Reflections on Grassroots Management

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One of great freedoms about being honest about my past is that I can draw on my experience of the consequences of good and bad management.

 

After I was sentenced, the Prison Service transferred me out of the Segregation Unit at HMP New Hall, where I had been for nine months, and sent me to the highest security prison wing for women in England and Wales. F Wing was a woman’s wing within the otherwise all-male high-security HMP Durham.  The wing overlooks the field where the Durham Miners’ Gala is held every year so sometimes, if you were lucky, you got to see a bit of green. Otherwise, it was walls or the other male wings. The windows of one male wing were so close to ours that the staff and some prisoners were driven crazy by the shouting of the window-warriors and their blooming romances complete with very precise biological descriptions.

 

In Reception at HMP Durham the day I arrived, was one of the prison officers I use as a benchmark for humane professionalism. I’m going to call him Ray; those who know me will know exactly who I am talking about but the rest of you will have to remain in the dark because that information is covered by the Official Secrets Act – for his sake alone, I will obey it. As he was dealing with paperwork, he said “Who did you piss off to get sent here then?” I don’t remember my reply but it wouldn’t have been the long story. It was an empathic question and I didn’t mind him asking. I was lucky that day. Ray sorted the cell I was located to, apologising all the while for the state of it and the wing helped me get acclimatised. It was an old-fashioned Victorian wing but it was as clean as some of the prisoners allowed it to be. Fortunately the clean outnumbered the unclean but the latter did a good version of ‘minging’. It had been a long-stay wing so there was enough ‘civilising’ energy around but otherwise it was an absolute nightmare.

 

The nightmare had been set in process by a previous Governor-In-Charge. I’d detested the man when I was obliged to meet him as Area Manager for New Hall. Some years later, the public inquiry into the death of Zahid Mubarak took the highly unusual step of naming him – he’d been the Governor in charge or on duty for the conditions that allowed Zahid to be murdered by his racist ‘padmate’ at Feltham Young Offenders Unit. Perhaps I’m not the only one who disliked him. The changes he forced upon the women prisoners when Governor-in-Charge at HMP Durham resulted in 7 suicides and levels of self-harm so high the Prison Service was forced to close it down. But I was only there for seven months – I was ghosted out to HMP Low Newton on ten minutes notice to pack and leave when the bad staff found they were all on duty together.  Some years later, I bumped into the prison’s Suicide Prevention Officer who still wasn’t happy saying it would never have happened had he been on duty. He was away advising on prisons in Iraq after the Abu Graib scandal, so he did have a good reason not to be there but it obviously still irked him.  He was as honest with me when we met as he had been when I was a prisoner. Geoff is another benchmark for professional excellence. He was an officer that got things done properly. I could rely on him.

 

When I first arrived at F Wing, there was a highly competent Wing Governor. I had time for him but I knew I was in trouble when he told me that my discipline standards were too high, even though he agreed with me on a personal level. The wing had gone past the tipping-point into bad management and there was nothing either of us could do about it. The level of psychic destruction was too deep. It might have been ‘saved’ had someone done something about the poor standards of management, but the nepotism within the prison was too strong and the bad lot colluded with each other to make some of the prisoners’ lives hell. Nor did it help that the Chaplaincy was so weak – good chaplains (regardless of religion or spiritual practice), under a multi-faith umbrella, can make a huge difference when an organism is struggling.

 

This isn’t a sob story. I’m telling it for a reason. I’m an educator and this is a module in management analysis. I’m starting to see stories on Twitter of what looks like piss-poor management to me. These kinds of problems always depend upon who is in charge. There seems to be a person issuing orders that the public vehemently disagree with but I don’t know how high the problem goes. If it goes to the top, then matters are serious indeed. To borrow a naval metaphor, if the ship has a bad captain, the whole crew is sunk – unless there is an admiral you can appeal to.

 

I earned the reputation of being a complainer when I was a prisoner. In fact, once I had learned how to do it properly as a shop steward, I’ve never stopped since – not when I thought it was important. I complain about little things and big things. A little thing might be faulty cutlery in the dining hall. A big thing might be complaining about the behaviour of one of the officers or staff. By the time the system got used to me, most of my complaints were turned down by the bad lot or withdrawn because a good manager was dealing with the problem. The reason for my behaviour is not about being a colossal pain-in-the-arse – even though it does have that effect – it’s to get the matter down in writing. If something has gone wrong, somewhere, a complaint is a written record of what occurred. Those dealing with the complaint were either respectful or they gave the game away. You have no idea how unconscious some are of their behaviour and attitudes. All I did was get them to write down their reasoning and the problem showed up on paper. If nothing happened to fix a piss-poor decision, I made the only honourable choice and headed in the direction of Death because I was damned if I was going to live with what they were doing. In a woman’s prison, Death is a visitor amongst the prisoners. In the well-managed prisons, staff seem to ‘know’ how to arrive in the nick of time. In the badly-managed ones, the women die or go insane. By complaining, the prison hierarchy were forced to deal with what I saw but the levels of collusion seemed so high that they even reached, it seemed, into the Ombudsman’s Office. By complaining, I was making these things visible to the reading eye. When we force people to write down their reasoning, we can examine the kind of thinking that goes on behind any decision. It’s either that or they may seem to not reply at all, although I have sometimes found that letters appear on file that were never received.

 

The police have got a very severe management problem in some areas of the country. I would like to believe that other regions have very good management and suspect this might be true of Northumbria Police. The quality of the officers I have met points to that possibility. The tone of any organisation always comes from the top and when a bad lot is in charge the nightmare they create affects the whole organisation. Staff become oppressed and it shows. It also shows when organisations are well managed. It is important to remember that no organism is likely to survive if there is something wrong at the top. This is always the place of the tipping point. A good Governor-in-Charge or Chief Constable makes the difference because this trickles down into a healthy-enough prison or community.

 

With a good Chief Constable, there will always be a line-of-command between the coal face and the top. I always knew that if I took my problem to some officers, they’d turn the prison upside-down until they got the proper orders that accorded with the Rules. If there weren’t rules, they set about making them through the chain-of-command to the relevant Governor. If the Governor wasn’t up to scratch, the order would be given by the Governor-in-Charge because I’d have pulled him on it. It used to drive some staff crazy that this particular Governor took such an interest in me but I used to keep him entertained with prison stories and there was nothing they could do about it. When the top is willing to listen to the concerns at the coal-face, it means that the energy of the organisational organism is circulating. With a highly-disciplined and competent officer-in-charge most problems are resolvable. Ones that aren’t may belong to those not competent to do the job, for whatever reason. These people become blockages to communication and I’ve often found that telling them what they want to hear or using silence as the only way to get rid of them whilst I’m figuring out my next step. They are very hard to move unless you can catch them in a serious error of judgment but this is not particularly difficult if you feed their egos. The incompetent rarely have a problem in the ego department and they inflate easily to several times their natural size – it’s not difficult to push them over. The real problem starts when you are dealing with psychopaths.

 

The Mubarak Governor was a psychopath and this is clear from the trail of evidence he left behind him. Psychopaths frequently show up at the head of the feeding chain. The main problem they have is that they don’t seem to understand the law applies to them as well – particularly in places like policing and prison – which means that they have problems remaining within the rules. Obedience is not one of their strong points, although they often score high on the bullying and intimidation scales. Other symptoms are laziness or over-zealousness. Evidence for this usually shows up in paperwork where mysterious gaps appear where there ought to be records or records occur that ought not to be there. They are not particularly efficient when they choose to behave true to form. The other thing to remember is that they mix lies with truth quite liberally but have difficulty remembering which lies they’ve told and to whom. Another defence mechanism they use is distance – they are either ‘in-your-face’ or the invisible manager issuing written orders but they’re great at building their ‘reputation’. They give themselves away by their timing. Because they lack empathy, they will not understand the moment when they are supposed to step forward and take the lead. When they do catch up with the general feeling, their actions will seem somehow inappropriate to the moment.

 

I’m not saying anything that is not being said already – all I’m doing is putting it into a management training framework.

 

The thing to remember is that Crown servants, like any other UK public servant, can only do what the Law allows – they can go no further. The private sector can do what it likes apart from break the Law. These are two very different organisms entirely. A private sector company can choose to adopt the standards of public service and some have. What cannot be done is to transplant a strictly-private sector ‘head’ on to a public service body because the Law doesn’t work that way – especially with emergency and justice services. I found, when I understood this difference in Law, that it made all the difference between good and bad decisions in social issues. In order to know how to make a good decision, public services write everything down. It’s in Rules, Orders, Manuals, you name it. When you go to these rules, they are frequently very clear because they’ve been amended over time as a result of learning from past mistakes. Anyone who does go poking around in this kind of thing might find themselves suffering from cognitive dissonance when they realise how far their reality has strayed from how it’s supposed to be. I remember my own experience, in New Hall’s Segregation Unit, when I finally read what was supposed to happen in the relevant PSO. It was hard to believe what I was reading the difference between the ‘orders’ and reality was so vast.

 

There’s a lot of flak coming at the Police for the behaviour of the psychopaths-within. One theme involves following orders and the Nuremburg Trials and the collusion of good officers with this bad behaviour. What these observers don’t see is the reasoning behind the chain-of-command. The real work will always be done at the coal-face but the steps upwards are to ensure the safety of those below. Managers are responsible for the well-being of their staff in a healthy-enough environment. Those who fail to address this requirement are not good managers and may not be acting in the public interest. If public servants like the police and prison officers are questioning the orders they are being given, they had better know what they are doing because otherwise it can turn very nasty indeed. I know because I’ve been there. This designed to give you enough bench-marks to assess your own situation with pointers to solutions that have worked for me in the past. Bear in mind that I am only where I am today because I failed so often. A clever woman learns from every mistake she makes.

 

There’s a reason why this blog is so long. Those with a psychopathic ‘bent’ usually have little patience, especially with things they don’t understand. The way I am makes very little sense to them and I’m hoping they’ll have found me boring by now. Therefore I often leave the most useful information until last.

 

I don’t know which Chief Constable is presiding over this but it takes the really toxic order of a psychopath to start alienating a supportive public, particularly at this moment in time. If I were making recommendations, I’d suggest someone look into it – a good Chief Constable would not be a happy bunny having that kind of publicity. Not now. A bad Chief Constable won’t know how to manage the situation. If, in the unlikely event that everyone has forgotten how to manage anything, I’d suggest someone go have a word with Lord David Ramsbotham. Chief Inspectors of Prisons can be interesting people. I’ve met Anne Owers a couple of times when she turned up on Inspections and she did good work for women prisoners. Ramsbotham also has a very good pedigree. They are both accessible people and the experience they have around Prison Rules is both invaluable and transferable, especially among high-discipline professions.

 

What you do with all of this is entirely your responsibility. What I will say is that until something is done, matters will inevitably deteriorate further because that is all psychopathic management is capable of now, especially given that the country’s tipping point is David Cameron.

 

 

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