TESS Article: Resisting the pressure to “dae sumthin”

Every educational leader, regardless of position, has to wrestle with the powerful temptation to intervene or to meddle in the business of those whom they manage. The logic is fairly simple – “I’m being paid to manage and to be accountable for the work of others – so it’s reasonable that I take action in order to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved.” Maybe it’s something to do with the Scottish work ethic that we feel there’s a need, in the inimitable words of Billy Connolly, to “dae sumthin”.

It’s perhaps one of the most addictive elements of management – “I can fix this” – as the manager learns to solve the problem through direct action. Unfortunately the hidden cost of such behaviour is that it helps to create a dependency culture as everyone comes to know that any problem belongs to the manager – and that the manager will “sort it”.

The ironic consequence of such a relationship is that it leads to dissatisfaction from both sides, i.e. the manager complains that people don’t accept the responsibility which goes with being a professional; and the managed complain that the manager is always interfering with solutions, policies and structures which run directly counter to their ability to do their job.

Yet to challenge such orthodoxy is much more difficult than one might imagine. The pressure to conform to the traditional role of the manager is almost overwhelming. Not to take action, is to be seen to be indecisive, lazy, cowardly, unimaginative or simply not being up to the job. In a similar vein the manager’s own boss has expectations about effective management behaviour and in many cases is expecting the manager to come up with a plan of action that is, most probably proactive, innovative and definitive. It’s this latter adjective which is the most telling in terms of the relationship between the manager and the managed. The definition of the word “definitive” in this sense is “final and unable to be questioned or altered”. In a sense this form of manager’s plan is the Holy Grail, that is something that can be passed on to others and is implemented without question.

Of course, things are never as simple as that for as we know others must carry out the manager’s plan and there exists “many a slip twixt lip and cup”, especially if the “managed” do not fully subscribe to the manager’s solution. It’s into this educational Middle-earth that the manager’s initiatives and centralised plans are launched only to be subverted, modified or ignored. And so it goes on with managers having to conform to their role by taking action, to which they are probably addicted anyway, and the managed expecting the action, criticising if no action is taken, but being free to criticise the action as they have played no part in it’s development.

So how might we help managers escape from the tyranny of the need to always “dae sumthin” in the face of a perceived problem? Perhaps a starting point might be for local authorities to shift from being action focused, i.e. we will implement, act, do; to becoming outcome focused and supporting and enabling the schools to work out the most appropriate action for themselves.  The reality is that what works well in one school is not necessarily the best solution in another school. Yet the pressure to work out the universal solution and to implement it across an entire council is difficult to resist – particularly for those of us who have been addicted to taking action throughout our careers. That’s not to say that local authorities should never seek to implement an action across all schools but at the very least there should be a loop where we ask ourselves if our preferred course of action empowers or disempowers our colleagues in schools.

Nevertheless, Scottish education does appear to be thirled to the idea of “daen things”.  It would be a brave person who wouldn’t back a highly technical, carefully managed and comprehensive plan to implement a course of action across every school in an authority, against a strategy which placed the decision about what type of action to take in the hands of the individual school.

6 thoughts on “TESS Article: Resisting the pressure to “dae sumthin”

  1. Can I suggest that any new manager – as well as “daeing it different” – actually considers “being” different? It is my experience that the best managers are true to themselves. There will be constraints in any role. What you bring as a person can make an enormous difference!

  2. This is my first time on your blog and I am particularly interested in this post. Challenging the traditional role of the manager isn’t easy especially in education environments where there are pressures to get things done quickly(in my case a University). Here at Napier we are developing practice based programmes for line managers for that very reason.

  3. “Taking action, to which they are probably addicted”
    I think this is a particularly telling line and something I see all the time in myself especially since taking on another role instead of HT. The biggest adustment I’m having to make is to resist constantly the need to do tasks (most of which make no difference anyway) all the time, instead of talk and reflect and empower real change! It’s the easiest thing in the world to jump in and take action and sort things out. But what an internal battle I’ve been having recently with this, hopefully I’ll beat myself into submission and start doing things better.

  4. I find this whole subject interesting – how much should folk be appointed to do things or given tasks and then allowed to get on with it, as you have trusted them with that responsibility and deemed them capable of it?

    Meanwhile you take the flack if things go pear shaped because you made the decision to think they were capable of performing the task(s), but then how much better do you all grow for working with that level of trust?

    So are we then into a no-blame type of culture here, with progress reports, reviews etc becoming more important than ‘hands on’ management?

    I think your ‘shop floor’ visits already go towards this way of doing things.


  5. Jackie

    I really appreciate your comments – sorry I don’t always find the time to reply.

    Hi Helen

    Thanks for dropping in. What are practice based programmes?


    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way.


    How’s retirement? Thanks for the comment. I think there’s a differmec between “hands-on managment” and “face-to-face management” – hands-on disempowers.

  6. Pingback: » Valuing a broad based S1 - S3 curriculum? Don Ledingham’s Learning Log

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