I’m pretty sure that the Archers character Jennifer Aldridge is not meant to be taken seriously but her appearances last week have taken her pointlessness to a new level. She spent all week trying to force Peggy into getting home help through an agency (Peggy made her own arrangements in about two minutes), trying to get Lilian to bunk off work (too many reasons to mention why that’s a bad idea), hiding from Jim because he wrote that article in Borsetshire Life about Brian (Brian seems to have got over it OK), interrupting a progress meeting about the MegaDairy (TM) to harangue Rob Tichener about whether his wife will fly in specially to attend the Flower Flipping Festival and spent the rest of her air time exclaiming, ‘Oh!’ in that irritating way.
Now of course it’s a bit of a leap from social airhead to First Lord of the Treasury, but I was musing about how annoying it is when you need to get something done and someone wants to talk irrelevancies when I stumbled across an article by Tim Montgomerie. It’s behind the Times paywall but the salient sentences are these:
In his wooing of Tory MPs [David Cameron] thinks it’s enough for them to enjoy a tour of the Chequers rose garden or of the Downing Street art. In fact the backbenchers want to talk policy and electoral strategy. They often leave disappointed because Mr Cameron only wanted to talk about children or movies.
Imagine you’re a backbench MP. You get to meet the boss. This is your moment to talk about your issue – the thing you went into politics for. You prep and you practice before hand and you get your pitch just right. And he wants to talk about the flower flipping festival! Or Shrek.
It’s only a short step to feeling frustrated, to thinking that policy and strategy are all a closed shop for Dave’s mates.
The more this happens, the less connected Dave and the ranks become and the more likely that incidents that Swivelgate get out of control.
Dave, it’s simple. Don’t do small talk. People want to talk about big things with you. Don’t disappoint them. A hinterland is fine, but frankly your backbenchers are not as interested in your hinterland as you are. If you’re not sure, tune to Radio 4, listen to Jennifer Aldridge and do the opposite.
I enjoyed reading this, Rich, but I think you – and Tim Montgomerie for that matter – have it seriously wrong. This is a management strategy, not a case of a man mistakenly thinking others are more interested in his hinterland than they really are. A great many managers will ‘choose’ to make small talk rather than take a discussion into areas which will likely get uncomfortable. The Prime Minister does not want to hear ‘whinging’ backbenchers complaining about this and demanding that, just as most manager don’t want to hear employees bang on about feeling short-changed/unloved/under-paid. The modern managerial requirement to be seen to be ‘open,’ or ‘accessible’ means they cannot decline such meeting requests, at least not for ever. But a smart boss can use the power imbalance at work between manager and underling to determine to a considerable degree, the conversation’s form, and content.
Thanks for your comment Mike. You raise a fair point, but I think that if it’s a management strategy, then it’s a failed and failing one. Particularly in the Conservative party, the leader retains power with the assent of the parliamentary party – look what happened to Iain Duncan Smith (though in fairness, IDS’s fall was more to his failures in the Chamber than to party management). Increased grumbling = bad party management. Yes, sometimes a boss will want to emphasise the difference in stature between them and their underling to impress or to intimidate – but the bosses who have got the best out of me (and the boss I have always aspired to be) are ones who, where circumstances allow, listen, encourage and advise. Clearly that isn’t necessarily possible for the PM, but even the dimmest backbencher will understand that the PM won’t act on their every whim and will cut him at least a bit of slack in that regard – but they will want to at least have the chance to make that point. What many of them do need, on the other hand, is the ability to pretend to those around them (or their constituents) that they have had, at least for 5 minutes, had the ear of the PM.
Whether it is a smart management strategy or not, I would question any assertion that there is any sort of consensus among managers that it is a discredited, or ‘failed’ strategy. I see it as ‘expectations management,’ and the idea is to manage those expectations down. It’s not subtle, it’s not enlightened, nor is it progressive. But most managers, I would suggest, feel time-poor, and crushed by demands from the outside. Add to this the cognitive logics that reinforce a manager’s sense of his/her own superiority (see Daniel Kahneman), plus, in the case of someone in the public eye like the Prime Minister, the pressure of being in the media spotlight all the time, and you have a situation where the leader doesn’t give a toss about whether their underlings have felt special for five minutes or not.
Sorry, I was unclear. I completely agree that managers should manage expectations and in many cases it will be the right thing to do (but it shouldn’t be the only tool in the manager’s armoury and sometimes you need a different approach). My description of it being a failed strategy is only meant to refer to the case of Cameron and his backbenchers. Some people have suggested that there is a disconnect between them and I think this may go at least a little way to explain it. I am sure that he personally doesn’t care too much about whether the backbenchers feel special, but his life might be easier if he did in fact make them feel special. Contrast Cameron with Bill Clinton (who successfully combined both schmooze and policy wonkery).