Becoming a manager – 18 months to 3 years 1

My notes about  the second phase of my learning as a manager were as follows:

  1. Survived – 18 months to 3 years

Dependence – greater conscious dependence and fear of independence.

More possible to act – anxiety of moving for fear of returning to conditions in phase a above.

Case discussions avoided – hard to face rivalry.

Gradual discovery of me. My discovery of HQ.

Anger as depression

Fortunately, life became easier after the first 18 months. The feeling of tension was still there and some ‘fights’ continued without much progress. Two or three of the original more resistant team members had reached the ability to tolerate me, in part because they were now a minority in the team of newer staff and in a team where I had established a good partnership with the senior administrative worker. I am interested to see how my earlier notes had highlighted the issue of the secretarial staff within the ‘growth’ phase post 3 years into the role. That was perhaps true in the sense of seeing secretarial staff as part of the work with our clients, but I did from the beginning have a belief that I needed to be as much a manager of support staff as I was of the caseworkers.

 

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Becoming a Manager – the first 18 months 7

There were few in probation and social work at that time, that explicitly made the case for management as a support to staff and therefore requiring management activity to be valued and protected from being swamped by practitioner demands. There were times that I wavered from this belief and took on practitioner work, and it usually proved a mistake – either because it was too demanding to do in addition to team management, or because it meant that the clients got a poor service taking second place to other work. Mostly therefore, I held out from this pressure, feeding into some of the hostility of some staff. It did mean however that I could prioritise staff supervision.

The pattern was weekly supervision for officers in their first year and fortnightly supervision thereafter. This in these days seems like an intensive approach . I found when promoted to more senior roles that almost no-one provided more than monthly supervision of their officers. I was however, and remain convinced that this higher level of attention to staff was needed. It meant that supervision had enough time to go beyond the practical management of workload and of the few dominant cases that would easily soak up time. It was frequent enough for people to hold on to problems until their set supervision session, minimising the kind of day to day attention that fills up the working week when supervision sessions are set too far apart. Supervision could be about both the cases, and about the worker’s experience and learning in the role.

Regular supervision, plus ensuring that team meeting time had space for reflection about cases (and not just the business of allocating cases, Court rotas etc) made it possible to gradually model case discussion so that the question of who was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ did not impoverish learning.

My survival was also assisted by the fact that the probation service in the new city was growing to serve the growing population. This meant that the teams would be augmented by new staff who would arrive without the baggage of defending themselves, and whom we could have a hand in choosing. This meant that the established staff would see that other colleagues would see us differently and without their anxieties. The fact that I could feel useful to at least some of the staff in those early months was an important part of my survival, I think.

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.