Tuesday 18 February 2014

UCLAN's Psychology Protest and Reading the Fear of Managerialism

In my course on 'thinking about education and technology', I have focused on the concept of 'constraints' of thought and decision. When we read anything, when we write anything, when we make any kind of decision, we are subject to constraints: these are the things that we cannot think. This is useful to remember as we think about the behaviour of management. A typical example of things going on in Universities today is demonstrated by UCLAN's attempt to reconfigure (!) its psychology department, and thanks to a FOI request, the emails between senior managers have been released. Current staff have decided to go public. We need to study what is happening to our universities, and the courage of these staff should be commended as an example to all of us. See http://psychprotest.blogspot.co.uk/

Managements everywhere have to make decisions. How do they do this? What are the constraints that bear upon them as they do this? Management will often ask "why do you think we (or more usually, I) made this decision?" and seek to justify it. But this is the wrong question. The real question to answer is "when there are so many options, why did we not do anything else?" The answer to that question is the constraint that bears upon decision-makers that blinds them to alternatives.

The biggest constraint is FEAR: the "Mind killer" as Frank Herbert noted in Dune. What are managers frightened of? Like the rest of us, we can start with the fear for their jobs. This fear will be proportional to their own ontological security, their own sense of confidence in their abilities, their confidence in being able to "deal with life" if they find themselves without a job, and so on. Basically, the less talent a manager has, the greater their fear of unemployment will be. Of course, fear also concerns their ability to maintain high standards of living and the family expectations (which carry their own constraints) that bear upon them. Managerial salaries have risen dramatically in recent years, and this will increase the associated risks of losing their position. It increases fear, and bad decisions which result from fear further compounds fear.

Then there are personal constraints beyond money and security: the things individuals like - fast cars, personal entertainments, getting drunk; or the things individuals don't like - the French (say!), broccoli, economy class travel. These too will create orientations of thought and decision which will blind individuals from examining all options.

Around these constraints lie the economic constraints of the institution: the structural changes in university finance, the uncertainty of recruitment, the necessity to have some kind of surplus, and so on. All staff are told about are these constraints. Yet these are merely a veil over the deeper human concerns that underpin the personal lives of managers. I'm interested in exploring methods of analysis of management behaviour which can reveal the extent to which this is the case: deeper personal constraints are the 'dark matter' of the University, and understanding its efficacy, and producing evidence for its operation is an important development in our understanding of managerial behaviour more generally.

It amuses me to think of David Willetts meeting with University Vice Chancellors, when Willetts will receive a ministerial allowance on top of his basic salary as an MP, which will be dwarfed by the salaries even of VCs for relatively modest institutions like my own. But high salaries = high stakes = big fear = bad decisions.

How does somebody with a big salary and a position to defend mitigate their risks of losing their job? First of all, they will surround themselves with people who agree with them. Preferably people who are more frightened of losing their jobs than the person at the top. That effectively puts a 'talent embargo' on managers surrounding the top figures. Anyone with integrity and a strong academic reputation would be more fearless, act with less constraint, and - frankly - be more of a threat to a fearful top dog than a help. Untalented subordinates on high salaries are malleable.

But there are deeper structural consequences of fear. The subordinates of managers act with more constraint than the person at the top, because they too are paid beyond their competence: the boss, if he or she is cruel and clever, will ever-so-often remind them of their defects and their dependence on pleasing him or her.  The result is a very strong and self-reinforcing ring of steel round the leader. Subordinates, being more fearful, are less likely to listen to people on the ground: their ears will be focused only inwards. Their nerves will jangle in trying to manage the emerging crisis on the ground as staff 'squeal' (a popular term for the complaint of exhausted lecturers) with trying to appear strong and on-message to the senior management. They will demonise staff on the ground as they seek to shift blame for problems away from themselves. One hopes that the double-bind schizophrenic situation of these people excites the academic interest of the psychologists in UCLAN!

The deep problem with this 'deafening' of management is that the only way any of us manage the constraints that bear upon us is by listening to each other. Listening not just to the people we like, or the people who think like us - they are not terribly useful in terms of handling constraints. It's the people who disagree with us, the people we don't like - they are the most important to be listened to. The human defence mechanism against constrained and pathological thinking is compassion, love, honesty and openness. Greed, ambition, lust, money and power all work against this.

It all makes for disastrous management, funded by students, where all regulatory and accountability mechanisms have been corrupted by managers, where students get a raw deal in studying in institutions where staff keep smiling through gritted teeth and desperately try not to let their depression show. Despite their self-certified competence and professionalism, management are so subject to constraints that their decisions will almost always be worse than the decisions of anyone else whose common sense would not be constrained by such forces - anyone whose compassion, love, decency and openness has not been corrupted by the poison of money and power. Curiously, this is really a systemic phenomenon: these are not inherently bad people - although they may behave badly in the circumstances they find themselves in.

The UCLAN emails deserve close study.

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