all of us are wrong and are lying.  She is not the first boss I have had like this, the previous one I had to make an official complaint against because she would not accept that a member of staff had been bullying colleagues over a sustained period of time and so felt that any complaints against him were 'lies' as they were out of step with her view of the man.

I have had enough of bosses like this.  You wonder how they get to where they are as they must irritate the people above them as well, but I suppose when someone does not have authority over you, then the impact is far less.  The arrogance of this kind of bosses is incredible and whilst I wish no-one harm, you want them to have a kind of 'A Christmas Carol' experience to waken them up to the reality which is not their 'truth'.  I can see why Charles Dickens wrote that story about the employer Scrooge.  Whilst it is set more than a century ago, such characters seem unfortunately persistent in real life.  More practically if I had not been so badly off financially I would have resigned from my post last week, less than a month through.  Of course, my boss would write me off as a liar who was misguided about reality and so it would make no impact on how she saw what is actually going on in the company beneath her; it could not penetrate the cast iron assumptions that she clings to.  Naturally, I see no future with this company and in January will again start applying for jobs hoping that there are more companies where David Brent rather than Margaret Thatcher is the dominant norm for running the place.

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