No more managers?

In this series we try to demystify management. We hope – and we have been told – this is useful stuff, but we all make one huge assumption: that management is necessary at all.

To be honest, I have never had the title of “manager”. I have done a fair bit of it, written about it and run courses on it, but in my long experience of leading and managing residential work, I have never once been called a manager. I have been a warden and a superintendent. I was even called a matron, but I did not think that suited me, so I settled for officer-in-charge. I was a director, which certainly has a managerial ring to it, for two months before a couple of members on the management committee, aghast at my non-managerial approach, ditched me. They wanted someone who would sort out years of strife and confusion in the first month, and create a streamlined, “modern” organisation in the second. And I had only just got round to telling the board of trustees that change would start with them.

Some time ago, when I was managing a very large care home where we were actually putting the local authority’s fine policies into practice, staff, residents, and relatives found themselves in conflict with senior managers and councillors who loved to proclaim progressive policies but considered the practice of them subversive. I cherish the memory of one meeting at which the chairperson of social services snarled at me: “If senior managers can’t manage you, I will,” and she swept out of the building tearing down pictures and notices as she went. What did she mean by “manage”? “Control”, I think, and then through her behaviour she demonstrated her own loss of control.

At about the same time, the late 1980s, that word “deliver” first became popular among managers. In social care – actually in any sort of public service except the Royal Mail – “delivery”, while sounding robust (there’s another one) and effective, nearly always amounts to no more than empty bluster. What does “delivery” mean in the social care context? (You will have noticed of course how popular it is with New Labour.) It means writing a policy and “putting it in place”. Issuing new directives – is that really management?

Again, you’ll have noticed how after every social care scandal there is a process of delivering new policies and procedures and putting them in place. A bit like using a long letter to unblock the drains, and finding that all twenty pages of it have been chucked down the lavatory, unread, to block them even more. There is a widespread fallacy that management systems – more, better, different – can somehow provide a technical solution. What we consistently fail to do is to concentrate on what social care workers actually do – the task – and to build our organisations around it.

The idea of management, certainly within adult services, was peripheral to social care until the late-1980s when it became central to all organisations as “care management” and the market model of purchasers and providers ruled over us. Some of those structures are fading away now (only to be replaced by equally ineffectual ones) but management as a method of social care has stuck – and got stuck. And we are stuck in a mind-warp that has us believing that care is “delivered” to “service users” by “care managers”.

How can we free ourselves from this delusion and get on with the job? I suggest we forget about being managers as such and concentrate on getting things done. Think of yourself as the leader of a team, and, yes, an administrator and organiser, a supervisor and facilitator. Or imagine yourself as the leader of an expedition, clear about where you are going and why you are going there.

An effective leader will encourage others to lead at times and to experiment to seek out the best route. Innovation and ideas will be welcomed, risks and honest mistakes accepted. The leader will clarify responsibilities – their own and other people’s. They will encourage everyone in the team to make the very best use of the available resources and discourage squandering them on diversions that are nothing to do with reaching the agreed destination. They will foster a strong sense of commitment to a joint endeavour in which each individual makes a vital contribution.

The technical components of “management” are essential but, by themselves, they will not get the job done. Real social care cannot be “delivered”, disconnected and disembodied, like a parcel, or “package”, as we call it. It’s a face-to-face, person-to-person, transaction. It’s a serious and idealistic undertaking. It doesn’t work without personal contact, commitment and belief – yours and your team’s.

Top tips 

  • Stick to the task; be clear about your goals; get your team working with you, and you’ll find that the “managing” just happens.
  • Leading does not always have to be done by you or from the front.
  • Let others take credit. Get your kicks from what you achieve together.
  • A perfect state of management is like happiness: the more you try to achieve it, the less likely it is to happen.

Rubbish tips

  • Spout the jargon and management-speak and rely on buzzwords: this will win respect and show that you’re a manager who gets things done.
  • People will always need “managing”.
  • Stick to tried and tested systems – trust them not the workforce.
  • Issue a management directive each week if possible – shows you’re keen to get ahead and keeps your staff on their toes.   

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