The ‘potent’ manager

This characteristic anxiety about potency kept becoming apparent at all levels of the probation service, and a variety of forms. I was later very struck by the comments of the senior civil servant responsible for probation when I was a new Assistant Chief officer as she effectively complained about her lack of power to make the probation service do what she thought should be done. This was in part an age old conflict between officials and professions, but it seemed that the civil servant had bought into the fantasy that she would be effective if she had more control of the service. This fantasy was a driving force in probation for the subsequent years most obviously through:

  • The establishment of a complex structure for accrediting supervision programmes and attempts were made to ensure that only these accredited programmes would be run by probation officers, in the belief that these programmes were evidence based and probation officers needed to be prevented from pursuing ‘hobbies’.
  • National Standards were the ultimate attempt to control the service – and they became more and more detailed and specific as new layers of ‘professional’ discretion were uncovered and stripped away.


It turned out that my experience was relatively mild in terms of the hostility that new managers often seemed to face. Part way through the induction course, I had a sort of cathartic emotional moment in which the pressure I had experienced through that first 18 months struck me as about not just authority, but more specifically potency. The job of the more anxious members of the team was to render me impotent, so as to make me safe – the reputation of the agency from which I had moved to become a manager had gone before me, and it seemed the team feared that they were going to be psychoanalysed. My, to me gentle, interpretation of the officer’s anxiety about supervision played right into these anxieties. I of course had found the experience difficult because it played upon my own anxieties about being a potent manager.

I thought then that I was having to relearn in this new role, something that I had struggled with as a practitioner. Coping with the experience of feeling impotent had been a necessary feature of clinical work, as I have already discussed. I had to struggle with it again in every post that I took – the struggle was not something that once resolved, you then moved on to other issues. It seemed to be a necessary part of the experience to be reworked and reworked throughout my career. Once I had reached this point, life seemed to get easier, partly because of the support I received on the course, partly because the make up of the team had changed with new officers arriving who carried none of the baggage that the inherited team had carried, but also no doubt because I relaxed somewhat and therefore worked better with those who were suspicious of me.


Authority problems

Probation then provided the ideal setting in which to externalise those delinquent, rebellious and needy impulses that I dared not adopt as my own but which were an important feature of my struggles with growing up.

There is in probation a continual struggle with authority, not just in the relationship between offenders and officers where you would say tackling this issue is in some ways what the agency is for, but between staff, managers, sentencers and civil servants / politicians. As in many helping professions, managers are viewed with suspicion; by staff who have often treated them as if they were responsible for all the difficulties of the working environment and by managers themselves who have often apologised for their existence as if they were a necessary evil. It was very striking as a new manager to discuss experiences with other new probation managers – we attended a 3 week induction course in those days. At least half of the course members were going through a grim time as they tried to establish themselves in role and faced often savage challenges and criticism from their teams. My own first 18 months were not pleasant. One of my first experiences was a joint team meeting with the other team in the city. The meeting had been arranged to take place in a restored medieval hall, to my mind quite nicely redeveloped. As we sat down to start the meeting, the most experienced officer said loudly, “Well, I don’t like this place”, setting an interesting atmosphere for my first encounter with the officers in the city! Another team member, having for one reason or another cancelled supervision with me on the first 3 appointments, was outraged when I, at that point more than 2 months into the job, wondered whether he may have some wish to avoid supervision. He dealt with his outrage by writing a letter of complaint to the chief officer, and he got one of the office administrative staff to type up the letter, thereby ensuring that the dispute was common knowledge throughout the office.


How we choose our work

It is possible to take the idea further and to suggest that people actively and often unconsciously seek out work that relates to emotional issues with which they have difficulty. From time to time, I have trivialised this proposition by suggesting for example that teachers become teachers because they find it hard to learn, or that social workers become social workers because they have difficulty with social relationships. Probation officers on this theory would be attracted to the work by their own difficulty with authority, or by their own destructive predatory needs.

This certainly made some sense to me of why I went into this kind of work. Although I saw myself as in many ways a timid and painfully shy boy, and indeed a ‘good’ boy, I knew I was attracted by such examples of delinquency that I encountered. I first became aware of this as a boy visiting my grandparents. My maternal uncle was still living at his parents’ home (he stayed there all his life in fact, another feature of the phenomenon of delinquency that was not lost on me later). He was an uncouth presence, deliberately so I think, often rude and never joining us at any of our visits other than making fleeting appearances. He spoke to his parents with a rudeness that I would have never dared to adopt – there was little to admire in him and yet I felt some kind of connection with him and some kind of sympathy. I felt something similar as a school prefect when dealing with some of the more disruptive lads in the school – it was not just that I lacked the confidence and courage to challenge them; I enjoyed their ‘spirit’ and defiance.

Distress at work

I had wondered about how the work of Menzies would apply to the probation service whilst I was in my first job in Sheffield. I came to reflect on a number of aspects of this informed later not just by the way Menzies understood the emotional impact of an agency’s function but also by the way in which the reflection process articulated by Janet Mattinson could also be applied to organisational life. Working across a range of organisations in the new city provided me with plenty of material to extend how I understood what drove people’s behaviour in professional roles.

It is a striking feature of all kinds of agencies working with people in trouble that the fact that the work is distressing and anxiety provoking is not only hard to acknowledge but also to acknowledge this fact feels like a sign of weakness. Staff find it hard to be ‘tender’, and such emotions can attract real hostility within helping services. We are well used to seeing this phenomenon in for example the armed forces or the police but it is no less a feature of many probation and social work settings. What this means is that the distress and anxiety of the work has to find expression in other ways than straightforward acknowledgement. This is what Menzies understood.

Emotional dynamics of work

The sense that professionals behave as they do because of the influence of the organisation in which they worked was not a new discovery. The seminal text was Isabel Menzies’ analysis of the behaviour of nurses in a hospital and how much of this was driven by the unconscious emotional underpinning of hospital life – the anxiety about death. Interestingly enough, we faced one symptom of this organisational life in the Bereavement Society in Milton Keynes when we tried to publicise the service to families of people who would die in hospital or after a stay in hospital. The idea that we would put up posters which alluded to the fact that people die was thought to be disturbing to the well being of patients and their families (as if this thought would not have occurred to them without our posters). This is however treating the defensive anxiety of the hospital as if it were just a problem to be overcome – the point about defences is that they are both dysfunctional and functional. They allow people to achieve things, care, be effective as well as get in the way of positive outcomes.

In the hospital, the way in which nurses’ tasks were allocated, as Menzies describes them, had a real purpose – all kinds of practical tasks had to be done and they would not be efficiently completed if staff were persistently distressed about sick patients for whom they were caring. Dividing jobs up into specialisms had the benefit of preventing nurses from getting too emotionally close to any particular patient. Whilst the hospice movement crystallised the possibility of handling things differently, the distress of staff about patients dying still has to be managed.

Moving On

So, I moved on from my first job as a probation officer to a social worker role in a new city.

It is interesting as I look back to see how much of this stepping out into a wider world involved a continuation of my development from sheltered immaturity combined with the impact of the organisational culture within which I worked. In the probation service, in a city where I had been a child, I felt increasingly constrained by the same kind of protected worlds – Methodism and the Probation Service both seemed to provide a home out of which I needed to grow. Both had a sort of sheepish approach to the world, critical of established powers but huddling for safety to what was known. I had grown up in them both but could not feel a full adult within either at that stage – Oxford had given me a taste of something more ambitious and glamorous, sure of itself in the corridors of power and it connected with the ambition inside me. That personal drive needed the support of a new organisational culture, and in some ways therefore I found myself in all kinds of situations in Milton Keynes that I may have feared to take on just out of personal commitment.