Monday, 11 May 2015

culture, management and leadership; the issue of bullying and how to tackle it

I remember studying "organisational behaviour" on my Administration Management degree in 1996 and reading many books on the topic, fascinated by the subject.  Our core reading was Understanding Organisations by Charles Handy and we undertook various class activities around the dynamics of leadership and group behaviour. Culture and management.

The book by Buchanan and Huczynski, now in its 8th edition was a particular favourite of mine: 

1996 copy
"Organizational Behaviour inspires readers to think and to reflect critically on the theories presented, teaching you to see the reality behind projected organizational images and link theory to practice. The text also recognizes the diverse social and cultural factors that affect behaviour in organizations."

Prior to the course I'd been working in communities, developing projects, organising and leading group work, with children, young people and adults of all ages, in a variety of settings, since 1980.  

sheep 1976
In the 1970's I'd worked on farms, doing tasks like milking cows, bagging milk, tractor driving, haymaking.  Latterly we had a small flock of sheep which we lambed, sold at Lanark Market, hogs with lambs at foot.

In community work I tended to lead from the front, whether as the chairperson on a committee to coming up with ideas for development eg holiday clubs for children, after-school activities, recorder group in school, raising funds for playgroups' toy library, acquiring and driving a local community minibus etc.  At the same time I was involved in the local church, visiting older people in their homes and leading groups.

Therefore I knew very well what working with people in groups was like but it was very interesting to study the theory, the why and how of it.  To put some flesh on the bones.  As a children's and youth worker I was used to organising and managing the different personalities, keeping them interested and engaged.  It wasn't about discipline, school was never my "thing" although I did well enough when there and got enough Highers to have unconditional offers from 4 Scottish universities in 1970.

Following the management degree where I got the best student award (doing it in two years not three), I did a postgraduate diploma in community education, now called community learning and development which is a better term, I think, to describe the style of engaging with communities.  It was always about facilitating learning and empowering people.  Getting alongside, a mutual experience, give and take, grassroots, bottom-up. 

Doing this work and studying these topics has prepared me well for the writing, activism and campaigning I now do in mental health matters.  And in the jobs I had from then until 2008 when I set up Peer Support Fife and Chrys Muirhead Associates so as to promote the model of peer support and deliver training in recovery focused topics.  Circumstances caused a change of focus into human rights and justice in psychiatric settings.  I have no regrets.

Since achieving the management degree in 1996, and prior to 2008, I worked for two organisations in particular where bullying was the cultural norm and where the workers eventually joined together to stop the bullying and to get the bullies out.  One of these was voluntary sector, the other a further education college.  In two different regional areas.

When I got the FT post at the voluntary sector organisation the bullying had been going on for a number of years and the staff were nearly at crisis point.  I had been warned of the issues prior to taking the job, by a friend who was a volunteer there.  However I decided to go with the flow and took the post, managing volunteers, which involved recruitment, training, support and supervision.  Advocacy work and other interesting tasks which developed.

The woman who had a bullying style of management and was the root of the problem had a husband working in the building.  He was in the habit of listening at doors and reporting back to his wife.  Cliping (telling) on them.  So there was a lot of whispering going on, by the staff, a "them and us" type of culture.  Suspicion.  Distrust.  Divisions.  Lack of motivation.  Factions.  Intrigue.  Rebellion.  Taking sides.

I got on OK with the manager bully although I wouldn't have sided with her and was careful not to reveal too much at supervision meetings.  She was a complex character with a compelling personality and if I hadn't known the context and had engaged with her in different settings we might have got on fine.  But I was careful in our interactions, being in solidarity with the staff.

Some staff members at this voluntary sector organisation weren't functioning well under this woman's bullying style of management and it had affected their output and decision making abilities.  A lot of time was spent discussing the bullying issue until eventually the staff joined a union and the manager left her post to take up a job elsewhere.  Her husband remained in the job.  I met one of the women who had been bullied, years later, and she was still speaking about it.  

The FE college post was in employability which involved setting up a student mentoring project and finding placements for students who identified as having "barriers to employment".  It was a merged college with different campuses, in different towns.  Some senior staff had been promoted to "Director" posts, spanning the different campuses, and the culture had become hierarchical.  

My manager was a Director and had a bullying style of management.  She had been a senior member of staff in one of the colleges for a long number of years and then was promoted, at the merger, to manage staff at all the campuses.  She wasn't the only one who managed with a top-down style.  Directorial.  Confrontational.  On a few occasions she tried to threaten me, telling me I couldn't do this or that.  

But I stood up to her bullying and explained why I wouldn't be taking her advice.  One example was a student with disabilities who used a wheelchair and wanted a placement at the local radio station so as to undertake a radio broadcasting course at college. He had been denied this due to his disabilities.  I thought this very unfair and was determined to support his wishes, and that of his parents.

My manager wasn't happy about this and took me aside in a room to tell me I couldn't do it.  I resisted her bullying and said that he deserved to have a placement of his choice.  Ironically this woman was head of the special programmes department, of students who had disabilities.  She of anyone should have been supporting equal opportunities.

Eventually I did go to my union rep (having joined the union after the voluntary sector bullying issue) to make a complaint after she had come up and pointed the finger, when no-one else was around, picking on me.  It was out of order.  She did this with others and one woman in particular who she bullied became unwell and had to take time off work due to stress.  Bullying in the workplace is pernicious and damaging to health.

My FE college post was temporary in the bullying manager's department however I had began to do some lecturing, graduating with a TQFE (teaching qualification in further education) at Stirling University in 2008.  I could have continued to do PT lecturing at the college but decided instead to get involved in mental health peer support, from January 2008.

I later heard, in 2012, about a staff revolt at the FE college, who set up a website, "calling on unions to organise a vote of no confidence in the management" and many of the senior managers resigned, including the Principal:

"One member of staff, who did not want to be named, said: “There’s been a culture of bullying at the college for the last four to five years. 

“The governance of colleges is an absolute shambles – it’s all ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. Our principal is paid more than the First Minister for managing what is a relatively small institution.”

The source said staff had been left ill and some had reportedly contemplated suicide due to bullying at the college.Scotsman 3 February 2012
Bullying in organisations is a reality and if it is happening in a psychiatric setting then it is very concerning because of the risks to patients and carers.  It will mean that people will fear speaking out because of the repercussions.  What protections are in place for patients who are being bullied in psychiatric settings?  Where compulsory/forced treatment is allowed and declarations of "incapacity" may be used to silence voices and quell any resistance.

MWC website
There has to be a mechanism whereby patients and carers in psychiatric situations are able to speak out about bullying and intimidation without fear of retribution.  The same goes for staff who may feel entrenched and without a voice.  Maybe the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland could do something in this area?

If there is a culture of bullying in a psychiatric institution it will be systemic, from the top to the bottom.  To sort it out, I contend, will require a solution from the bottom up.  Grassroots.  Involving the Experts by Experience, on level playing fields and as leaders in the agenda-setting and decision-making.  At the sharp edge.

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