Tuesday, 9 April 2013

First published in the Backbencher 7th April 2014

Professional boundaries – solid or see-through?

The civic world is built by professional boundaries. Normally there is a uniform involved – the sharply pressed suit for the executive, the wig for the judge, the Range Rover or Mercedes for the successful manager. Normally there is a place in which particular actions are performed – the senior management team in the boardroom, the doctor in the surgery, the teacher in the classroom. Normally there is a professional voice which operates by virtue of specific boundaries.

This is what many a social scientist would call a ‘subject position’. It is a position which is both policed – some things can said but not others – and serves to police  – you must do what the professional decides. It also constructs identities – professional people very often feel like they are the subject position they fulfill. In fact many people really believe in their social identities and see their roles in terms of a natural calling, an expression of their innermost being.

Some people feel comfortable in the clothes they wear, others less so. These are discontents – those who don’t buy into the constructed identities they have to fulfill and contest what they see as the artificial boundaries of normality. To them their projected identity feels arbitrary. The social trappings, the emperor’s new clothes and King Lear’s ‘vile lendings’ are so thin and built from such shifting and contradictory grounds that there seems very little to really substantiate the authority being exerted.

For the outsider this artificiality becomes clear when the professional abuses their boundaries or, in fact and not uncommonly, they don’t know really what they are talking about - they are guessing and claiming a legitimacy for what they say only by virtue of their social status. Even worse, at the point the professional decision maker negotiates best position in the market-place, so-called professional standards are routinely ejected to the dustbin in the interests of market share or brutal exigency.

Being ‘professional’ can be genuine but it can also be a smokescreen to the fact that nobody knows what to do in new situations - people are just doing what seems right and what will probably preserve their jobs. In such situations the fragile see-through figure of ‘the professional’ becomes apparent. In the real world decision making is driven as much by hope, guesswork, opportunism and responsibility avoidance as it is by so-called professional knowledge or experience.

The practical reality though is that we need the doctor, the manager and the teacher. We need the structure of professional relations in the same way we need family relations. We need parents to tell their children what to do as a matter of practical management but also, ironically, in order that the children can contest the power being exerted and thereby find themselves. Boundaries, whilst frustrating, are necessary at many levels and in many ways.

Our identities are defined and given status by the society we live in and this is a necessity – how else could we function? But the fact that social identities are necessary, isn’t, it appears, sufficient to confer real meaning and real authority on what ‘the professional’ says.

Operating boundaries in the civic world is a matter of survival. It is impossible to to exercise your duties for long if you don’t. But in these days of deep cultural anxiety the professional has to grip their boundaries both more tightly and more sensitively. Like a hunted animal they have to be constantly alert to potential threat. They live in fear of the next performance review or legal challenge to their authority or shift in the game-plan that will leave them high and dry.

If you’re not any good at operating professional boundaries (probably because secretly you don’t believe in them), you’re likely to be paying a high personal cost. Actually your boundaries are more porous than professional standards expect. Actually you don’t really want to live like that.

How long can you carry on?


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