Musings on management culture – and the pressures managers in large organisations face from social media users.
This is the first time in about a decade where I’ve not had a line manager to report to. This year was the first time that I’ve been able to ponder on what line management is all about – in particular its impacts on individuals as well as the internal battles organisations have within themselves over how things are managed. Having worked in private, public and voluntary sectors I’ve seen the best and the worst of line management.
I’ve never had a formal line management role during my working career – despite having been trained for it at various stages in the civil service. That’s not to say I haven’t managed people – I have. In my final post in the civil service I managed to give myself this grand title of “Audit Manager” as the role that I developed for myself was overhauling the management of an audit function. It was a case of managing what I needed from people in relation to the job that I was doing – what needed to be actioned, what information I needed and in some cases, what directions I needed to give.
What was interesting in this role – and in our division was that staff in more junior grades quite often found themselves managing staff at higher grades. This was particularly the case with time-limited project co-ordination roles. It may sound quite strange to those of you in the public sector to hear of examples of a senior grade asking a more junior grade what needed to be done and when. But it worked. There was a high level of trust and co-operation. To this day I’m really proud of what the team achieved – especially given the circumstances of massive job cuts and restructuring in the department. It’s not fun working under the cloud of not knowing whether you’ll be in employment in the near future – especially if you both want and need the stability of that job.
Good managers and not so good managers
At their best, line managers have been able to spot, nurture and unleash the talent of those working for them while at the same time knowing when to step in and take control when things are going wrong. At their worst, they can be insecure micromanaging bullies who crush those that work for them. Prior to my civil service days I temped for one such person. When my patience ran out, a number of people said they were surprised that I lasted so long, telling me tales of people who had only lasted a few days with said individual.
In one sense, people will behave according to how you treat them. This was one of the observations about football grounds and the policing of football matches during the fallout of the ban on English teams playing in Europe during the latter half of the 1980s. The same I’ve found seems to be true for management. Just before I joined the civil service I worked part time at a supermarket while still undertaking postgraduate studies. From a “CV” point of view I got lucky: The taught component of my course came to an end just as I joined the civil service – meaning that from a “Middle class is magical” perspective I could justify to myself why I wasn’t anywhere near the bright lights that I wanted to get to. There were things that were degrading and other things that made no sense whatsoever. For example having to serve a given number of customers per hour. My response was that there weren’t the target number of customers coming through the doors, so penalising staff for not hitting targets was unfair.
Then there was “the visit from head office” which for some reason always had managers scrambling to man the tills when the queues got too long at lunchtime. My own take was that managers should be making sure that there are enough staff to man the tills while making themselves available to customers on the shop floor – observing and intervening as and when necessary. Being told on various occasions that “we don’t have the budget” to ensure the shop was adequately staffed (despite huge profits at the time) for me also spoke volumes.
There are many reasons to have a complex line management set-up – especially if you are a large organisation. Ensuring decision-makers have the necessary information, ensuring consistency of product/service, managing the expectations of customers and control of costs are just a few.
The problem is that management processes are inevitably cumbersome and time-consuming. Social media – and the pressures that are coming from that are anything but. This was a theme that came up in the online debate on The Guardian’s Local Government Network on “What’s wrong with local government communications?” The speed at which social media users can move and respond makes it very difficult for a system that requires decisions to be cascaded up the line and back down again. By the time a decision is taken, the damage has been done.
The top-down pyramid
One of the criticisms of the civil service structure is that there are too many grades between top to bottom. The example often cited is Tescos which has relatively few layers – anecdotally the number cited I think was six, though this website says that “tall management organisations” rarely exceed eight. My former department had around 12 at my time of leaving. With hindsight I think this was too many. One of the noises going around at the time was the ‘rationalisation’ of the grade structure so as to reduce the layers within.
From a historical perspective, the “top down” hierarchical model has something of the feudal system about it. The king at the top, bishops and barons next, knights below them and so on. This inevitably causes problems. Both in terms of pay and bonuses, one of the biggest sources of friction between senior management and junior staff was how disproportionate the bonuses of the former were compared to the latter. One expects the bonuses of those with more responsibility to be greater than those with less, but when senior staff receive bonuses the equivalent of someone’s salary lower down the grade and pay scales, it inevitably leaves a bad taste with some as well as being a source of demotivation. The bringing in of bonuses into the public sector if I recall correctly was part of a series of measures to bring in private sector incentives into the public sector.
Technology changing the nature of people’s jobs
As I may have mentioned, my first job was in a now closed international branch of a major bank. It was data input from hell but it taught me how to type quickly (as well as finding out just how horrible banks as institutions can be). Firms would fill out forms and post/fax them over for data input staff like me to type them in. This was as recent as 1999. That job hardly exists today. All of this can be done online and automatically. (I wonder if the bank charges have fallen as a result given that costs have fallen significantly?)
At the same time, large organisations are now expected to have a social media profile. What I call ‘diseconomies of scale’ illustrate that many are still struggling to get to grips with how to use social media – in particular what sort of decision-making powers those staffing that function should have. On too many occasions I have seen large wealthy organisations being caught short because those operating the social media functions for those firms have neither the training, expertise or the authority to nip potential firestorms in the bud.
What does this say about the top-down model?
For me it shows there needs to be a rethink somewhere. In one sense it strikes me as strange that organisations put their lowest paid staff in people-facing roles, while managers are hidden away in an office somewhere. In social media world, people more often than not want to get through to the decision maker to hold that person to account. They don’t want to go through an intermediary or be fobbed off with a “line to take”. As one of my former colleagues said: “We’ve written enough lines to take in the civil service to know when we’re being fed one” in response to announcements on job cuts and restructuring. Lines to take are regularly shredded by social media users.
Will we see a change in how large organisations in particular organise themselves in response to pressures from people using social media? Comments on a postcard (or in the field below) please.