‘Cynics may make good social workers, but you don’t want one as your manager’

Former director Blair McPherson recalls meeting a brilliant social worker, whose cynicism ruled him out of running the show

By Blair McPherson

The most cynical person I known was also the best social worker I ever met. Dave had no time for management, especially senior management. He had been through more reorganisations than holidays abroad; each one promoted on the grounds of improving services, only for one set of problems to be exchanged for another. He dismissed them all as fashionable nonsense. He lived through efficiency drives ranging from restricting photo copying to “turn off the lights” campaigns, recruitment freezes and the wholesale closure of older people’s homes.

He witnessed the gap between the rhetoric and the reality as clients became service users and then customers. As people were to be given the money to buy their own services, while budgets were cut and eligibility criteria disqualified more and more people from receiving help. He saw years of work building up local voluntary sector groups torn apart as their funding was removed at the same time as the government was talking up the Big Society. Most of these changes were preceded by a consultation process designed to get “customers” and carers to give their views, which were then ignored.

Dave dismissed all senior managers as hopelessly out of touch. He distrusted their motives. “They say one thing then do another,” he would say. He complained that they were obsessed with improving statistical returns rather than improving the service. He loathed the adoption of private sector methods, performance indicators, targets and business plans. He made fun of managers who used American business school jargon, referring to “low hanging fruit” and their desire to “run things up the flag pole”. He thought MBAs were an expensive waste of time: “They would be better off shadowing a social worker or a home care assistant – or better still working in a residential home for a month.” He thought management, especially senior management, made his job harder.

His cynicism did not extend to his clients. He was committed to helping them, convinced he could make a difference, and he was prepared to work long hours and do over and above what could reasonably be asked of him. He was determined, creative and energetic.

Because of this and his extensive experience, several managers tried to get him to apply for management posts. His colleagues encouraged him, too, countering his objections by saying: “You would be so much better than those over-ambitious, over-confident and inexperienced people who seem to get promoted.”

But in all honesty, he would have been a terrible manager. Managers can’t be cynical. They have to be positive; they have to believe that this restructuring will improve services, that these budget cuts are deliverable, that these targets are achievable and that a new way of working can be a better way of working. They have to believe in the vision articulated by senior managers.

No one wants a cynical manager.

Blair McPherson is an author, blogger and former director of community services

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7 Responses to ‘Cynics may make good social workers, but you don’t want one as your manager’

  1. Sean McAlinden January 8, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    What Blair is proposing in opposition to a cynical manager, is a manager who is uncritical – surely a more dangerous position? Blair’s managers have to ‘believe’ and be ‘positive’. But believe what? That cuts in budgets and services don’t affect people negatively? That ‘reorganisations’ don’t cost money which might otherwise have been spent on service development, often to achieve little positive effect? That ‘budget cuts are deliverable’. Of course they are deliverable. But at what cost!
    A healthy cynicism can be helpful in ensuring peoples’ needs are kept at the forefront of our thoughts, rather than rushing headlong into cuts regardless of the consequences. Managers need to have a degree of healthy cynicism in an environment where decisions are being made by people and departments who are divorced from the effects of those decisions on people and communities.
    It takes a particular sort of person in today’s environment, where cuts are the norm and communities are suffering, to say we should only be positive and uncritical about the direction of public services. I would take ‘Dave’ over that sort of manager every time.

  2. Ken January 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    Former service directors may not want managers like “Dave”, but front line staff like myself certainly do.

    The author spends virtually the whole article describing someone who understands the current state of Public Services very very well, and then concludes by saying that they’d make a “terrible manager”. Au contrair. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the really terrible managers are the managers who- contrary to all the available evidence- maintain that public sector cuts are “deliverable” in some way, and remain “positive” while vulnerable people are disenfranchised.

    And these cuts are deliverable, as long as the public services are suitably cut to ribbons and no decent services remain in the metaphorically scorched wasteland that remains. Being “positive” about this state of affairs is delusional, and no-one wants a delusional manager. Except perhaps senior managers.

    Give me a cynical manager who fights for the public any day of the week. I- and the majority of front line staff- would happily follow such a person into the breach.

  3. Paul Adams January 8, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    This article raises an interesting issue but then simply states that Dave would not be a good manager as a point of fact. It is stated that managers need to believe in the benefits of reorganisations and that budget cuts can be implemented without adverse impact on service users, but no evidence is offered to justify this claim. For me, cynicism in managers is a good thing, if that means they they can be reflective and honest about where changes is actually beneficial, and where it is not.

  4. Helen Musto January 8, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    This blog so hits the nail on the head. Well said.

  5. Alan January 9, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    From the way this Dave was described I would say he was not cynical but he was being congruent, his opinions being based on experience could have proven to be invaluable for he has learnt what is not wanted from management in a bid to achieve best practice. So rather than Dave being negative may be is is the assessment of his performance that has a negative bias.
    I myself have been accused many times of being cynical but my response is always that I am not but I am experienced. I also refuse to have a positive view when I know things are wrong or not effective for that perpetuates the implementation of less than best practice.
    For me to be congruent and to work ethically (to work in the clients best interest not management nor organisations best interest) has resulted in me walking out of some organisations for they don’t like feedback which is an essential part of being able to implement best practice. DON’T LET POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GET IN THE WAY OF ETHICAL CORRECTNESS.

  6. William January 12, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    I think Blair is way off the mark here. The most cynical staff I encounter are the very managers who peddle restructuring, efficiencies and new ways of working in order to maintain their own comfortable well paid positions. What I need in a manager is someone with integrity and realism, not a snake oil salesperson.

  7. Blair McPherson January 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    Perhaps I should have added because it’s a managers job to deliver these changes and if a manager doesn’t believe in these changes how can they expect to get their staff to. Of course managers have their doubts in private but expressing them in public would help no one.