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Managing from the bottom up

Tony Prince on why the internet has a vital role for managers as they strive to support staff continue professional development


ISSUE OF TRUST Tony Prince says giving up control can be a threat to egos (Courtesy Nile)

Helping staff to continue their professional development is key to the management of any course or institution. Yet doing so effectively can present personal and professional challenges for a manager.

When I first moved into a management role, I saw myself as needing to lead from the top down – to set the objectives, to monitor progress, to push forward. I took my role, and myself, very seriously.

I now see management as being about supporting and empowering others. I see myself as working from the bottom up – ensuring that the needs of those I manage are being met, not just in the present, in terms of pay and conditions, but for the future, as regards continuing personal and professional development.

For those familiar with theories of motivation, this is a simple paraphrase of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You cannot expect to get much from people if they do not feel secure – financially and physically. But getting the most from people means giving the most – in terms of respect and opportunity. What people want most, once their basic needs have been met, is the chance to develop.

For many managers, myself included, working from the bottom up can feel threatening, or at least uncomfortable – you are giving control to others, allowing them to influence or even set the course of what is being done. But personal development is hard to achieve, or even to encourage, without allowing others some degree of control. Without this there is little ‘self’ in the self-actualisation; all people are doing is carrying out objectives set by others. Without control there is little motivation and less development, which means that, while things may be moving along, they’re not moving forwards.

So managers have to overcome the threat they feel to their ego and their position that giving up control represents. But in order to feel secure doing this, managers need to be confident in the development that those they manage are undertaking. Giving someone power without being sure that they have or can develop the skills necessary to use that power effectively is a recipe for disaster.

One way of feeling confident in the development of others is to involve yourself in it directly – overseeing the ‘syllabus’, monitoring progress. But this sounds and seems remarkably like managing from the top again. Also, it is liable to take a great deal of your time and effort.

For me, this is where the rise of the internet and the associated development of online resources come to the rescue. The internet has provided people with access to the information they may need. But increasingly, online tools for education are allowing people to filter and manipulate that information to suit their personal needs, tailoring courses to allow them to maximise their professional development, both in terms of speed and degree. At the end of this piece I have provided examples of online courses that enable participants to achieve this kind of personalisation.

Many people object to online learning, saying that they need the communication and collaboration that face to face offers, sharing experiences, developing a shared understanding. But more and more this attitude reflects a lack of awareness of how online learning is developing and creating tools to allow for ongoing interaction between participants and with tutors.

In a future Gazette I will be outlining developments in online learning, showing how they reduce the distance in distance learning. This will use examples from the Nile online courses – recently shortlisted for an ELTons award in the Digital Innovation category – to show what can be achieved. Those wishing more information can find it at www.nile-elt.com.

In closing I would argue that investigating and investing in online learning can be a powerful tool for managers looking to develop their programmes and to help the people they manage to feel more motivated.

A few recommended resources:
iTunes U – provides a platform for universities and colleges to disseminate materials and courses. The variety of topics and depth of content can be bewildering but ultimately increase opportunity for choice and thus personal motivation. And it’s all free!
Lynda.com – this requires a paid subscription, but that gives full access to a host of highly professional, detailed screencasts with full interactive tapescripts. Being able to search through video based on keywords can be astonishingly productive, especially for those wanting their education to be visual.


Tony Prince is academic director at Nile, involved principally in teacher development in higher education. Starting his management experience as co-founder and director of an Oxford language school, he has most recently been involved in managing presessional and in-sessional courses at Into University of East Anglia. Tony would be happy to hear your comments on his call to ‘lead from the bottom up’ or on online resources you have used and would recommend at tony@nile-elt.com