rebel, rebel: an outsider’s approach to management

This text is the edited script of a talk I gave to UCLDIS students on 2016-01-19 as part of the INSTG020 Management module of the course. It has been edited to incorporate the accompanying presentation into the text, to insert endnote addendums, and to give it a more prose-y feel. (1) Thanks to Katharine Schopflin for asking me to speak and to UCLDIS students for being a supportive audience.

Rebel rebel, how could they know?

Bowie, D., 1974. ‘Rebel Rebel’ from Diamond Dogs.

Being a manager was never a particular aim of my career. ‘Manager’ was not the job title of my ideal job and reaching that point was never a career goal by which I could feel like I had ‘made it’. Perhaps I saw myself skirting the outskirts of management: an outsider with responsibilities but not responsibilities for people. Until my latest job, management responsibilities came to me almost by accident – to fill in for someone or to pick up their responsibilities temporarily. It wasn’t something I actively sought out.

The concept of management is tied to complex issues of power relations, embedded hierarchies, the innate conservatism of the capitalist workforce, imbalanced societal structures. For me, the management layer of libraries represents the upper class, the bourgeoisie, the conservative old-guard keeping plucky junior librarians from doing exciting and radical new things. Managers represent ‘The Man’.

I didn’t want to be The Man. I wanted to be the plucky outsider defining themselves by their opposition to The Man: Woody Guthrie, the Rebel Alliance, Katniss Everdeen, or David Bowie. I wanted to be like Bowie: the outsider, the rebel, on the outskirts of the mainstream. A unique artist who did his own thing with no pressing desire to become part of the establishment. The visionary who could try radical new approaches and somehow never become part of the old-guard. (2)

This post is about how a self-defined outsider got into management, the peculiar struggles I experience, and how I deal with those challenges.

For year and years I roamed /
I gazed a gazeless stare…

Bowie, D., 1970. ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ from The Man Who Sold the World.

I’ve worked in a range of libraries across the UK. My current role is Library Systems Manager at Imperial College London. Given my lack of interest in management and the fact that ‘manager’ is right there in the job title, I gave a lot of thought to applying for and subsequently accepting the job.

Working in library systems, our team looks after library-specific systems and hardware. It’s an area of librarianship with a tech focus and it often straddles the boundary between library and IT work. Library systems work often involves discussions with IT departments defining which responsibilities belong to which department. For example, do library systems maintain servers or do IT? Do library systems set up desktop PCs for new employees or do IT? Which team looks after the 3M self-service machines?

In my previous role implementing Kuali OLE at SOAS Library, I’d crossed the line betwixt library and IT. As Analyst Programmer (Library Systems), I worked in CSBS (Corporate Systems and Business Services): an IT team that supported software for various sections of the university including Finance, HR, etc. I worked almost entirely on a library-focused project but was definitively IT. I didn’t want to move any further in that direction.

Finding a new position in the relatively niche field of library systems in the relatively small profession of librarianship meant facing my fears and taking management responsibilities. David Bowie radically shifted musical direction again and again in his career to keep his work fresh. The pop sound of Let’s Dance is radically different to the almost classical Philip Glass-style minimalism of Low and different again from the avant-garde jazz sound of The Next Day and . I had to be willing to be like Bowie and to try something new in an unfamiliar direction to stretch myself.

My current job involves several areas of management: day-to-day systems management; project management of service enhancement projects; and person management responsibilities including direct line management. The line management is a new job role for me representing a skill I haven’t fully developed yet. Managing someone on a day-to-day operational basis was a new challenge that I didn’t feel I had the required skills for.

I turned myself to face me /
But I’ve never caught a glimpse /
Of how the others must see the faker…

Bowie, D., 1971. ‘Changes’ from Hunky Dory.

Although the people who interviewed me and offered the job clearly thought I had the skills, I thought that, like literally everything other aspect of my career, I’d just managed to fool them into thinking I was competent. My imposter syndrome was running wild. Surely this step towards management was too far? Surely I would crash and burn and be formally cast out of librarianship?

I believe my little soul has grown /
But I’m still so afraid /
Yeah, I’m still so afraid…

Bowie, D., 2002. ‘Afraid’ from Heathen.

To do the job, I had to address why I felt so scared of management and then formulate an approach. The foundation of my approach to management is critical reflection. (3) Critical reflection is a form of regulated self-awareness that involves thinking about yourself and your practices holistically in a way that takes in every aspect of yourself and extends beyond the workplace. It’s reflection tempered and informed by critical reading and theory.

Crucially it involves praxis: mixing together insight gained from practice (i.e. doing stuff at work or outside the workplace) with knowledge gained from theory and research (i.e. from LIS academia or critical theory or elsewhere) (Freire, 1996). The framework of critical reflection itself, although it has been applied to LIS by several researchers, comes from the fields of health work, social care, and management theory. Theoretical insights can also come from art and music. Reflecting on the work of artists like Bowie can inform your professional life. It doesn’t matter where you learn something that can help your work as long as you apply that theory to your practice.

…dredging the ocean /
Lost in my circle…

Bowie, D., 1976. ‘Station to Station’ from Station to Station.

I started the reflective process by interrogating why I felt nervous about being a manager. I dredged my thoughts and feelings to articulate what in my background and personality caused the emotional reaction of fear. This process produced two reasons: personal and political.

Personal reasons:

As an individual, I self-identify as not-good-with-people. Like many in the library and information profession, I would broadly identify as an introvert. (4) I lose mental energy in social situations and participating in activities like parties, sports, being in front of an audience. And I recharge mental energy by being on my own and participating in activities like quietly reading, playing video games, listening to Bowie. In a work context, this means I’m bad at negotiating, salesmanship, influencing people, and otherwise connecting with people. And I’m good at working with complex technical systems, spending hours programming or scripting, or writing for publication.

Hence working in library systems. Systems is a good career fit for me because my personality fits with the impersonality of computers. Software is fixed, objective, and has starkly delineated rules. If condition A occurs, then perform action B. The same appeal applies to the formal logic portion of my Philosophy degree. In his book on bureaucracy, David Graeber (2015, p. 152) explains the secret appeal of bureaucratic procedures:

“The simplest explanation for the appeal of bureaucratic procedures lies in their impersonality. Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions, and both offer similar advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand they are soulless. On the other, they are simple, predictable, and – within certain parameters, at least – treat everyone more or less the same. And anyway, who really wants to live in a world where everything is soul? Bureaucracy holds out at least the possibility of dealing with other human beings in ways that do not demand either party has to engage in all those complex and exhausting forms of interpretive labor described in the first essay in this book…”

The same can apply to systems. Humans, by contrast, are complex and exhausting. Engaging with a person on a daily basis and managing them to ensure individual and team success can be exhausting.

Political reasons:

The return of the Thin White Duke /
Making sure white stays.

Bowie, D., 1976. ‘Station to Station’ from Station to Station.

As a cissexual, English-speaking, university-educated, white man, I am privileged. I embody a lot of groups that experience high levels of privilege in society. This privilege stems from the historical power relations that have structured human society. As a white man, my privilege comes from the fact that white men set up society so that they would be in charge: through the systemic oppression of women through patriarchy or thorough white colonialism of non-European peoples or through societal protection of a limited set of sexual norms and values. When I as a white man set myself up as a manager, I perpetuate existing social inequalities and an unfair hierarchical system.

It’s a particular problem for librarianship because, despite having a workforce predominantly made up of women, women do not proportionately occupy positions of management in librarianship. According to a recent workplace survey (Cilip, 2015), men are twice as likely to occupy senior management roles in libraries as women. Librarianship also has extremely low levels of ethnic and cultural diversity with 96.7% of LIS workers identifying as white. I have a problem with perpetuating this inequality and knowing that I do so through standing on the backs of less privileged individuals and groups.

On another political level, I have a dislike of hierarchies and the concept of hierarchical management. In anarcho-communist structure of organisation, individuals are on a horizontal level contributing equally to the organisation (or at least with ostensible equal power status). This kind of structure is used for collective decision making in various collectives like some Occupy movements and the Radical Librarians Collective.

Those oligarchs with foaming mouths come /
Now and then…

Bowie, D., 2016. ‘Dollar Days’ from .

This contrasts with the vertical structure of traditional management. A worker answers to a manager who answers to a senior manager who answers to an assistant director who answers to a director who answers to a university chancellor. I believe the vertical structure stifles creativity and innovation by taking a feeling of responsibility away from the individual. In such a structure, people feel that they can’t do new things without authorisation: that new initiatives should ‘come from the top’. It leads to a general feeling of powerlessness in the lower echelons of the structure and ultimately leads to corporate stagnation. Organisations become focused on managers and leaders to push things forward rather than individual workers equally contributing to organisational changes themselves. This doesn’t apply only to workplaces but to volunteer groups, political parties, etc.

The self-reflection part of critical reflection uncovered these issues. For a solution, I turned to the ‘theory’ part of praxis. Gardner (2014, p. 109) addresses three key aspects of supervision in the workplace:

“What is agreed about supervision is first that it is of value and second that there are three key aspects or functions of supervision (Kadushin, 1985; Proctor, 2008). The language used for these varies but they are essentially:

 

Management/accountability/qualitative: this is often seen as the quality control aspect of supervision that ensures a high quality of practice in line with organizational goals. It includes the practical nuts and bolts of supervision such as reviewing existing work, allocating new work, discussions about leave and other organizational requirements.

 

Supportive/restorative/resourcing: this is the enabling, encouraging, regenerating of trust so that it is possible to reflect more deeply on practice, to explore emotions, doubts, possibilities, to debrief. In this aspect of supervision, persona, professional, organizational and contextual issues can be explored, including the dynamic in supervision itself. This may also include broad questions like: How are you going overall? How are you feeling about work? How are you managing busyness/stress?

 

Educational/formative/developmental: there is also a teaching and learning aspect of supervision, provision of relevant knowledge, learning and/or practising new skills through demonstration or explanation.”

I found this to be a useful framework for thinking about management and sculpting an approach. Given my individual issues with engaging with people in the workplace, I identified myself as struggling with the second and third factors: supportive and educational.

‘Emotional labour’ was proposed as a concept by Arlie Hochschild (1983). It refers to the work of regulating one’s emotions to present a different emotional face to the one you actually feel. David Bowie showed different faces and personas to express the different facets of his work and the different directions of his music. We all contain multitudes and, throughout his career, Bowie expressed that by literally showing different faces. We’re less likely to be emotional at work than at home: the Thin White Duke at work (5) and Ziggy Stardust at home.

“This labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others – in this case, the sense of being card for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.” (Hochschild, 1983, p. 7)

Regulating the emotional shifting of faces is the emotional labour of work. Hochschild originally used the term to refer primarily to the work involved in public-facing service jobs like flight attendants, restaurant staff, or retail workers: those workers who have to smile and keep a cool demeanor even when people are actively rude to them. The day-to-day regulation of emotions in an office environment is a less extreme form of emotional labour.

I’m happy, hope you’re happy too…

Bowie, D., 1980. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).

For managers, emotional labour is involved in engaging with employees. Talking to someone directly about performance issues at work or sickness leave or a conflict with a co-worker takes emotional engagement. Managers need to deal with upset employees professionally, ensuring that the cause of emotions is dealt with, and ensuring that emotions are expressed appropriately in the workplace. Particularly with the supportive aspect of management, emotional labour is involved in ensuring that workers feel good about work, that they’re not upset at your decisions, and that they’re not undergoing stress or anxiety.

Learning this theory helped me identify my issue with the supportive aspect of management. I hadn’t previously considered emotional labour or thought about work involving emotional labour at all. My strengths are in cognitive skills systems management and problem solving and not in emotional skills like supporting someone or addressing their developmental needs. Applying lessons from this theory involved expending more mental energy than usual by turning on the emotional engagement part of my brain at work and taking the time to regulate my mental energy accordingly.

Fear is in your head /
Only in your head /
So forget your head /
And you’ll be free…

Bowie, D., 1971. ‘Fill Your Heart’ from Hunky Dory (written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams).

I deal with emotional engagement and support by treating it with a systems-esque approach. By quantifying mental energy and ensuring I have X amount of mental energy to do Y amount of emotional labour, during the day, I can face emotionally charged tasks at work.

This leads into the other personal problem I had with management: perpetuating social inequalities as a cis white man in a position of management. Patriarchy is a contributing factor in my lack of skills to engage emotionally in the workplace.

A society that devalues traditionally feminine skills such as basic management of feelings leaves men unequipped to deal with the realities of work. Men are encouraged not to develop those skills. Reading around issues of power relations (Foucault, 1991) and issues of gender in the workplace helped develop my awareness of the gendered character of management discourse.

“Management in conventional discourse is understood as various ways of attempting to exercise some directionality on, over or through the work of others (Daft, 1991; Hales, 1993; Watson, T., 1994). What is so often left out of conventional accounts of these relations is their gendered character. Managing invariably involves attempts to enable or disable particular gendered ways of being (identities, relations) and gendered ways of doing (activities of the body, ways of speaking).” (Prichard, 1996, p. 227)

Prichard (1996, p. 232) goes on to identify characteristic behaviours of men managers such as “displays of inflexibility, unwillingness to listen, unwillingness to allow others to talk, patronizing humour and derogatory remarks” which serve to perpetuate skewed power relations in the workplace.

You’ve got your mother in a whirl /
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…

Bowie, D., 1974. ‘Rebel Rebel’ from Diamond Dogs.

Bowie experimented with gender norms and traditional characteristics of men and women. He blurred the traditional lines between the performative roles of man and woman. In doing so, Bowie showed popular culture the arbitrariness of such distinctions (in a more accessible way than, for example, Butler (2006)).

For a man manager, eschewing the norms of patriarchy and developing traditionally feminine skills like emotional engagement and supportive management is a way to meet the supervisory needs of employees while reacting against the gender disparity in management.

It’s the terror of knowing /
What this world is about…

Queen & Bowie, D., 1982. ‘Under Pressure’ from Hot Space.

I am uncomfortable with asserting myself as a manager in the workplace while being an individual that enjoys so much privilege. But I think I should be uncomfortable with that. The terror of knowing how unequal the world is keeps me honest about my place in the structural inequalities of society and the problem of cultural diversity in the profession. Uncomfortableness – and indeed anger – with patriarchy helps inform my behaviour to bring about change in organisations with which I work.

This leads on to my political issues with management: reconciling working in a hierarchical structure with my personal beliefs about individual liberty and non-hierarchical decision making. While capitalism is still a thing, I know that organisations won’t be as free and democratic as I would like. (6) But, like the gendered character of management, I work for incremental improvements within my organisation or within my team.

And he was alright /
The band was all together…

Bowie, D., 1972. ‘Lady Stardust’ from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Knowing when to work with people is important. Bowie didn’t work alone: early on, he had the Spiders from Mars and later he was part of Tin Machine. In the best period of his career, his Berlin period from mid- to late-’70s, he worked extensively with Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Tony Visconti.

My way of dealing with political issues at work has been to rely on a support network of like-minded peers and colleagues. My professional network helps me rationalise these wider issues of management and put them into a context of striving towards social and political change. Having a group of people to talk about professional issues with is invaluable. This largely includes the Radical Librarians Collective and individual friends from the collective.

To frame it in terms of praxis: the network of people all do professional practice at work; they then come together to share developments in practice and to share theory; this goes on to inform their practice further. This continual cycle works because of the closeness of the group and their shared goals for individual (and political) development.

I never knew that /
That I could do that…

Bowie, D., 2013. ‘Where Are We Now?’ from The Next Day.

Learning about management has involved critical reflection on myself as a professional and challenging my assumptions about work, working culture, and society. Though I’m confident ‘doing’ management, I need to continue reading theory and applying it to my work. Lessons can come from anywhere – from management textbooks or history or literature or a support network of peers or from an artist whose work has meant a lot to you. The crucial act is applying it to yourself. Lessons are all around us: we just have to see them.

endnotes

(1) To be uncomfortably open and honest, I’m not sure it works as a prose piece at all. The style of my presentation scripts is very different to the style of my prose blog posts. The piece was structured to be presented rather than read and the central thesis conceptually works as a presentation piece but falls apart a bit under the close scrutiny of reading. Excuses aside, y’know, you don’t have to read it.

(return)

(2)

Something happened on the day he died…

Bowie, D., 2016. ‘Blackstar’ from .

David Bowie died on 2016-01-10 during the week or so I was writing this presentation. The visceral emotional reaction that I had to this news was… unexpected. He meant more to me than I was aware of. Writing this presentation and delivering it publicly was a kind of catharsis. (2a)

For better Bowie tribute pieces than this one, see:

Ward, J., 2016. ‘Just like that bluebird’ on James Ward: I like boring things published 2016-01-13 http://iamjamesward.com/2016/01/13/conversation-piece/

Lukowski, A., 2016. ‘Sorrow, or: why it’s okay to be upset at David Bowie’s death’ on Drowned in Sound published 2016-01-19 http://drownedinsound.com/in_depth/4149697-sorrow-or–why-its-okay-to-be-upset-at-david-bowies-death

Ward, J., 2016. ‘Just go with me’ on James Ward: I like boring things published 2016-01-19 http://iamjamesward.com/2016/01/19/just-go-with-me/

(2a) Apologies to UCLDIS students for using them as a means to engage with my grief for a public figure.

(return)

(3) The critically reflective approach is courtesy of my manager, Andrew Preater. He produced an excellent reading list for critical reflection with a focus on LIS here: https://www.preater.com/2015/09/28/critical-reflection-reading-list/

(return)

(4) …if I didn’t consider the introvert / extrovert distinction to be reductive and often used as an excuse for inaction and, in existentialist terms, “quietism” (Sartre, 1973).

(return)

(5) …without the implied fascism.

(return)

(6)

“Revolution and insurrection must not be looked upon as synonymous. The former consists in an overturning of conditions, of the established condition or status, the state or society, and is accordingly a political or social act; the latter has indeed for its unavoidable consequence a transformation of circumstances, yet does not start from it but from men’s discontent with themselves, is not an armed rising, but a rising of individuals, a getting up, without regard to the arrangements that spring from it. The Revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on “institutions.” It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established.” (Stirner, 2014, pp. 295-296)

(return)

bibliography

Butler, J., 2006. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.

Cilip, 2015. ‘Landmark UK information workforce survey reveals ongoing gender pay gap’ on Cilip website, 2015-11-24 http://cilip.org.uk/news/landmark-uk-information-workforce-survey-reveals-ongoing-gender-pay-gap

Foucault, M., 1991. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. Translated from French by Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.

Freire, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated from Portuguese by Myra Bergman Ramos. London: Penguin Books.

Graeber, D., 2015. The utopia of rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. London: Melville House Publishing.

Gardner, F., 2014. Being critically reflective: engaging in holistic practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hochschild, A. R., 1983. The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Prichard, C., 1996. ‘Managing Universities: Is It Men’s Work’ in Collinson, D. L., & Hearn, J., eds., Men as managers, managers as men: critical perspectives on men, masculinities and managements. London: Sage Publications, pp. 227-238.

Sartre, J., 1973. Existentialism and humanism. Translated from French by Philip Mairet. London: Methuen.

Stirner, M., 2014. The ego and his own: the case of the individual against authority. Translated from German by Steven T. Byington. London: Verso Books.

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