The Curse of Being Organised at Work, or Facing Up To Leadership Errors

I’m going on record as saying ‘WTF?’

Seriously, what happened? 

Yesterday was all terrible rush…tired…too much work…Monday’s. Today was…bored out of my skull. The very antithesis of yesterday.

It’s not that I don’t have work to do – I was still able to build up a task list, and it wasn’t all done by the end of the day. It’s just that I do thrive on having a challenge. The work I had to do today was not the most stimulating. It’s that crappy administrative work that lays untouched for weeks or months that sooner or later need completing, but no one’s that bothered if it waits. It certainly doesn’t keep me fulfilled, like I’ve completed a big piece of work. It’s just stuff.

What’s worse, is that I know my team are busy. There’s a lot of work out there, and they’re all beavering away. So it occurred to me that perhaps I’ve got this wrong. Maybe I need to reassess how I evaluate my team’s workload. You see, I’m often busy with the normal routine of work, so it fits in with everyone else sense of daily pressures. Right now though, I feel like my camouflage has been lifted, and I’m a sitting duck exposed.

I like to think I’m organised. I keep my inbox empty, placing emails in their correct folder, flagging the ones that need follow up work. The casework waiting approval is zero. No major deadlines are waiting. The most critical cases are waiting for key tasks to be completed; it’s not that they’re just waiting there to be written up. 

So I have to think, how is it the work seems less busy for me, but not for my team? I could take the easy way out, and say it’s an organisation thing. For sure, there are some tips and tricks I could pass on, and I have done in the past, but ultimately I think it’s a cop out. In fact, I worry that it’s victim blaming. You see ‘frontline’ workers, particularly caseworkers in child protection, have significant pressures heaped on them. They’re typically at the lower end of the pay scale, but the collective responsibility is much higher. Large organisations, particularly government departments operating on an outmoded neo-liberal economic basis, lose sight of the very real complexities their workers face. In other words, it’s not a system catered for efficiency. 

So now, seeing that the work my team hasn’t diminished, even as mine has, I feel compelled to reassess what I’m missing as a team leader. Am I providing all the available time and ability to help my workers out? I don’t necessarily mean completing tasks for them – I dislike this as it infantilises and people can become dependent on that sort of thing. What I mean is providing the space for them to complete their tasks. Help relieve their pressures.

For example, do they have clear case direction? A lot of times I’ve seen workers (in different locations) put off particular cases simply because they haven’t received any clear direction. Many government organisations operate a command-and-control style leadership process (ironic for a profession of mainly social workers), and so workers have a habit of waiting until given specific instruction. Sometimes leaders can fall into the trap of thinking clear direction has been given, or even forgetting to give any direction at all. Regular supervision can help minimise this, but for some case matters they simply progress nowhere, in a kind of indecisive stasis. The more rigid the hierarchy, the more pronounced the problem.

So in this instance, is it an opportunity for a wider dialogue with workers? Not just asking them how they are going, but clarifying that they know where there are going with each case? Is it about encouraging them to re-assess where they are? 

I can also examine collective approaches. Sometimes, everyone in a team is busy, and assumes everyone else is, so they don’t ask for help, and put off undertaking home visits, meeting clients etc. Again, I wouldn’t seek to complete those tasks myself, but rather examine how, as a team, we are organised. I can encourage a team dialogue – what is everybody doing today, tomorrow, next week? Are we able to re-organise our calendars to accomodate each other?

This is about active engagement with the team. I could just sit back and wait. Feel that I’m on top of my work, and in so doing I’m making myself available for my team when they do start to send work through for approval, or when a crisis hits. This is passive availability – it’s good to have, but it doesn’t engage with the needs of the team. In fact, it could grow resentment because it might be quite apparent I have little to do, and looks like I’m not helping.

I’ve already cautioned against helping with specific tasks, because I don’t want to infantilise, and it’s also inefficient. If I was helping with specific tasks, it would be like being an extra worker,  but I can only be in one place at a time like that. As a team leader I need to be available for everyone, and be in a position to prioritise as critical issues crop up (and this being Child Protection, they will). 

So having little to do is not the self-congratulatory slap-on-the-back it might seem. Assuming there’s a lack of ability in the team to organise can be destructive, because such a perception ignores the wider complexities of workload and how organisations are structured (and so becomes victim blaming). It leads to an uncomfortable question – am I not so busy because I have been ignoring pressing, underlying, issues in my team? Critical reflection can be difficult sometimes; facing up to errors and mistakes can be uncomfortable. This is an opportunity to correct particular team wide issues, and help my team by being present in the moment to help them, and facing up to challenges I might have decided to file long ago, when I really should have tackled them head on.

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Writing under strain or How Monday Can Rain on Your Parade

It gets really difficult sometimes. I had a subject all lined up for today’s blog and then WHAM! Monday afternoon hit me like me Agent Smith doing his power punch thing in the Matrix.

Long and short of it is that I was already tired, before work crisis intervened and destroyed my lasts vestiges of stamina. Ok, so I’m writing this I guess, but it’s not prepped or researched or anything. I’m tapping out words on my smart phone to get some semblance of writing and it’s all off the cuff. 

It’s frustrating because I had a few bits and pieces ready to write up, but there’s nothing like life to heap shit on you. I’m too tired to concentrate, so I have to write something, anything, just to ensure I’ve had some kind of productivity.

I’m knackered. And the problem is, when I get tired I get more prone to depression and anxiety. That means irritability (more than normal), sensitive to loud noises (including music), and a general morose thought process. I should be fresh and invigorated at the start of the week. Now I feel like I usually do by the time work finishes. What a drag.

Still, writing something’s better than nothing. It’s helping to chill me out a little but nothing is going to help me feel less tired except some rest. Hopefully tomorrow will go better.

I woke up this morning to find the dog had taken a wee on the carpet, the day of a rental inspection ­čś▒ Looks like it was just the beginning ­čśé

Back to the frontline: getting a refresher on core skills

Today I’m doing something a little different. I’m spending a day working on caseworker duties.  

I’ve always been conscious that as I move beyond the frontline role I might become entrenched in a narrow skill set, and forget the key skills that support the workers I am meant to lead. Having empathy for their point of view and their specific roles is vital if I am to do my job, so that’s why I am refreshing some of those skills.

My main area of concern is client interaction in the context of assessment and investigation. My current role has a limited scale of involvement, usually based on safety planning meetings and dealing with telephone calls. It’s been some time since I interviewed a child, visited a home with the intention of assessing that environment, or speaking with parents to guage their capacity. In my role, I am reliant on my team telling me what they think, and so I need to trust their instincts and skills. Spending some time in their shoes will help remind me of their pressures and responsibilities. Given they often ask for my perspective based on my experience, I think it’s good to make sure I don’t get rusty.

I’ve opted to do the casework role with the other team. It’ll take pressure off my team, and widen my scope of learning. Since it’s only a day I’ve opted for the intake week, when there are new referrals being managed.

It’s a good opportunity to learn from colleagues, and show that as frontline workers they have a little to teach us. 

No Crisis? What to do about a lull in work

I know I’m tempting fate but it was a quiet weekend – no new referrals. I may find that by the time I get in a whole host of chaotic events may have occurred, but I doubt it beyond the usual casework issues that arise.

So to explain, I lead a team of child protection workers and we are one of two initial assessment teams for a district in Perth. The two teams take turns with new referrals and this week is our week.

The week can range from “holy shit, they’re coming right for us” to Jeff Lebowski-like calm.

Do we do nothing? Nope, there is plenty of work to be done I’m sure, for me and my team. This isn’t an army like situation of asking them to clean coal. 

What I can do is help prioritise some other smaller pieces of work that have been lingering. Maybe some recent allocations that haven’t got off the ground yet. Maybe sight a child or family that have been elusive.

So getting into work my first job is to confirm whether it’s as quiet as it looks. All being good, I can then review existing cases and make a decision about tasks to prioritise.

I communicate this to the response workers for today, with some broad suggestions for tasks to be undertaken. Generally though, I prefer the workers to plan the case, as an exercise in assessment.

I can review the situation over the course of the day, in case urgent issues arise.

The point of all this is simply that a lull in work does mean a lull in prioritising. I want to keep the response workers active in case something does come up. If they are too heavily focused on their own cases then they might become unavailable, even though they are still doing their job. It allows for responsiveness in case crisis does develop, and in child protection that’s critical.

Crisis Management 

Checked my work email this morning to find a number of crises developed overnight, so already I’m the fan of destiny prepped for the bowel discharge of fate.

Time is short on this morning’s bus ride, so this is a short blog entry about prepping for crisis.

1. Keep the routine as much as possible. I exercise in the morning before work. It would be tempting to forego this and head straight to the office, but the short term benefit of an extra hour would be extinguished by the long term break in routine. Better to exercise, be refreshed, and come into work all set.

2. Reprioritise, don’t panic. Crisis does not equal disaster. There may be a number of options available. I had planned on a number of things today, but clearly I’ll need to reorganise. This is different from ignoring what I plannned today – some of it will be quite important. If I need to move things to tomorrow or later it should be controlled and assessed, not simply dumped. That way I maintain control.

3. Communicate with the team. Not everyone will be needed to respond, but everyone should know what the situation is, and depending on the seriousness of the situation be able to reorganise and reprioritise their work. This means holding a quick briefing – I call these Scrums – of about 5 minutes to give everyone the details. This helps the team anticipate need and plan their own workload to help their colleagues.

So there are 3 quick nuggets for managing crisis. Incorporate it into your routine, not the other way round. Have an organised reorganisation of work priorities. Communicate with the team. All this will help develop a cohesive and disciplined response.

Boredom Lingers

Well this is a thing. I’m bored at work. It’s not that I don’t have work to do. It’s not that I find it unrewarding. It’s simply that I’ve run out of urgent things to do. The things I do need to do are done. Sure, there are things I would like to do to wrap up a few things here and there, but ultimately I have very little to manage at the moment.

Now, I could say that this is the price for excellent skills of planning and organisation. I mean, really, I could, because it is. Zero emails in my Inbox. ZERO! No tasks waiting for completion. Notes up to date. I’ve come into my system the way I left it – on top of my work and riding it like a bron…err, you know what, I’ll just stop at being on top.

I had time to read a short book – Five Go on a Strategy Away Day. Utterly hilarious. I was never a Famous Five person as a kid, but I did read the Secret Seven, so I loved the references to a rivalry between the FF and the SS (in the book, represented as two rival teams in the same company). A great guide to cliche and the despair of ‘team building’ days that seem anything but. 

I reckon I should indulge in the opportunity for some creative work, but the truth is I just don’t feel it. I’m happy riding in the calm. Is this what it feels like? To be on top of your work? I’m used to working at a much more frantic pace, something akin to a crazed hyena on acid (I imagine, having never observed such a thing before).

 I’m not complaining of course, it’s merely an observation. Perhaps if I’m at the same point next week (unlikely as I have booked ALOT of meetings) then perhaps I’ll start to think about prioritising some time.

It’s funny, for some time it felt like I was a lifeboat adrift in a stormy sea. Now I realise, for the lifeboat, you want some energy to keep moving and finally get rescued or get to land. Right now, I’m becalmed. It’s cruisey, but I ain’t no cruise liner.

Mystery of the crop

It’s a mystery. Like I’m a farmer in a remote location. I harvest my crop, and then some guy comes along at a pre-appointed time and collects my yield. I get my pay, they drive off, and I have no sense what happens after that.

That’s what it felt like today. I completed a job application. As per usual last minute (though not my fault this time – I just got back from holiday and only saw it yesterday, and the due date was today). I’m sure it could be better, but that’s not what’s bugging me the most.

What’s bothering me is that the post I was applying for is a step above mine – senior leadership. I had the job description, policies, notes and brainstorming, but it occurred to me – I don’t really know what my line managers do. I mean, I understand they must do something, because they’re often in meetings. I dearly hope they’re not meeting about having meetings. Occasionally I need them to approve something- my god like powersof decision making only go so far. I read the job description and think ‘yeah, but what does that look like?’

It’s difficult, accepting I have this level of ignorance about senior leader figures, but I genuinely had to think hard about how I would apply my skills to that role. My current role is clear, specific, and comfortable. Theirs is vague, ambiguous, and alien.

I know in my heart that’s not good enough. I should know what they do. In fact I need to – why would I entrust such urgent responsibility in the hands of people whose powers are so enigmatic. I am a trusting person, but not naive.

So, returning to the farmer analogy, and what happens to the crop, I have different choices.

Firstly, I could remain with my crop, ruminate on the possibilities and naturally acquire the knowledge. This would leave me susceptible to assumptions.

Secondly, I could ask the driver. This would open the possibility of interpretation – I would be at the mercy of the driver’s interpretation.

Thirdly, I could walk down the same road as the driver, and hope to find the knowledge myself. This puts more power in my hands, but then the crop would be neglected. 

Fourth, I could ask to go with the driver, to see for myself. This would give me first hand experience, but with a frame of reference to compare (the driver’s). However, it would also risk the crop being neglected.

If the driver refuses to answer (antagonistic or ambivalent), or gives a confusing answer (jargon), I’m a little left on my own. It would be better if the driver were in agreement.

And of course, I am relying on the driver to be knowledgable themselves, trustworthy, and have anything to show me. Wouldn’t that be something, if everyone was part of this system but had no idea of their role?

I’ve noticed that the driver has never offered to show me. Maybe they are ambivalent, or maybe they don’t want to ruin a good crop. I reckon I’m going to have to force the issue, and press the driver, my line managers, to drive me down the road.

You see, I know what strategic thinking is, I know what achieving results means, and building relationships. It’s the context of the the thing I’m missing. I have to explore their world to understand it,and decide if it’s really something I want to do.

The left hand & the right hand

I’m the midst of 3 days training at work. I can’t say I’m enjoying it. That said, I rarely enjoy training. Sometimes it gives me opportunity to think up new ideas, design new processes etc. Not this time.

I think I’m trying to disengage. It’s the type of training I traditionally struggle with. It gets me a little bothered; emotional. Bordering on Hulk-like rage. It’s mainly because of a heightened belief that most of the facilitators don’t know the business. Actually, that’s not entirely the truth, it’s more to do with a lack of humility about the front line role (the facilitators, not me). It’s like some of them have forgotten what the work is like, and the others that haven’t worked in child protection before don’t bother to consider the gulf between knowledge and experience.

So this time I have kept quiet at the back, as is my wont. I have had opportunities to speak out – some unbelievable nonsense has been uttered in the last couple of days – but I know little good would come of it. I imagine my reputation has spread wide enough in head office (not very far, just north of the river) and not in a good way. Just a suspicion. I don’t intend to add fuel to the fire unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, it turns out there is an air of confusion. Yesterday the training referenced something that contradicted separate training I had the week before. This morning, thanks to the convenient distraction of urgent issues, I was largely absent. As we munched over our carbohydrate heavy sandwiches and cake, I got the distinct impression that there was a lack of clarity from the AM session. It appears some of the, erm, guidance, contradicted procedure (or general understanding of it). A number of people suggested I would have liked to be there, but I know better. I’d say something I would regret.

I must say it’s refreshing to see the training from the staff side of things. I should have mentioned it’s district wide, so most of the office is in attendance. Normally one or two staff members are off to training, and as team leader I get the feedback afterwards. This time round I see the same training and experience it. I can think about how to manage outcomes for staff, deal with the confusion.
It’s rather telling that the left hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. It demonstrates a lack of consistency. The silo effect – not one Department, but lots of mini-Departments doing their own thing. Neoliberalism in action.

It’s unfortunate – I’m sure the facilitators mean well – but it’s a more common reality of work in government these days. Troops can’t function with contradictory orders. Like any good CO I need to step in and restore some discipline. Not the harsh barking orders kind, but the kind that leads and motivates. There will be some good lessons out of the training – I always find it’s the subtle I get the most from – and it’s just managing the adjustment the team get from new information. I just have to keep them on course for the greater purpose. 

5 learning points about learning

Went to training yesterday. Those who know me will know to expect me unleash a gargantuan rant about how useless the training was. For the benefit of everyone, here is a small, toned down sample.

1. No matter where are you are going to facilitate training, make sure it has all the requisite technology needs for you. Asking for things like a) a power cord for the TV to show your PowerPoint presentation and b) is there Internet, are two basic questions to resolve before the presentation.

2. Adults are like children; they can be unruly, disruptive, stoopid (deliberate misspelling for humorous effect…share in a chuckle), and spend time on their smartphone. However, like teachers, a single facilitator should be able to handle a group of about 20. We were less, but had 3 facilitators, all of whom sat at one end. This is too large a set of facilitators for such a small group. It might be reasonable if the plan was to split into smaller groups, but this didn’t happen.

3. Tailor the presentation to audience. We were two distinct groups of attendees, with an obvious distance between our knowledge of the subject matter and the other group. I think if the gap is too wide, consider having two different sessions. Furthermore, think about the aim from the presentation and training. This was repeat training for me, and I have even facilitated training on the same subject matter so my expectations were pretty high.

4. Physical environment matters. We were crammed in a room in an external agency building where they had clearly just redecorated. There was no natural lighting (…sigh) and the air conditioning was on deep freeze. Think about the workspace.

5. Keep the subject matter specific. In a single day training, you’ll be lucky to cover more than one specific issue well. We had three, and it made it difficult to focus. Remember that the training is more efficient and effective based on what the attendees get out of it, not the cost of facilitating. 

So that’s my list. Normally I wouldn’t so sanguine about it, but I was in a good mood, and my hopes weren’t that high.

Normally, I get little out of in house training, except it gives me time to think and come up with ideas for work. On this occasion, I had already gathered some ideas for work over the weekend, so didn’t get that benefit. I did however get some benefit of thinking time for some writing projects, so the whole day wasn’t wasted.

Up and at ’em

It’s a lovely morning. The Sun is out, blue sky, and there’s a lovely breeze. It’s got to the point where winter clothes start to decline. For the first time in months I’m not wearing a coat (I say coat, it’s more of a hoodie). It’s brisk, but after a little walking I warm up pretty quick.

So the seasons change. I don’t know what it is about Aussie winters, but they seem to last a long time. Longer than I recall in the UK. Must be a perception thing. Aussie winters are no where near as cold as UK ones can get, bar a few places over east.

Today is a good day. At least, I’m starting off on the right foot. Some days it can be an effort to get out of bed, and it’s not a sleepy lazy kind of thing where I want a lie in. It’s a force myself out of bed and to work kind of effort. Normally, once I get the coffee and breakfast in me, and a bit of a walk the effect passes. Some days though, it could be weather like today and I wouldn’t notice. It would just be a cloud of grey on my mind.

I find if I get rest over the weekend my starts much better. This doesn’t mean doing nothing, but it does mean spending more time resting than working. A couple of weeks ago I got a little carried away with some household cleaning. The result was come Monday I was shattered. I didn’t have time to recover because my line of work is pretty draining. It was a difficult week.

So this morning I’m feeling quite refreshed. Ready for work. This evening I’ve got writers club, on a different day, so I’m keen to see how earlier day helps with the writing. I can’t guarantee work will keep the spirit of a good day, but I’m as prepped as I think I can be.