From radical social worker to responsible manager

Social workers who lose their inner firebrand when they move into management are not selling out, finds Blair McPherson in this "interview" with a practitioner who made the transition

Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate Cemetery
The tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Photo: Paul Brown/Rex

By Blair McPherson

You often hear the complaint from staff that people change once they go into management. The senior manager who now seems so keen to please the politicians was a firebrand as a social worker. He swapped his chinos for a Boss suit and this champion of the vulnerable and disadvantaged now oversees budget cuts, service reductions and outsourcing to companies who use zero-hour contracts.

The criticism is that individuals sell out their values in order to get promoted but this is one manager who says the job didn’t change him; rather he changed in order to be a better manager.

Interview with the Boss

What makes him the manager he is rather than the social worker he was? Age has not changed him; it was a conscious decision to change himself. As a social worker he admits he was opinionated, he could be abrasive and intolerant of those less committed than himself but only because he cared. He believes unless he changed he could never be a manager.

“As a social worker I was a fighter but as a manager I needed to transmit calm to my team. It’s not easy slowing your heart down and staying silent when inside you’re bursting. Some people may see this as flaw, a lack of passion but the quality a manager needs is insight into how their own behaviour affects others and the ability to change yourself.”

He concedes that it’s not always possible and that bits of the old him remain, for example when he notoriously lost his temper with the head of inspection who he felt was being totally unreasonable.

Getting caught up in the emotions

“I got caught up in the emotions of the moment at what I thought were unfair criticisms of staff. I behaved badly, I was wrong, that lack of control is exactly what I don’t want to transmit to staff.”

“If you start shouting and pacing up and down you just get labeled an angry manager, people either think you are hysterical or that it’s all for effect. I will challenge and confront staff but I think it is better to convince than impose and better to remain calm.”

He does agree its hard to remain calm in the face of constant criticism form the local media and with local politicians calling for your resignation.

“I understand people want to see improvements but politicians should know better it not just about what ends well but what is done well. Some managers think as long as you get results it doesn’t matter how you get them. This may work in the short term with a bit of luck but not in the long term.”

Building trust, not imposing change

Ongoing improvement requires solid foundations, building up partnerships and trusts, changing the culture by convincing people not imposing change. It’s my confidence in my methods that keeps me calm when things get stormy.

This is not the type of job where you can close the office door at 5 o’clock go home and forget about it.

You turn on the radio, pick up the paper and someone is telling you what you should do and what you shouldn’t have done. Often they only have half the story but it doesn’t stop them thinking they know better. It can be hard on your family you being so distracted.

Yes I do get frustrated when we don’t meet the targets I have set. Maybe my blood pressure would be lower if I released my pent up frustrations with the occasional outburst but that’s not who I am these days.”

Blair McPherson is a former social worker and local authority director, and now an author and blogger. This “interview” is based on composite of social workers he has known who have moved into management. 

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One Response to From radical social worker to responsible manager

  1. Graham Luetchford March 25, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    I became a manager after about 6 years as a social worker because I was confident in my ability to lead, support and motivate staff and I wanted to change and improve some of the practices and procedures I saw as ineffective and inefficient. I soon realised that managing staff, who all had very different motivations and priorities, was much more difficult than I anticipated but I persevered and don’t think I did too much damage. Effecting any kind of change however turned out to be a much more difficult challenge and I found it almost impossible to make even the smallest change in our practices because of the unresponsiveness of large bureaucratic structures and the unwillingness of senior managers and politicians to devolve decision making to those nearer the frontline. Any changes would take 3 years and at least 4 committee reports to enact. I happily gave up all this stress and frustration after 15 years and went back to being a frontline social worker in a new field. It gave me a new lease of professional life and re-kindled my motivation and committment to our profession and I have never been happier at work. I get to do what I think I do best which is to build positive relationships and I can lend my 35 years experience to my team colleagues without the unending pressure from above to achieve unrealistic targets.