Becoming a manager – the first 18 months 6

The stress of the first 18 months in the role was considerable. I had to draw on relationships from outside the team for my support and to remind myself that the team’s fantasy about me was just that, a fantasy, and that there were others that saw me in a more realistic light. There were two probation teams in the city at that time and I was assisted by the manager of the other team, who was experiencing similar dynamics. It may have been easier for our team members had my colleague and I not been so similar – both Oxbridge graduates of an intellectual turn of mind and so both threatening to the self worth of team members who felt less sure of their academic skills. All we could achieve at this time therefore was to establish some secure structures of supervision, team meetings, allocation processes etc around which we could work out how we could win the confidence of our teams.

One of the challenges in establishing these structures was to manage the pressure to hide the difference of role between manager and practitioner. This especially applied to decisions about allocating workload. There has always been a strong current of hostility to the idea of ‘management’ in probation – an irony in the light of other matters to which I shall return. The idea of ‘manager -less teams’ had some currency amongst ‘radical’ thinkers, and a good few managers colluded with this culture by taking on a caseload themselves. This had the advantage of their being seen visibly to take the strain when caseload demands were high, and sometimes to be protected from having to allocate cases to team members in the face of their opposition and hostility. If you feared as a manager that ‘management’ was a nuisance imposed on staff to satisfy the ‘powers that be’, and therefore to be exercised apologetically, you could take on a caseload and feel better about yourself.



Becoming a manager – the first 18 months 5

This then was my understanding of what I was experiencing as a new manager – and of the experience of many colleagues at a similar phase of their career. Faced with this, it seemed to me that (as in work as a practitioner discussed above) my task was to ‘survive’, and by that I don’t just mean getting from one day to the next though that was hard enough sometimes, but to survive as a functioning manager. This meant having arguments with staff when necessary, making decisions and sticking with them when I thought them right, but continuing to focus on how best to be useful to the team as well as deliver the service. The task of parents of adolescents was a good guide – own your responsibility and authority as a parent, argue when necessary but try not to retreat into rigid authoritarianism where you find yourself acting out the adolescent fantasy about authority (and forgive yourself when you do!).


Becoming a manager – the first 18 months 4

Again, as with teenagers, the anxiety about potency is acute in part because there is an awareness of a continuing dependency on those in authority, a need for them that seems to undermine the teenager’s feeling of self respect. (It is no accident that ‘respect’ has become such a watchword of youth culture). It is a paradox that a new manager can easily forget, that the hostility and attacks they might experience from their staff at times are indicators of a need for them to be the manager – their opinions and judgements matter to the staff. Staff often, in these circumstances, have an unrealistic view of the power that the manager actually does hold. So staff will for example, often feel that they are driven to behave in certain ways about which they are not proud, because of managerially determined targets, as if the consequences of taking a stance in which they believe would be dangerous to their career although there is more often than not, no objective justification for this fear.

In this dynamic, the quality of discussion tends to be adolescent, in which uncertainty and doubt is hard to tolerate, and the preoccupation is with who is right rather than with exploration and understanding. (The Prime Ministers Question Time dynamic!) Feelings are to be treated with great suspicion and in these circumstances an idea about efficient business practice – emotion free and concerned with the realities of life – material possessions – can be attractive. Given the unpleasant nature of the emotional transactions I am describing it is of course entirely understandable that people would want to escape to an atmosphere in which these emotions are not present.


Becoming a manager – the first 18 months 3

The above note also refers to the reflection process that I have described previously in relation to case management. It contains a speculative interpretation about how the emotional dynamics I felt I was experiencing might reflect the unconscious material that offender brought to the supervisory relationship. Key to this seemed to be anxieties about ‘potency’ – not I might say an interpretation that relates everything to genital sexuality. Those who would caricature psychoanalytic theory often make this mistake, a reductionist one, which fails to understand how the physical and emotional realities that make us up are integrated. In this way, the concept of potency is not confined to the sexual capability of an individual but to their whole sense of themselves as an effective part of the world. A great deal of offending has the quality of trying to assert some influence in the world, to exercise some sort of power however illegitimate in the face of a crushing world. Anxieties about potency seem therefore to me to be core to the emotional transactions at work between Probation and offenders, and therefore easily became part of the unconscious emotional life of the agency.


Becoming a manager – the first 18 months 2

Such patterns of behaviour and feeling of course can run through an entire organisation, and were at work between first line managers and more senior managers, and between senior managers and governing Boards, though the impact of being a manager and coping with the challenges of exercising authority seemed to moderate the extent to which these emotions were acted out.

The feeling that one could change if only the manager would change is a familiar defensive transaction to anyone working with behaviour and personal change. So an officer would feel they could stop being so angry and defensive if the manager would stop challenging them and admit their faults. A good many insecure managers have bought into this deal to find that they become marginal to the life of their team and the object of some contempt because of perceived weakness.


Becoming a manager – the first 18 months

The notes above referred to the unpleasant experience of my first months as a manager. Clearly, the way I was making sense of it at the time reflected the language in which I had been immersed over the previous two or three years. However, it still seems to me properly to represent the emotional nature of the experience I went through, and is not so esoteric a description as it may seem.

I recall one of my seniors later in my career talking about the same transition from practitioner to manager. She was by no means from a psycho-dynamic tradition but she was aware that her behaviour as a main grade officer towards her managers looked very different from her manager’s seat than it had felt at the time. She thought she had behaved in adolescent ways but had been oblivious to it at the time. This was her way of describing an awareness of unconscious drivers at work as she grappled with authority.

She had, she realised, not treated her managers as real people but as symbols of some sort of threatening establishment against which she was rebelling. In this dynamic, the manager is seen as powerful and threatening, invulnerable and potentially hostile. So like teenagers and their parents, staff can find themselves alternating between holding secrets with their peers, and attacking the manager for doing things wrong or threatening their sense of self worth. (This is the paranoid schizoid position to which I refer. It is a state in which the ‘other’ is felt to be hostile and so has to be defended against or attacked. It is also a state in which the ‘other’ is in imagination controlled by splitting it into separate parts. So it becomes impossible to see the other, in this case the manager, as a whole person. Their private existence is split off in imagination from their work persona.) It made insight into unconscious motives highly threatening – hence the venom. (I’ve referred to one example of this hostility earlier in discussing organisational emotions.)


Becoming a manager

Perhaps the most difficult stage of my professional career was when I was promoted to become a senior probation officer. This was a time when all the experience about ‘being important’ had to be re-learned. (see earlier post).

I made some notes some time after starting the new role:

Came with experience of psycho-dynamic theory and the more ‘clinical’ setting of a voluntary agency, including

  • taking referrals for therapy from psychiatry
  • having to earn referrals through establishment of personal authority with agencies
  • having to keep cases through provision of services satisfactory to the client.

Struck by the venom reserved for Freud and the maternal deprivation theories. Inadequacy of clinical model soon apparent. Also brought experience of working with functioning of organisations especially to develop agency work beyond the one to one.

  1. Survival – 0 to 18 months

Paranoid schizoid attack – splitting, rage.

Fear of potency – attempt to render me impotent. Potency appears to relate to unconscious element – fear of unconscious destructive identification with offenders. Organisational anxiety – potency as a threat to HQ.

Dependence – wish for strong father figure.’ I can’t change unless you do.’ Admin/business fantasy.

Case discussion as war – who is right?