You Can Always Get What you Want… [if you know how…..]

by Maureen McGarvey

I’ve had an interesting few weeks recently, watching a situation unfold in my daughter’s workplace. The fields we work in are related, in a way, which means we have some understanding of each other’s context; however, they are more different than similar, if that makes any sense. For background, part of her and her colleagues’ role is to travel overseas. Some colleagues are allocated to specific countries/areas and travel there is a regular and required part of their job.

The Situation

Amine [not her real name] has an allocated country. It’s her home country. She has travelled there twice in the past 6 months to visit her family. She was scheduled on a work trip to this country in May, which would last 2 weeks and cover 5 or 6 locations.  Setting up the complex visit with different locations and establishments had been done by the in-country office. Work had booked her an economy class ticket [it’s a long haul flight]. She complained to her manager and said she wanted an upgrade as the flight is too long for economy. Her manager refused as it was beyond the budget for the trip. Amine then went to the Director and said she couldn’t do the trip as she has personal issues, she was under stress, and she couldn’t manage a long haul flight and the stress of a multi-location trip. The Director agreed with her and excused her from the trip. He told a member of the in-country office [let’s call her Carol] that she would have to do this trip. Carol had been on the road for the past four months without a break.

There are several issues here that I see, but of course, you may see others:

  1. Amine didn’t seem to have any problem with a long haul flight [economy, incidentally] when she made two visits home to visit family this year.
  2. The personal issues and stress she discussed with the Director only came to light when her request for an upgrade was rejected.
  3. Carol will be working another long trip after four months on the road. The Director in London manages Carol and her team remotely.
  4. Carol and the in-country team work closely with my daughter and her 3 colleagues in the London office.

Back in ELT

If we were in a room, we could discuss this case study in groups, and then all together, or I could give one issue per groups and then cross-fertilise, etc. etc., in true ELT style. The first thing to ask would be: “Can you see any relationship between this Case Study and managing in an ELT context?” Just shift the focus a bit. Amine has been teaching an off-site class for 6 weeks, the class runs from 4.00 – 6.00 pm three days per week. The students like Amine and want to continue with her, and she enjoys teaching them. The class is close to Amine’s house so she gets home easily. However, their schedules mean they need to shift the time from 4.00 – 6.00 pm to 7.00 – 9.00 am. Amine doesn’t like early starts. She asks for a later start to be negotiated and the Senior Teacher Corporate says no. Amine then goes to the Director and says she has personal issues, etc. The Director agrees and asks Carol to cover the early start. Carol is an understanding and flexible staff member. She has agreed to teach a class from 8.00 – 9.30 pm every day, which means she doesn’t get home until 10.15. The corporate class is a 45 minute drive from Carol’s house, so she would have to leave at 6.15 am at the latest.

There are a couple of things about the Case Study which have made me think a lot.

  1. Why do some people manage to get out of unpalatable situations and why do we allow this?
  2. How much do we think about the effect on the Carols of this world, when we ask them to step in to cover someone else’s lack of co-operation?
  3. What message are we sending to other teachers when we take Amine off a class and put an already over-loaded Carol onto that class?
  4. What’s happening within our management team that Amine can leapfrog the Senior Teacher Corporate and go to the Director to get what she wants – and how do we tackle this?

I guess one answer to questions 1 & 2 is that the road of least resistance is often the easiest way to travel! But it’s more than that, isn’t it. It’s about performance management and how we sometimes just can’t face the fall out of tackling something [or someone] head on. I know I can spend more time thinking about, and devising strategies for, a ‘difficult’ staff member than I ever do for an ‘easy’ one. Why don’t I spend as much time on the person who never gives me any grief? I’m subliminally saying to my teachers ‘Being difficult is the way to get ahead here, or at least, to get what you want.’

Two Sides of the Coin

There can be a tendency to think that all staff members, in all sectors of an organisation, view the organisation in broadly the same way. I don’t mean in terms of the knowledge they hold – I’m never going to understand finance better than the Finance Director, for example (at least I hope not, because that would mean we had appointed a financial ninny). The similarity of view might be true if you look purely at the organisational structure and the reporting lines. However, you get a very different view if you enquire as to perceptions of what is often described as ‘the organisational ethos’. Geert Hofstede, in his book ‘Culture and Organisations – Software of the Mind’ has the following questionnaire:

About organisational symbols:

  • What are special terms here which only insiders understand?
  • Do all departments understand the in the same way?

About organisational heroes:

  • What kind of people is most likely to advance quickly in their career here?
  • Whom do you consider as particularly meaningful people for the organisation?
  • Do you think the organisation considers the same people as meaningful?

About organisational rituals:

  • In what periodic meetings do you participate?
  • How do people behave during these meetings?
  • Which events are celebrated in this organisation?
  • Does your organisation have any particular rituals?

About organisational values:

  • Which things do people very much like to see happening here?
  • Which is the biggest mistake one can make?
  • Which work problems can keep you awake at night?

If you have taken the Certificate in Academic Management, you’ll remember this from Module One of that programme. The questions Hofstede puts are interesting to ask yourself, but also interesting to ask your staff (anonymous answers are best here!). The insights you gain might surprise you – I know they really surprised me when I did this in IH London a few years ago, especially the questions about organisational heroes. You may find you have some work to do to shift staff impressions from where they are to where you would like them to be…

And my fourth question, about the management team? Not sure if I have room in this column to deal with that one, so maybe that can be a trailer for next issue…

Author’s Bio: Maureen is Programme Manager eLearning at IH London. She has been involved in online training and management training for the past 15 years, running a range of distance, face to face, and online training programmes for academic managers. She wrote the management module for the MSc in TESOL offered by Aston University, and was subject tutor and dissertation supervisor for that module for several years. She has also tutored the management module for the MA in TESOL offered by Westminster University. She is a frequent conference speaker on topics related to academic management and online training.
Maureen has worked in ELT for longer than she cares to remember, and has taught in the UK, Spain and Hungary as well as on short training contracts in other locations. She has been a committee member on the Leadership and Management Special Interest Group for IATEFL, and is Co-ordinator for the IATEFL Scholarship Working Party, responsible for managing the IATEFL scholarship scheme. She line manages academic staff in IH London and also manage a team of online tutors working remotely in a variety of locations. She lives in North London with her daughter and their dog. She has a guilty addiction to reality TV programmes. Her email is