Popular management

28th April 2000 at 01:00
The thorn in the flesh of serious management tomes is Dilbert, a put-upon engineer created by American cartoonist Scott Adams. The cartoons featuring Dilbert and colleagues, including an irredeemably dim manager, appear in various publications worldwide, but Adams publishes collections, with commentary and contributions from fans, in such subversive management texts as The Dilbert Principle (Boxtree pound;6.99).

"In Japan," says Dilbert's manager, "employees occasionally work themselves to death. It's called Karoshi. I don't want that to happen to anybody in my department. The trick is to take a break as soon as you see a bright light and hear dead relatives beckon."

After Dilbert, trying to read a serious management book is like watching the news after Drop the Dead Donkey. And because Adams's books have lots of cartoons (rather than impenetrable diagrams) you can read them after a session of marking.

One area where senior teachers may have something to learn from mainstream management books is in reprimanding colleagues. For some reason many heads, though entirely at home admonishing children, go to pieces when they have to tackle an errant teacher, who is likely to emerge from the room unsure about what has gone on.

There is excellent practical advice on this, among other things, in Agreed! by Terry Gillen (Institute of Personnel and Development pound;11.99), a handbook about how to influence other people. Most useful, perhaps, is Gillen's reminder that "You want them to remember the message, not the package, so remind them that your concern is with what has happened, not with them as a person... your focus needs to be on the behaviour, your attention on the person, and your effort on the relationship."

In business, the phrase "our people are our greatest asset" is a cliche. Scott Adams has something to say about that too - in one of his Dilbert strips, the manager reveals that in his firm people "come fifth, after carbon paper".

Bob Garratt picks up this theme in The Twelve Organisational Capabilities (HarperCollins pound;19.99). It sets out to help managers suit their actions to the slogan (I nearly wrote "walk the talk" there, but stopped myself)

One of the problems, he suggests, is that the traditional tight bureaucratic structure with its hierarchies and procedures is not a good system in which to work (ask any teacher about what has happened to schools in the past decade).

But sometimes such close organisation is appropriate, in the engineering division of an airline, for example. As you sit eight miles above the ground, writes Garratt, "it is reasuring to feel that people have done exactly the job specified, no more and no less."

But within a rigid bureacracy, he says, people often cope by setting themselves their own kind of targets - like the wartime Wrens who managed to get Admiral Cunningham to lean unwittingly against a newly whitewashed wall, "leaving him with a whitened stern". (So, if you-know-who is due to come to your school...). You have to look closely in this book to find its relevance to school life, but it is always a good read.

The Hopeless, Hapless and Helpless Manager by Adrian Furnham (Whurr Publishers pound;14.95) is equally easy to absorb, and it informs us that, for example, "to download a preformed intuition" means "to have an idea". This is a chatty, anecdotal run-down of the trials and tribulations of being in charge. Furnham, like Terry Gillen, wants managers to be frank with people about their performance, and is hard on what he calls "the pusillanimous manager".

"The problem of pusillanimity," he writes, "is not that it leads to an unhealthy tolerance of poor performance, but rather its effect on the morale and maturation of good performers." How many excellent teachers, labouring under a head who fails to tackle mediocre colleagues, will say amen to that?

Finally, Instant Motivation by Brian Clegg (Kogan Page pound;9.99) offers lots of quick ideas to use in dealings with people. Many are obvious but need to be said. For example, Clegg points out the value of writing thank-you notes. We know that, but do we do it? E-mail, writes Clegg, makes it so much easier, and to those who jib at the impersonality of electronics, he says: "A sent e-mail comes much higher up the appreciation order than a letter you meant to write,but didn't."

Gerald Haigh

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