Front Line Focus: Managers – Try being human

Social Work is a profession with an image problem and a recruitment crisis. No one wants to do the job and those that do get themselves trained seem to have more sense than me and clear off out of it very quickly. Different authorities try different schemes but there is one thing that would go a long way to help (apart from overtime payments) and that is if we were treated with a bit of respect and courtesy by our managers.

Most social workers I know have broad backs and thick skins and will happily take abuse all day long from services users and carers. We will listen politely as colleagues in other disciplines comment rudely on our collective shortcomings, but what really rankles is the airy, dismissive, intolerant and downright discourteous manner of middle managers. They are almost caricatures of management types one might have hoped were extinct: ” don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”.

I have been in this game since 1993 and have seen many middle managers come and go, like butterflies flitting from one flower to another, and they have all shared the same egomania and intolerance of dissent. They all seem to have been educated in the Pol Pot Year Zero school of management. For them, there is no history, there is only now no dialogue worth having, only instructions to follow. Dissent cannot and will not be tolerated. But we are trained to challenge, to inquire, and to look beyond the superficial: we are expected to dig deep, but we aren’t allowed to do that in our offices.

This goes to the heart of the daily social work experience. The power imbalance is such that you dare not question these men in suits and women power dressers. Anyone who does is labelled as awkward, fearful of change, a dinosaur. The brave carry on and get sidelined, the meek keep quiet and keep their heads down.

It all makes for an unhappy work experience. I don’t think I know one social worker who would describe themselves as truly content, but most of them would concede that they actually like the nuts and bolts of the job it’s the politics and the poisonous personalities within their own departments that they can’t stand. It’s shaming on people like me who put up with it while quietly seething and it’s shaming on the managers themselves, who surely, to be so fearful of an alternative opinion, must deep down be completely lacking in self-respect and dignity.

My advice to those individuals within departments who are charged with addressing recruitment and retention problems is simple: ask the middle managers and professional bureaucrats to be a bit nicer, a bit gentler, a bit more compassionate and a bit more tolerant. It would work wonders.


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