The Hunt v Doctors Impasse: Analysing the dispute through ‘Fiedler’s Contingency Model’

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been embroiled in the dispute with Junior doctors for months on end with no immediate hope of resolution in sight. ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt’ goes a wise African saying. This saying captures the protagonists and the plight of the only losers in all this – the poor patients. The government is in dispute with the doctors and the patients suffer for it.

Truth is Jeremy Hunt has backed himself into a corner and so long as the doctors have the stomach to keep fighting, and doctors have the public on their side, Mr Hunt would be left with only one option – throw in the towel. Considering this impasse through the lens of the decades old contingency theory – Fiedler’s Contingency Model – might help Jeremy Hunt and the government understand their options and help them to find a quick way to end the dispute. I concede the model is outdated and have been criticised multiple times but I think it illustrates the situation and how the health secretary got it so wrong.

The model, (Figure 1), has three main contingencies that gives a good handle to model the scenario on.

Figure 1

fiedler model


Starting with ‘Task Structure’, the first error the health secretary made was to lose sight of the fact that he was dealing with doctors. They are highly qualified, highly skilled, highly educated professionals with ultra-high task structure. One cannot deal with people such as these as one would labourers. It would be in the interest of any leader of a group of doctors to work extremely high to have a good Leader-Member relations. Jeremy Hunt lost sight of whom he was dealing with and created the situation of ‘poor relationship’ that limited the options at his disposal.

Looking at the model from the top row, starting with poor leader-member relations position the scenario in the right half. From that half, when the second row (from the top) is considered, it further positions the scenario in the ‘High’ task structure section. The next contingency to consider for a final placement is one of ‘position power’. The submission is that the health secretary has a Weak Position Power because the position of health secretary hasn’t got any measure of power over a formidable professional body such as the British Medical Association (BMA).

According to the model, that places the health secretary in Octant 5 (types of situation; bottom row). In that situation, the most effective leadership contingency is one of ‘relationship-motivation’. Mr Hunt can resolve the impasse if he works really hard to rebuild the relationship he had with the BMA and junior doctors. Acting like a ‘Task-Motivated Leader’, as he has been doing for months, and focusing on delivering the reforms (task), by force if necessary, would only end in failure unless the landscape changes – unless the doctors back down or public support for the junior doctors wane or disappears altogether.

The government has succeeded to a large extent in emasculating the teaching unions through ‘academisation’ and by being very stealthy with some of the reforms; even then, Nicky Morgan had to do a U-turn about forced academisation because of widespread uproar. They, Jeremy Hunt and the government, underestimated the resolve of the BMA and find themselves in this intractable situation. Another U-turn seems to be the only reasonable line of action for the time being at least.


The dismantling of a Profession – Aligning Teachers along McGregor’s Theory X

Talk to any number of teachers about their motivation to go into teaching and the overwhelming majority will give answers along the lines of:

Wanting to make a difference to lives, wanting to improve the opportunities and life chances of children, their love for working with children among others.

These are all noble reasons for joining the teaching profession and teachers have traditionally been respected by society for these reasons. There are several instances of individuals leaving higher paying, comfortable jobs to join the teaching profession because they wanted to make a difference to someone’s life.

However, recent developments and reforms by politicians have reduced teachers and the teaching profession to a state that I can only explain within the framework of ‘McGregor’s Theory X’. McGregor wrote this theory in the article: ‘The Human Side of Enterprise’ in the fifties and it seems some politicians got to read the paper and characterised teachers by it so have over the years been reforming the system aided by their Ofsted attack dogs to put the teaching profession in its place. Politicians set the rules, pass them to Ofsted (who have to follow them else they lose their status), who set upon headteachers and ensure they comply. Headteachers, due to the fear of Ofsted, then set upon their staff. In the meantime, politicians release statement upon statement announcing their plans to ‘free’ teachers to do their jobs because they are the professionals. It’s a situation akin to saying someone is free to use their initiative, yet have to conform to the rigid rules set for them.

I am not arguing in favour of accepting low standards or accepting the situation where several children are failed by the system when they leave school without the basic skills to contribute to society. Yes, when a teacher takes over a new class in September, for instance, there must be the expectation the learners must make significant progress by the end of the year. As someone whose life chances have been improved drastically by education (read my previous piece on social mobility), I agree teachers must be challenged to keep doing things better for their students.

My chagrin is with the seemingly default position of politicians and policy makers’ characterisation of teachers and the teaching profession within the framework of theory x workers.

Read the assertions about theory x labour below and the treatment of teachers in recent years might begin to make sense if that is how those politicians view teachers. It explains the pressures placed on headteachers to ‘monitor’ their teaching staff; it explains the statements made by the Michael Goves of this world; it explain performance related pay; it explains all those disempowering policies; it explains ‘academisation’ allowing them to set their own terms of employment, etc:

“1. Management is responsible for organizing the elements of productive enterprise – money, materials, equipment, people – in the interest of economic ends.

  1. With respect to people, this is a process of directing their efforts, motivating them, controlling their actions, modifying their behaviour to fit the needs of the organization.
  2. Without this active intervention by management, people would be passive – even resistant – to organizational needs. They must therefore be persuaded, rewarded, punished, controlled – their activities must be directed. This is management’s task – in managing subordinate managers or workers. We often sum it up by saying that management consists of getting things done through other people.

Behind this conventional theory there are several additional beliefs – less explicit, but widespread:

  1. The average man is by nature indolent – he works as little as possible.
  2. He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led.
  3. He is inherently self-centered, indifferent to organizational needs.
  4. He is by nature resistant to change.
  5. He is gullible, not very bright, the ready dupe of the charlatan and the demagogue.”

Source: The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor

Hence, policies have been implemented and enforced through Ofsted to ensure the ‘lazy, indolent uncaring’ teachers who only became teachers for the holidays, are kept on their toes. Their every step must be monitored; pay increase restricted; ensure the brightest and best graduates are recruited to stop the rot; set performance targets for them and penalise them if they don’t achieve them – even though there may be extenuating circumstances; etc.

I wonder how those high achieving countries politicians obsess about are able to do it without attacking the teaching profession. Surely, those politicians ought to consider how the Scandinavian countries and the South East Asian countries treat their teachers and realise constantly haranguing teachers could never be the solution. It seems very obvious to me but heck, I’m a teacher so what do I know; I’m not very bright, lack ambition, self-centred and resistant to change…

The consequences of this situation would last for at least a generation. Teachers are continually being deskilled. Teachers are being treated like unskilled factory workers. Many are wondering if this is the same profession they signed up for. There are pockets of hope where headteachers resist the ‘Ofsted panic’ and run their schools to achieve those high standards for their learners and carry their staff along with them. It is not all doom and gloom but it is getting gloomier and gloomier. I will discuss these consequences in my next piece so watch this space.