Managers and identity crises

identity crisisI remember when I first got my current job back in 2001, it was decided that my job definition would be Director of Education. This was because the associations with the title Director of Education would allow for my role in the company to move in more directions and be more open-ended than if I had been given the more conventional title of Director of Studies. And this was fine by me. I was moving into a whole new world, moving from being a Director of Studies of a conventional language school to a world of distance learning and online language courses and schools.

It was a good decision in that job titles create certain expectations and associations which, if not met, can cause confusion and sometimes resentment and criticism. Since then my job has evolved in directions which would have been difficult to imagine back in 2001. The changes have been partly due to industry demands; partly because I have wanted to develop certain areas and take on certain roles; and partly because this is what the company has needed me to do. So while my job title still holds true in many senses of peoples’ expectations associated with the title, it also involves a lot of aspects of management that I think few people associate with it.

Incidentally one of the things I love about my job is the fact that my role changes so often and grows in different directions every year. However, the flipside of this is that these changes can lead to some minor and some more major identity crises. These crises tend to manifest themselves at certain times when something I do or ask somebody to do is questioned or rejected.

From talking to other managers and analysing my own experiences, there seems to be a pattern to when these crises happen. I have identified three:

  1. When people are under pressure, feel insecure, or feel threatened.
  2. In organisations which have a complex organisational structure. In my opinion, the greater the complexity of the organisational structure, the more complex the relationships with people tends to be and the more likely it is that misunderstandings will take place.
  3. Organisations in which cliques tend to form. These groups tend to be very defensive and rally to protect themselves from any perceived threat to their position of power or influence.

Of course, when things are going well and everybody is happy, there are normally not any issues.

I think these crises are part and parcel of being a manager, especially if you want to and are given the opportunity to grow as a manager. As your role changes, some people will inevitably feel that you are stepping on their toes or overstepping your mark.

The challenge is to learn how to deal with these crises and not let them knock your self-confidence.

You can obviously be sensitive to certain signs and be especially diplomatic around people you have identified as being likely to react negatively in potentially confrontational situations.  However, beyond that, most of the time there is little you, as the manager, can do to prevent these incidents from happening. Indeed the three points identified above are well beyond the sphere of influence of most middle managers.

So how can we deal with these crises when they happen? I like to remind myself of the following three points:

  1. Don’t expect people to change or react in different ways from what you have experienced. People only change if they want to change, not because you want them to or think they should.
  2. Accept that dealing with identity crises is part of the job of a manager and the higher up you go in terms of management, the more of these you are likely to experience.
  3. The key is how you deal with these moments. If you can manage to apply the principles of emotional and social intelligence to deal with these incidents, these crises will be a lot less severe.

I’m particularly looking forward to the PCE for LAMSIG this year at IATEFL in Manchester which is all about dealing with difficult people. I hope to see some of you there, share experiences and maybe get to exchange ideas about this.

And, of course, if anybody would like to share their opinions and experiences here, I’d love to hear from you.


Egg Yolks and Egg Whites (job descriptions)

There is a theory called the “egg yolk, egg white theory” which I was first introduced to when I studied the Advanced Diploma in Language Teaching Management, at ESADE, Spain (now called the International Diploma in Language Teaching Management).

The theory goes like this: all jobs have an element of prescribed tasks (this is the egg yolk) and less defined areas (this is the egg white). The more responsibility you have in your job, the smaller the yolk and the larger the white. So a new teacher with very little experience should, in theory, have a very detailed job description outlining the school’s expectations of the teacher.  This extreme of the spectrum is exemplified by a certain well-known chain of schools (to remain nameless) which offered a type of blended learning solution to students and required their teachers to “follow the script” in the class (all yolk and no white).

As we gain experience and are given roles of responsibility e.g. Level coordinator, ADOS, etc the amount of white increases and the amount of yolk is reduced. The base requirements of this position of responsibility will be outlined and hopefully agreed with the person in question, but the level coordinator will have the freedom to be creative to develop their functions within the constraints of their job description.

If we move further up the scale to Academic Manager, Director of Studies, Director of Teacher Training etc, again theory has it that the yolk reduces in size and the white increases. The white needs to be large to allow for innovation, and give these people the flexibility to deal with the inevitable unexpected issues which arise.

People’s experience, ambition and personality play a fundamental role in how comfortable they feel with the amount of yolk and white in their jobs. For insecure, inexperienced teachers, taking on a job with too much white and not enough yolk can be extremely stressful.

It is also very important that the job description actually matches the job to be carried out. Take the case of a woman who was looking for a low-stress job in which she just had to do what she was told. She didn’t want the sort of job which demands initiative and responsibility.  She applied for and got a job for which the job description, pay and advertisement implied that this would be the case. The reality was far from that. She walked into a job which demanded a high degree of organisation and autonomy. She was very stressed by the job, her colleagues were not happy with her performance, her confidence was undermined and she ended up leaving the company.

At the other end of the spectrum there can be too little definition in job descriptions of positions of responsibility and as a result conflict can arise. When job descriptions are not very defined, a person’s perception of their responsibility and role in an organisation may not correspond to their boss’ perception or to their colleagues’. This is often exacerbated by the fact that jobs evolve over time but job descriptions are not usually re-written, re-negotiated or shared with other members of the organisation.  Added to this is the potential confusion and association connected to job titles. People in positions of responsibility are usually assigned job titles which should communicate effectively and succinctly their role in an organisation. When job titles do not perform this function and cause misunderstanding, it is time for them to be changed.

Underestimating the importance of a clear job title and job definition which corresponds to the correct amount of yolk and white for the position in question, will cause unnecessary stress for all involved. And if the position or job evolves, especially at higher levels of responsibility, re-defining, agreeing and making public these changes, will not only help to make an organisation run more efficiently, but will lead to transparency, acceptance and fewer misunderstandings.