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On the Ground

December 12, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

My lack of respect for most managers, leaders, politicians, and other people in positions of authority is no secret. Reading through this blog that is very obvious. I have encountered a few people who perform well in leadership roles but they are in the vast minority and sometimes their genuine efforts to work in a better way are sabotaged by people further up the hierarchy. And apart from those few there is little to get enthused about.

So why are management so grossly useless? I think the main reason is that they just don’t listen to the people on the ground, that is the people doing the actual work the managers are responsible for. Instead they rely on people who will give them the answers they want to hear: senior managers with no clue about how the “real world” works, expensive consultants who produce reports supporting what those paying them want, and their equally inept colleagues who support the managers imagined right to make the decisions they do.

There are several problems these managers might see with listening to the people who know the facts. First, their opinions will very likely differ from those held by senior management because they will be based on real life rather than some management or economic theory. That makes the decision making process much harder and most managers want to avoid having to make any real decisions at all costs.

A second factor is that most managers have a bizarre feeling of superiority. They genuinely believe that they know what they are doing and are in possession of some sort of superior knowledge or vision of “the big picture” (I hear that one all the time). Talking to their “inferiors” – who usually are far more skillful and knowledgeable than they are – might disabuse them of this delicate notion of superiority.

Finally there is just the simple standard process of top-down management. In most organisations there is usually some theoretical mechanism to feed information back up the hierarchy but this is usually dysfunctional, either because it is deliberately sabotaged or is just too cumbersome by design to perform any remotely useful function at all. So the flow of command comes from the top down, which might be OK if the person at the top knows anything at all about the area they are making decisions in. But, of course, they rarely do.

A major reason I wrote this blog entry is because of the continual problems in education here in New Zealand which have primarily arisen because of this exact phenomenon: the decision makers being completely clueless about the subjects they are making decisions about and their refusal to listen to anyone who actually does know anything about the subject, either from a practical or theoretical perspective.

There is an old tradition for right-wing governments to make a total mess of education here – it’s almost a guaranteed outcome as soon as they get into power. There are several probable reasons for this: first, the neo-liberal agenda they follow is opposed to good education in its traditional form; second, education professionals are generally more to the left in their politics so the right doesn’t take them seriously; and third, the right don’t genuinely believe education is as as important as reducing taxes and encouraging business efficiency.

Recently the ministry has made a seemingly endless series of silly errors regarding Christchurch school closures. And after trying to close a residential school for girls with intellectual disabilities the parents and board had to take court action which showed the move was illegal. Many people involved in education have lost confidence in the minister which I find surprising because that implies they had some confidence in her to start with!

Another problem with the minister is her refusal to discuss the issues on radio and TV. She seems to be particularly averse to appearing on National Radio and Campbell Live which I think is unfair because although those programs are going to ask the difficult questions I don’t think they are inherently unfair to the government.

The minister of education clearly can’t do her job. I don’t mean she’s not an intelligent or skilled person, I just mean she can’t do this particular job. Actually looking at her background she maybe could do it reasonably well so maybe the problem is not her at all, maybe it’s the policies of her party which is the problem: private and charter schools, funding cuts, closures, mergers, etc.

The real problem is that these policies are based on neo-liberal theory and right wing dogma rather than what is practical. And in almost every case education experts, teachers, and even principals say the new policies aren’t a good idea but that makes no difference to them at all. They just won’t listen to people on the ground.

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