War of manoeuvre

It is easy to be deflected from achieving real outcomes for people by bureaucratic or legal constraints, or by personal or group conflict. But don’t resort to grumbling about the shackles of government or senior management before checking out how much latitude is really within your management control.

Perhaps the biggest constraint is the culture of the workplace – “the way we do things around here”. Developing policy is one thing, getting people to carry it out wholeheartedly is much more challenging. Years of social care inquiries have resulted in a slow change from a service-led culture (off-the-shelf “we know best” services) towards a needs-led culture (tailor-made services based on a needs assessment). There is even less evidence of a move to bespoke services with an acknowledgement of users’ rights, including the right to choose who serves them and when and where this will take place. Witness the painfully slow pace of direct payments in most parts of the country.

When managing constraints, you will inevitably be faced with conflicts.1 Charles Handy distinguished between three types of difference – argument, competition and conflict. The first two he sees as largely positive – a good argument can clarify your choices as a manager. Competition can stimulate creative ideas.

For conflict, he suggests that managers should aim to either turn it into fruitful competition or purposeful argument or find a way to control it. Sometimes this means following rules and procedures. At other times it can involve difficult and stressful confrontation. It is important that you get support from your manager and perhaps also friends outside work in such situations.

Good managers understand that management is about managing not one reality, but multiple realities as seen by others. Resolving conflicts is not about agreeing with everyone about everything, it is about coming to a mutual understanding within working relationships of the world view, constraints, pressures and limitations that surface in working life.

The first step is to realise where constraints and conflict come from. Some constraints are of course fully appropriate (for example, financial governance and public protection) and some conflict is healthy. However, excessive constraints and conflict often arise when:

  • Over-anxious staff, officers or politicians rigidly apply the rules and generate new rules without restraint.
  • There are different fundamental belief systems present within the organisation.
  • Dysfunctional individuals are allowed too much power.

There are two ways to deal with constraints and conflict: tackle them at source, and side-step or outflank them.

The right option will only be apparent once the real constraint or conflict has been uncovered. This may often be located in one of the people operating the system rather than the system itself, but not always. Find out and ask wise colleagues and mentors what they think.

Once you have decided the cause of the problem, choose the best technique for tackling the problem at source:

  • Where there are irreconcilable belief differences hampering progress (such as medical versus social model or punitive versus rehabilitation model) use group work or facilitation to make the models explicit.
  • Change the rules.
  • Focus on and get commitment to agreed outcomes – there often follows convergence on how to achieve these.
  • If all else fails, seek to remove power from, or move on, the person causing the problem. Of course, they should be given a chance to focus on finding a solution and good management practice should be followed however “just” the cause may seem.

Sidestepping techniques include:

  • Going to a different or higher authority.
  • Going to another agency which may not be subject to the same constraints – part of the required action could be done elsewhere.
  • Changing individual roles through negotiation.
  • Reflecting on whether there is only one way to the goal – the same outcome might be achieved by a different route.
  • Using personal objectives and personal development plans to gradually equip the individual who is the focus of the issue to produce more compatible and productive work.

Although it might appear more “macho”, “brave” or “transparent” to go for direct methods of dealing with constraints or conflict there is no shame in side-stepping techniques if this is the most efficient way of achieving outcomes.

1 Charles B Handy, Understanding Organisations, Penguin Business Library, 1985

Christine Doorly is regional manager, National Care Standards Commission; Andrew McCulloch is chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation; and Martin Willis is programme director, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

“When I was…

“..head of smoking prevention at the Department of Health many years ago we introduced a ban on Skoal Bandits (oral tobacco pouches), which were to be introduced into the UK by an American tobacco company, on the grounds that they caused oral cancer. The ban was overturned in the High Court.

In the meantime, however, we had been working at a European level to argue for a ban on this range of products. This was taken up with the result that the product was banned in all European Union member states as a result of a directive. The focus for legal and political action shifted to Europe. Result: we were potentially protecting 300 million people instead of 60 million. This is an example of one way of dealing with constraints – outflanking.” AM

Top tips

  • Be sure you know the underlying cause of conflict before you act.
  • An outside facilitator can help turn down the heat and lead to resolution.
  • Acknowledge the constraint or conflict as openly as possible.

Rubbish tips

  • Always follow the rules.
  • If someone kicks up a fuss it is probably time for them to move on.
  • If the team are in conflict, carpet them all and read the riot act to them.
  • Lead from the front – impose a solution and make it stick.


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