What does management in complexity look like?

We’re currently working on the leadership of middle leaders at Research in Practice. In our first session we discussed the difference between leadership and management, particularly around the behaviours and skills that we demonstrate as leaders.

Before I properly get into this, the fetishisation of leadership gets on my nerves. If you have a Medium account you’ll be seeing a ton of suggestions of articles to read that glorify the heroic contribution of leadership when turning around under-performing organisations. Best stay away from LinkedIn completely. Its what Complex Wales calls leaderism.

Bert from Sesame Street slides into view whilst wearing a suit and looking disenchanted, with business people celebrating and doing teamwork in the background. I am Bert on LinkedIn.

Why do we want to lead projects, programmes and agencies? And why do we glamourise it? There is certainly something around agency — the desire to deliver what we think is needed, and to have the power to make that happen. But why do we want to manage people, beyond our own egos? Much of the wider narrative around heroic leadership is around controlling people, and bending organisations to our will. This moves us away from understanding the power of working *with* people. If we want social care to be strengths-based, we need our organisations to work in the same way. We need this way of working to be at the heart of what our organisations do.

Leadership is of course important. Strategic decision making sets the desired direction of the organisation. In terms of organisational change, practitioners can become frustrated when they are mobilised for change when the thinking of decision makers is unchanged. But the heroic leadership model of a single decision maker acting across the organisation is unsuitable to the complex environment in social care. Hierarchical positioning brings with it bureaucracy and inflexibility.

What does this mean for management?

Bureaucracy typically makes things equal for everyone as we are all subject to the same rules. The rules are explicit, which makes the lives of middle managers easier. We have clear scope to work within. But it also means we are inflexible and unable to adapt according to what an individual might want or need. And anybody who’s line managed more than one person can recognise the need to tailor approaches to different personalities.

When I think about the challenges I’ve faced and where I might strengthen, it’s around management relationships. At Research in Practice we’ve avoided big layers of hierarchy with a matrix management structure. This has meant that we’re able to be much more person-centred in how we respond to what people want and need, for instance when people return from sick leave or they need to change the hours or way that they work.

The lack of bureaucracy does make the jobs of managers harder, though I’d argue that it’s worth it. It means that discretion becomes a factor. This makes it tougher to manage relationships because you are directly responsible for the decisions around someone’s role. I’ve found this particularly challenging when people have come to me asking for solutions that are outside my decision making remit. In retrospect, I found myself passing on decisions for the management team to make.

I’ve learnt a lot since we’ve all had to go online. My most useful learning has come from talking with other line managers about how they manage relationships. I’ve been encouraged to move away from that passive role into a place where I’m stating what I need to see from colleagues before I take situations before the management team.

Where next from here?

My learning is of course ongoing. I’m not where I need to be, but I am interrogating how I work and what that means for the people I work with (both the management team and those who report to me). I feel lucky to work for an organisation where we have have explicit conversations around what leadership means through this piece of work and in intervision sessions. I’ve also been given helpful tools like supervision agreements to help me work through my relationships with people. It’s all been an education, and I look forward to further developing my knowledge and thinking.



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Dyfrig Williams

Dyfrig Williams


Cymraeg! Music fan. Cyclist. Scarlet. Work for @researchip. Views mine / Barn fi.