OK, Genghis, what do we do next?

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Total tyrants or dead fish. That's what today's training courses produce.

David Bell offers a middle path

Despite all the gurus, development courses and text books, there is an awful lot of bad management at all levels of education. It is too often characterised by extremes of style. Managers have either completed a team-building course with Attila the Hun or they have the persuasive capacity of a dead fish.

Both styles can be equally damaging. The authoritarian style usually leads to a breakdown in relationships and immense stress. Otherwise competent people find themselves reduced to quivering wrecks as they have to deal with a paranoia which makes Dr Jekyll appear quite a well-rounded individual. Ineffective managers create stress in a different way by failing to take decisions about anything, leaving staff floundering and the managers themselves feelingincapacitated.

Bad management is often characterised by an over-dependence on systems. Some people are always taken in by the latest management fad, which is the best thing to have happened since the last management fad. There can be a touching naivety in the belief that systems - whether it is total quality management, customer care or any other from the rich tapestry that makes up the management consultant's lexicon - can, by themselves, actually make a difference. This over-dependence on systems is accompanied by an under-dependence on "sophisticated" techniques such as talking to people, hearing their point of view and planning change in a sensible manner.

Bad management is also characterised by appalling communication. Again, there are extremes of approach. On the one hand, there are the well-intentioned idiots who clutter the airwaves with everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. On the other hand, there is the megalomaniac who believes that as all information is power, no information for the lower orders is the best defence against rebellion.

So why is there so much bad management around? Few people start off bad. The sheer pressure and circumstances grind them down and they end up falling into patterns of behaviour from which it is difficult to escape. The public sector - and education in particular - seems to leave behind its critical faculties when evaluating management techniques that have worked in the private sector. Even where success is identified in similar kinds of institutions, this does not mean that it will be easily transferable to schools. Too often, thinking about management is reduced to promoting the most fashionable technique of the moment. And there is a seductive simplicity inherent in thinking about systems rather than people.

So, at the risk of producing another set of management mantras, here is the Bell guide to reducing bad management: * Any training should begin with the statement that there are no magic solutions to the problems of complex organisations. Moving or changing an organisation cannot be reduced to a set of recipe book techniques. Managers give up when the promised benefits of simplistic solutions fail to materialise.

* View with great scepticism any training that focuses too much on visions, mission statements, core competencies and all the other paraphernalia of mangerialism. The arrogance of management is best illustrated through the creation of visions as they are usually put together by a few managers locking themselves away in a room and pretending they have found the eternal verities. Have you ever thought about how demeaning it is for a workforce to be told that, in effect, what they have been doing for years does not count for much and that their work can be summed up in a few anodyne phrases which bear little relation to reality?

* Always ask the question, "Will this management fad or technique actually make any difference to the way we work"? Unless you can be sure that it will, it is probably not worth the time of day.

* Spend more time watching good managers at work. Aristotle said that the only way to become good is to watch the behaviour of good men. Following the example of good managers is not meant to suggest that their every action should be aped because circumstances will vary. But the experiences of successful managers provide a basis for discussion and reflection.

* Be mightily suspicious of any technique that takes you away from the people you are supposed to be responsible for. Good management is a complex, messy, time-consuming, physically draining, emotion-sapping cocktail of good moments and bad. You will only achieve anything if the aims and aspirations of an organisation are continually debated, people are challenged and progress maintained.

So, more power to management training. But a curse on all those who believe that it can be a one fit for all. And for that reason, if for no other, management will forever remain an art and not a science.

* David Bell is chief education officer for Newcastle City Council.

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