I recently read an interesting article about how we position children in our society and it led me to think about how we position workers, in my context teachers, academics and professional staff.
I have written before about the figured world of education institutions, and particularly universities. In these figured worlds, roles are developed that identify how the occupant of that role should behave; in essence there are scripts that accompany roles.
In neoliberal managerialism, management roles are positioned as privileged, so that salaries of senior executives, vice chancellors and the like are, as identified in one research project, around 12 times higher than those received by academic staff and 35 times more than the salaries earned by the average local workers in the community around the university.
Along with these salaries we see a growing perception that their privileged position requires incumbents to, as Sutton writes, behave like insensitive jerks.
Senior managers isolate themselves behind barriers of middle managers so that they can make decisions without being influenced by workers.
As I identified in my previous column, there is research that clearly indicates that people can be less sensitive when they deal remotely with issues (through email for example), than when they have to communicate decisions face to face.
In neoliberal managerialism workers are positioned in roles that identify them as “other”. They are not as good as managers and therefore do not receive respect for the work they do, despite the fact that the organisation could not exist without the work performed by them.
I am reminded of one of the classic episodes of Yes Minister (or was it Yes Prime Minister?) where the national award for efficiency went to a hospital that did not have any medical staff nor any patients. Sir Humphrey’s dismay when questioned by the Minister and told to find some patients is, I think, one of the classic moments of TV.
Loyalty, willingness to work above and beyond paid hours and commitment to remain in the organisation all suffer ...
However, in the figured world of higher education, those actually doing the teaching and research, and those supporting them, are pushed into a role (a position) that identifies them as incompetent, needing to be supervised at all times, lazy and therefore capable of increasing their workload significantly. Quite often they are the enemy who don’t understand the really important work their managers are doing.
Of course this is not the role that these workers see for themselves. Traditionally academics, for example, poisoned themselves as having control over their work, making decisions about what to teach their students, how to teach that content and how to assess students’ learning.
They made their own decisions about what they would research. Increasingly their agency is being removed. National research priorities set by the government aiming to achieve outcomes the government desires are increasingly being used by university management to persuade, prod or coerce academics into researching in these areas.
Professional accrediting bodies increasingly define content and pedagogy, and academics have no choice but to comply in order to ensure graduates receive the appropriate professional accreditation.
Positioning theory proposes that there are consequences to our placement in particular roles. This is particularly the case when there is conflict over the positioning, as there is between managerial positioning of workers and their own perceptions of what ought to be their position.
These positioning conflicts clearly lead to an “us” versus “them” situation which can only disadvantage the organisation in the long term.
Loyalty, willingness to work above and beyond paid hours and commitment to remain in the organisation all suffer and the organisation increases its spend on sick leave, recruitment and training, and experiences efficiency declines and poorer student experience (a key issue given that funding is linked to student retention).
Accompanying this is the cost to individuals: higher stress levels leading to increased illnesses, increased workplace conflict and again, declining efficiency leading to poorer student experience.
Neoliberal managerialism has created a figured world that ultimately impacts on organisational viability.
I wonder who will have the courage to be the first to step outside the role assigned and challenge the positioning of managers and workers in the interests of organisational success.
Read more Class Act: