Contemplating management

One of my managers from Probation days wrote to me recently and said that I had been a good manager but obviously knew nothing about management theory. This comment stuck with me, and I was not sure whether it was meant as a teasing joke or was a serious judgement. It fed into a sense that I have carried with me that my approach was perceived as ‘personal’ and its value derived from who I was rather than from what I knew. It was a perception in tension with a concomitant view of me as cerebral and difficult to read emotionally. It is as if ‘theory’ is not compatible with ‘emotion’ – a sort of ‘pure’ reasoning. One simple response of course would be that I was not interested in the kind of management theory that captured the enthusiasm of my manager, but I also want to say that real engagement with management theory should mean that the theory is internalised and is properly less visible.

Before I write more fully about being a manager, and the learning through the next phase of my career, I will write a little more about working with other agencies which was, with the development of ‘clinical’ skills , at the heart of my learning whilst at the FWA.


Seeking objectivity

Working in the FWA meant bringing an approach to the helping experience, whether with individuals or organisations, that involved attending to the emotional nature of the work, to the underlying dynamics of the human encounters and to the interplay with one’s own internal life. The conviction was that the basis for intervening with others was focussed attention to one’s own emotions and learning, to attend to how people and environments make one feel as a source of understanding. This is a concept that invites scepticism and is counter to some more conventional analytic disciplines in which the self is put to one side in seeking objectivity. Its use within psycho analysis has not helped its respectability as a scientific approach. However, the Social Sciences have struggled with the search for objectivity. Attention to the scientist / observer as an active participant in the behaviours being observed is just as familiar to social anthropology where the impossibility of objective assessment in which the observer is detached from the observations, forced the science to adopt participant observer techniques. Psychology experiments too have had to allow for the Hawthorne effect and allow that the observer is an active participant in human behaviours being observed, however elaborate the attempts to achieve detached objectivity.

Despite the awkwardness of the writing about that experience in the FWA, this fundamental approach has always informed how I engaged with organisational and management issues. One advantage of this way of thinking is that it allows subjective responses to be not only noticed and explored by oneself, but to open that subjectivity to the scrutiny of others. This seems to me a safer way of proceeding than imagining that an objective view can be inhabited, an approach that so often sits alongside powerful but hidden prejudices.

Conclusion to ‘On the shore of the wide world’

As I thought about my own return to the Probation Service last year (1981), I came across the myth of Tithonus. I had made the decision to leave the FWA with great difficulty having spent two and a half happy and exciting years with the agency. The new job meant promotion, and there were other good ‘reasons’ for making the move; yet Tithonus shed light on my decision:

Then Aphrodite filled the heart of Eos with love for Tithonus. Wishing to be bound to her husband for eternity, Eos begged Zeus to confer immortality on him; but alas she had forgotten to ask at the same time for perpetual youth. As the years passed, the young and handsome lover of former days became an old man with wrinkled brow… Old age gave way to decrepitude. The goddess then shut Tithonus up in a chamber where the impotent old man remained in solitude until the day when the gods took pity and changed him into a cicada.”

This told me that if I were to continue to grow, I could not cling to the present; I would have to let a good time end, allow that growth involves loss. The self destructive urge to escape our mortality is characteristic of many offenders – of many people in general of course. It is marvellously captured by Tennyson’s poem about the Tithonus myth:

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,

Here at the quiet limit of the world

A white hair’d shadow roaming like a dream

The ever-silent spaces of the East

Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

This picture is a disturbing one an yet Tennyson’s ‘quiet limit of the world’ is also perhaps Keats’ shoreline, a place of peace and discovery. The hopefulness acceptance and sadness of his poem is true to the experience of many bereaved people who find they grow through the anguish of grief. I hope if I quote the whole sonnet, it will explain why his image has formed my title.

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books in charac’try,

Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;

When I behold upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour

That I shall never look on thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love! – then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone and think

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do shrink.

Belonging and Detachment 7

Many societies have developed the notion that for every birth there must be a corresponding death. One of the implications of undertaking the Bereavement Project was that other work had to be given up. I have been interested in the reluctance of many social workers to specialise, where the need to relinquish other work feels too great a demand. Just as the community to which one belongs can feel like a trap, a restraint, to be escaped, so undertaking a particular social work task can feel stifling and constraining. The tendency in the new town setting, as probably in other places, for new projects to be started with enthusiasm but then to decline and disintegrate, seems to arise in part from the depression that comes from commitment to a task. To achieve something seems to involve a heightened awareness of what cannot be done. I suppose those older and wiser than me will nod at this, but it remains a personal discovery with which I still struggle. For some of our clients, the death of a loved one seems like the first time they have faced the limits of what they can achieve and their impotence in the face of death comes as a profound and frightening shock.

Belonging and Detachment 6

The importance of the boundary between belonging and detachment also shed light on the consultation work we began in the FWA. An early consultation with a group of physiotherapists found me endeavouring to act out the fantasy of omniscient detachment. Our review of the work revealed how inadequately we had assessed the problem the physiotherapists brought to us. We were ready to tell them how to do their job – unready to help them with the anxiety and discomfort of their job. To help, we had to allow ourselves to be drawn into a relationship with them where we could become confused, uncertain and sometimes inadequate, but where we could know and feel something of their experience of their work. I imagine it was no coincidence that my first effective consultation work was with the clergy, where my personal involvement in the work was most evident.

Those who believe that social work is more of an art than a science may be interested in Ruskin’s account of this boundary. He distinguishes three classes of perception: “the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Secondly, the man who perceives wrongly because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else but a primrose; a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield or a forsaken maiden. Lastly there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom a primrose is forever nothing more than itself – a little flower apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and howmanysoever the associations and passions may be that crowd around it.”

Belonging and Detachment 5

For some this vested interest in the bereaved is a source of worry. We do not wish to live off them. For me, it is also a source of comfort. Disinterested help in such matters seems patronising. Was any effective social work help given where the social worker did not grow through, learn from their client? The need to distinguish between one’s life struggles and those of the clients is ever present, and in the project, we seek volunteers who have sufficiently recovered from their own bereavement to achieve this. Total detachment is useless, however; impersonal acuteness sets up an unachievable ideal which the client has to relinquish before real growth is possible.

Belonging and Detachment 4

Where do these reflections lead in considering the bereavement project? First of all, if this experience of mobility and detachment is common to many social workers and clergy, it suggests why bereavement counselling has such an appeal to these professions. The mobile lifestyle involves repeated experiences of loss of friendships, work settings and material goods – homes, gardens etc., and the expectation of and preparation for these changes can lead to a sense of restlessness, of not belonging anywhere, of life being unreal. Relationships can feel trivial and temporary, unrounded, one dimensional. We know neighbours as they are now, but not where they came from, not what they have been through. We don’t know their parents, aunts, schoolteachers, doctors. We stand aloof, ‘on the shore of the wide world’, and in work with loss and bereavement, we see something that unites us with our fellow men. Through the vulnerability and the need to reckon with what we are rather than what we can be next, we can share a common humanity, we can feel we do ‘belong’. The bereaved can also express for us something of our own pain about losses that arise from our mobility, and from our leaving behind of parents who have to give up mobility as their careers come to an end, and who have to face ‘being’ instead of ‘becoming’.