Finding your place

bearI have never known an organisation that would not have been improved by a few well-judged changes. Not, I hasten to add, re-structurings or purges, just the addition of a bit of common sense to the pot pourri of accepted practice.

But enunciating the need for change requires courage, because the direction already articulated has the imprimatur of those at the top. And it is a brave manager who will risk not meeting the expectations of those above her.

When to speak out, when to hold one’s peace? The calculations are difficult. If you say the wrong thing, will it affect your prospects for advancement? If you say the right thing, the consequences may be even worse.

Organisations, like people, have personalities. Some are laid-back, others are excitable. Some stick with the tried and true, others regularly lose their nerve. People are persuaded that if they do it ‘by the book’ all will be well. But ‘the book’ may have been written long ago, or with different circumstances in mind. You hear phrases like ‘that is way above my pay scale’. Or ‘that is not in my job description’. New ideas are frowned upon. ‘We can’t do that, everyone might want one’.

It’s usually difficult to attract the attention of managers. But if trouble is in the air, you have to be on the look-out for them. Vaguely aware that something is wrong, they lob in and out like folks travelling in hot air balloons. You don’t see them for months, then suddenly they are in your vision, waving their hands about as they bob up and down. They never seem to know what is going on, but they never have time to listen, either. They look down, hurriedly. Woops, there is the ground below. So they light the gas burner, and they are off again. Where do they go? What do they do all day? What, in fact are they there for?

To be fair, it must be difficult for managers to know what’s important. Some become strangely obsessed. One university manager I know of, was obsessed by the fact that the faculties in her university were of unequal size. There were several big ones, and one that was obstinately smaller. She spent years and untold funds, splitting bits off the bigger faculties and joining them up with the little one. But nothing really worked. There was always one faculty that did not quite ‘fit’. It was a bit like Father Ted, panel beating the parish car. When he banged one bit, another did not look quite right, so he ended up putting dents all over it.

Meanwhile, the university was not travelling well. Students, like customers, do not really care if their bit of the organisation is small or large. Most of them just want to get through their course. They are interested in good service as a means to this end. But nobody really, truly, takes the customers seriously. They are a bit of a nuisance, really. They don’t know what they want, or they want things that are impossible, or not good for them.

As a professional teacher – or a teaching professional? – I took my job very seriously. But it was tough to strike the right, impressive notes, to do the stuff that inspired one’s students, not only to fill in their feedback forms, but to circle the numbers up the high end of the scale. Communication is difficult when the accepted style of discourse changes over time.

Even the notion of intelligence itself changes. When I started out, I used to have conversations which, while peppered with disagreements, were at least based on a common mutual understanding. By the end, no one seemed to have the faintest idea what I was talking about.

Students wanted everything in bite-sized, unambiguous chunks. They wanted to be taught. Sometimes, though, when you let yourself go a bit, someone appeared to have an inkling of what you were trying to get at. You could sense it, a little spark in the darkness. Then it was gone, a speck, a fleck, soon forgotten.

I clambered my way forward, writing and researching furiously. I wanted to be a manager, but fortunately perhaps, that never happened. I was never considered in that way. Some of the most intelligent people I have known were considered unpromotable. They would not have wanted to be promoted, it is true. The trouble is, if you don’t ascend, you find that much younger people start to exercise power over you.

As every generation makes a mess of the one succeeding it, this can be an uncomfortable experience. In the case of the baby boomers, we were so convinced we had to build up the confidence of youth, we ended up creating gen X, who could not use the apostrophe correctly, and needed constant validation. You know it’s time to go when someone from gen X starts telling you what to do.

‘Public service life’, said a friend ‘is a matter of fitting in with people’. One must move at the correct pace, not too slow, for that would be to have one’s efficiency questioned. But one must not move too fast either. For that would be to frighten those above.

One must not stand out. One must not bust rates. One must not make faces. One must not be different. Thus the office doth make cowards of us all.

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One comment

  1. Jeff Tunbridge

    Re Professor Stewart’s comment: “As a professional teacher – or a teaching professional? – I took my job very seriously. But it was tough to strike the right, impressive notes, to do the stuff that inspired one’s students,” Not sure if I gave her any feedback when I studied at UC many years ago, but I certainly remember her well. She was my academic adviser when I enrolled for the Master of Public Armin course,and I did appreciate the care she took in advising me, the help she gave to me, and her absolute professionalism. I remember her with respect and gratitude.

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