In an in-depth guide for Community Care Inform Children, Dr Neil Thompson, managing director of Avenue Consulting, provides advice and guidance for new managers. Below are a few key tips from the guide. Inform subscribers can read the full article.
The move from social worker to team manager is a challenging step for any practitioner. In these cash-strapped times, managing finances can feel as hard as making two plus two equal five. But the difficulty really lies in managing the people in your team, getting the best out of them, ensuring they are good and safe practitioners and providing quality reflective supervision.
Piggy in the middle
A key to the transition from practitioner to manager is being able to (a) draw on our existing professional skills (communication, planning, conflict management and so on); and (b) take the professional development opportunities involved in the new role and develop new skills above and beyond our existing ones (such as budgetary management and leadership skills).
One thing often perceived as a significant difference is the tendency to feel like “piggy in the middle”, between the rock of the team’s needs and concerns and the hard place of the needs and concerns of the wider organisation. This can feel very uncomfortable at first, but in time managers understand that this reflects the nature of management, to be a cog in the system (or, to use the technical term, a “nodal point”, a location in a system where two or more subsystems interconnect) and accept that this is a necessary balancing act, not something you can find a solution to.
To put it in more human language, managers are called upon to balance the needs of their team and the demands set out by senior leadership. Indeed, if the needs of staff and the wider organisation dovetailed exactly, there would be no need for managers. Being piggy in the middle is not simply a part of the job, it is the foundation. It is therefore important to learn the skills involved and become competent in, and comfortable with, playing this mediating role.
Another difference between being a practitioner and a manager is that a manager is expected to see the situation differently. A frontline practitioner can largely focus on their own workload. A manager, by contrast, needs to have a broader view, a holistic perspective that encompasses issues relating to all team members and the service as a whole. This is not to say that managers are responsible for everything they survey – that is a responsibility all employees share – but there is a very real sense in which managers need to have their finger on the pulse of what is going on within their domain.
This is important, as managers often feel they must do all the necessary tasks, whereas in reality it is a matter of making sure they get done. This is not playing with words, it’s a significant distinction. Many inexperienced (and some not so inexperienced) managers struggle to delegate and try and do everything themselves. This can be as a result of a lack of trust or faith in staff to do it as you would wish, trying to reduce the burden on staff, habit, an over-eagerness to stay in control or perhaps simply a failure to understand the nature of management and the role of delegation within it.
The tendency not to delegate can be particularly pronounced when a new manager has been promoted from within, when they have had to make the transition from being a “grass roots” member of a team to being its leader – perhaps because they feel uncomfortable about making demands on people and thereby emphasising the new distance between them. This is, of course, a mistake in three ways:
- Failing to delegate can make the manager’s job unmanageable, putting them under too much pressure to cope.
- By not involving team members in team activities, opportunities to develop a supportive team culture can be missed.
- If team members become aware that the manager is not delegating, they may lose respect for them – so credibility will be lost.